30 June 2016

On prisons (hellish and heavenly) and death-escape

Between February 27, 1992 and March 17, 1992, I lived in two separate heavens. One was in Wadduwa and the other in Longdon Place.  I was not only served heavenly meals but my parents were allowed to bring me equally heavenly food.  I just sat around talking with my heavenly co-residents.  Whenever I felt like it, I read. I had a library.  There was poetry, short stories and novels, in English and Sinhala.  I read newspapers.  There were heavenly toilets too.   
 
Four days in one heaven and fifteen in another is a lot of divinity.  It’s an experience of a lifetime and as such one that I am happy not to want to live through again. I am just not that greedy. 
I remembered my heavenly residencies quite by chance this morning.  As happens often, we are reminded of what are called small mercies (in my case there was nothing ‘small’ about it, though) when confronted with the less fortunate and indeed the miserable.  Life does not give equally and heaven comes in slices corresponding to the dimensions of lived hells.
I realized this morning that there are all kinds of hells.  Years ago I was told that the shortest distance from heaven to hell was a few blocks, i.e. from Bunker Hill to Skid Row in Downtown Los Angeles; the former being the paradisiacal business-center and the latter the hell into which the homeless had been systematically herded by closing down one by one homeless shelters elsewhere.  I had to be taken from heaven to hell in Los Angeles, for that city has been so planned that those who get to Bunker Hill can’t find their way to Skid Row and even if some outsider strayed into that above-earth place, bum-proof benches and visible surveillance equipment scared them away. 
I’ve seen Skid Row.  It’s hell.  This morning, however, I got to know of a different hell which is also located in the same state, California. It is a large hell, i.e. larger than Skid Row, but more containing and controllable, I suppose. This hell is located in 275 acres and made for the ‘worst of the worst’; in other words those who are so bad that they don’t deserve to wait for assigning of afterlife residence. 
Hell cannot be so big, I told myself.  It was not. Within these 275 acres are windowless concrete cells the size of a small bathroom, I found out.  I felt better immediately, after all hell should be hell and nothing less.  These hell-cells are occupied or rather they are people who are made to occupy them.  There are no cell-mates in hell and that made a hell of a lot of sense to me.  Hell-inmates in this place don’t get to see anyone face to face for 23 hours of the day.  There’s no sunlight in hell. Not a blade of grass. When hell-inmates are de-celled, one hour a day if they are lucky, they are handcuffed and shackled, hands-to-waist, ankle-to-ankle. They spend years and years in these hell-cells. 
This hell has a name and an acronym: Pelican Bay State Prison (PBSP) is ‘a “supermax” state prison run by the California Department for Corrections and Rehabilitation, located in Crescent City in Del Norte County’ where the baddies are ‘incarcerated in long-term solitary confinement under conditions of extreme sensory deprivation’.  The Law, I found, was a creature that has been denied visiting rights to PBSP.
I hear that the inmates are planning to starve to death, which, all things considered seems the prison-break strategy that is most likely to succeed. That might be the shortest cut to heaven, or even a more livable hell, hopefully something like Skid Row.  The point is, getting into this SHU (Security Housing Unit) is easy. Getting out is nearly impossible.  
There are all kinds of hells, I found. Some are a tight-fit, literally. Some are vast open spaces.  Even as I write, the Unites States of America and other NATO powers are dropping massive bombs and firing missiles to obtain regime-change in Libya, a country that possesses the largest oil reserves in Africa and the 9th largest in the world. Two-thirds of the people in the USA oppose this illegal offensive which cannot be justified any longer as an operation to protect civilians, given the vast number of civilians being killed by the ‘protectors). That country’s infrastructure is being systematically destroyed. If ever there comes a rebuilding time in a possible post-Gaddafi Libya, there is no doubt that there will be lucrative reconstruction contracts for Halliburton, Exxon/Mobil and other western corporations and banks. 
The people being bombed in Libya don’t need to exercise the hunger strike option of exiting hell.  I am not sure if they should be or are relieved.  All I know is that incarceration has dimensions.

‘To the fish in the net
a single drop of water,
to the guitarist
whose hands were cut off
a pick,
lip-red
to the heart that said ‘no’
to a love that will not return,
and
to the incarcerated
a sliver of sky.’

I know that the bleeding-heart human rights advocates who think fit to lecture us on matters such as human rights, incarceration, prisoner rights, due process etc., are not ignorant of the prison-industrial complex that is the heartbeat of North American prosperity.  We all have places we really want to visit (and re-visit) before we die.  I am willing to wager that the Pelican Bay State Prison is not on the must-see lists of the likes of Barack Obama, Susan Rice, Navi Pillai, David Miliband, Bernard Kouchner, Louis Arbour, Hillary Clinton and Gordon Weiss.

Almost two decades ago, I spent close to 3 weeks in two different heavens: the Wadduwa Police Station and in the headquarters of a counter-insurgency facility down Longdon Place, Colombo 7.  These are heavens I am not too keen on revisiting.  I am sure, however, that those seeking death-relief in the Pelican Bay State Prison, would not hesitate to obtain permanent residency in either place if given the choice. 

This article was first published on July 30, 2011 in the Daily News


Malinda Seneviratne is a freelance writer.  Email: malindasenevi@gmail.com. Twitter: malindasene

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1 comments:

Anonymous said...

There are stories beyond the cells , may be close to heaven than hell not get written very often.
My friend, an architect, contributed in designing a well-known prison. Time came that she need to decide on doors and locks for the cells . She couldn’t do it , everytime she was postponing the work , she couldn’t sleep properly. She was fighting with her inner conscious. One-day she called me and said I gave my resignation, because I can't design on locks for those cells. Story made me speechless .
People do occupy cells for a reason. My friend was in a different cell throughout her design.