On April 15th 2013, a breaking news bulletin informed viewers there had been a bombing of the Boston Marathon. When my shock wore off I felt much as I did after the 9/11 and Newtown attacks: angry, appalled, saddened and desiring justice. I felt for the victims and their families and suffered with the rest of the country as it mourned. However, underlying these emotions was this dissonant sense of being an outsider, a pariah whose thoughts, opinions, and sympathy are unwanted and scorned.
While incarceration may equate death for some, and a death sentence is certainly meant to result in this, prison is only a figurative end. Life does go on. Imprisonment involves a process of self-decay in which identification with and connection to the outside world is eroded by the institution. Rules and obedience replace freedom and independence, other prisoners fill the gaps left by family and friends, and one's community becomes a group of convicted criminals. The world of the prisoner contracts to a cell block and housing unit where everything beyond this social microcosm seems imaginary.
If the dispossession of an inmate's former life is absolute it becomes difficult to avoid the apathy and detachment that follow. The world beyond has discarded the prisoner, so why should its events matter? In the darker moments of my imprisonment I struggle to remember what it's like to be free. Then something occurs in the world that is of significance and I feel connected to humanity. I am reminded that life is immeasurably deeper and more complex than my experiences alone. I pick up a newspaper or Time magazine and read about the world beyond my own.
When Barack Obama was elected in 2008 and again in 2012 I had trouble stifling my excitement over the momentous occasions. I couldn't explain why, since his elections change nothing in my immediate pocket of the universe, but this didn't stop me from feeling the same sense of hope and satisfaction those who can vote received. I share their vision for change and, for a moment, I felt like any other American citizen. The same held true as I watched Michael Phelps in the Beijing and London Olympics and when Osama Bin Laden was killed. There is nothing to prevent me from enjoying these victories or feeling like a member of society at my core. No one told me my citizenship has been revoked, only that I am to be punished according to the will of a jury.
A death sentence speaks volumes about what a small portion of a community has been led to believe and it is due to this I struggle with my regard for the rest of the country. I try to remember a 12 person jury is not a representative sample of a city or state, let alone the rest of the U.S., but this matters little. My relevance to and interrelation with the free world is diminished to the point where I'm like a ghost awaiting a resting place or final transition to the netherworld. Unlike such apparitions though, I'm not so disconnected from life or unaware of its complexities as to be incapable of empathy.
Spectre, civil dead, or condemned prisoner my sentence and conviction divide me from society but fail to suppress my connection to other human beings. Imprisonment is not so punishing and absolute that it eliminates all thought and sentiment for life beyond the walls -- it just seems that way. This is one veil the criminal justice system -- prosecutors, legislators, authorities, and others -- uses to rationalize the incarceration of millions of Americans.
The end of my former life may have been inevitable, but in its place is a half-life where I'm something of a second or third class citizen who continues to feel like a human being. As inaccessible as the free world may seem to the incarcerated this does not preclude an emotional attachment to its people or events. There is no need for me to feel like an outsider when my belief in a religion, bond with family and friends, agreement with a political party, and sympathy for a loss demonstrates my fellowship and connection to humanity regardless of where I live.