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Dublin Opinion >>
Dormit in Pace
crime and justice |
Tuesday April 05, 2016 17:43 by Aran
Dormit in Pace
Sitting in the cells beneath one of our country’s circuit courts, my travel-weary eyes settle briefly on my hands. Their stillness and my stoic-like composure belie my internal turmoil.
I cast a cold eye over my surroundings - stale urine and solid waste regurgitated from a steel toilet lays siege to the senses. Cigarette butts litter the floor; confetti of condemned men. Crude misspelt graffiti bears mute testimony to the length of their sentences and the shortness of their education. A reasonable inference using the inverse square law - my maths teacher would be proud.
In a few minutes, I’ll be led up into Court no. 2 and be sentenced on charges of attempted armed robbery and possession of firearms. My idée fixe of arguing in front of a judge is moments away from fruition, but not in the manner I envisaged many years ago. A wry smile plays across my lips. I search my memory for the correct phrase…….Pyrrhic victory………..no. Gallows humour - that’s it! My smile breaks into laughter, bouncing back from the walls; hollow and mocking. I reminisce back 14 years to a deeply troubled teenager studying for his Leaving Certificate. Then my life takes a hard, handbrake turn that sends me skidding off into the undergrowth.
A rebellious stint in the army, followed by an even more rebellious one in rehab. From Casablanca to Cape Town. West Africa to the Middle East. Scandinavia to Europe. The British Paras to the fabled French Foreign Legion. Finally, sitting in a holding cell laughing to myself at the absurdity of it all. Funny how life works out. I'm brought out of my reverie with a bang. The dead bolt sends a metallic clang reverberating around the cell. A grim-looking officer appears and grunts ‘It’s time’. A witty riposte dies in my throat; false bravado has no place here. Mephistopheles awaits. I straighten my tie. I've had my fun, time now to settle the bill.
Nearing the end of a cramped journey in the back of a sweat box, I can begin to make out the prison through the snot-and-spit-encrusted Plexiglas window. Its hulking limestone façade looms larger as we draw closer. Occasionally it’s thrown out of focus as the driver takes aim, plucks yew and finds his mark in every pothole. Cackles of laughter from the driver and his sidekick reaches from their cab and penetrates into my cage. "Simple things please simple minds" I muse through gritted teeth.
Freedoms dying rays flirt briefly with the razor-wire, bestowing this beast with a beautifully deceptive crown of sun-kissed steel thorns. Anachronistic electronic gates give access into the Dickensian dramatic compound. A no-nonsense sheet steel gate is recessed into the towering wall.
The van comes to an unnecessary stop, catapulting my head into the metal. Hmm, so it begins. I shake off the stinging pain and get my first close up of the prison; its limestone blocks are behemoths, looked as if hewn out of granite and laid by Titans. Doors slam shut, muffled voices. In a deliberate dissociative attempt, I close my eyes, fill and empty my lungs in one fluid motion and drift away........Titans, Giants of Greek Mythology........Cronus..... Progeny of Uranus, father to Zeus... Cronus….Did he give his name to Time? Damn it, was it the sound of keys that forced that connection?
Another deep breath..... Focus. Focus......... Titans. Giants. Tartarus..... Who or what is Tartarus? Impending sound of boots and keys.....Oh. Tartarus - abode of Sisyphus. And Cronus....Tartarus is the lowest dungeon in Hades, a prison of persecution......... Cold, circular steel snaps around my wrist.
Whatever brute majesty the exterior had – if any, it was in every sense of the word - a front. Inside it is dilapidated. Numerous spider-web cracks in the overhead concrete serve as conduits for the dankness, allowing its accumulation to follow a gravitational path where it collects in scummy puddles on the uneven ground. A terminally ill fluorescent light, flickers more off than on. So, this Carnival of Rust is to be where I am to be rehabilitated?
I can hear the melting pot of the criminal spectrum getting ready to get locked down for the night. The cacophony of caterwauling seeps into the courtyard and escapes into the crisp night air. A caricature of gluttony approaches. Massively overweight, perched on undersized legs...almost unsteady legs. His sweat stained shirt threatens to explode under the strain of his bloated stomach. Wisps of lanky, yellow hair are combed over a grey, liver spotted skull. Purple bags sit under bulbous, unintelligent eyes.....the glazed eyes of a drunk if I am not mistaken.
"You're late" he spits.
Through the haze of halitosis, the smell of alcohol is unmistakable. His sneering charge, a statement of fact, but the implication that I am liable is amusing.
I am guilty of many things, but not this.
Languidly I raise my eyes to meet his contemptuous stare and smile innocently back. I can't help but think how much the human race would benefit from blunt force trauma to his larynx. I quickly stamp out the thought....mustn't grumble, best foot forward and all that. My thought process widens my smile into an inane grin and he writes me off as a slack-jawed mental defective, altering his demeanour accordingly. I'll take misplaced pity over deliberate aggression all day, every day.
After being stripped, showered and issued prison clothes, I am dragged to a cell. A cheerful "Goodnight" to the turnkey raises his eyebrow before he slams the door shut. The acrid smell of bleach is fighting a losing battle with the goatish stench of bodily fluids and tobacco. Suspicious looking stains mark the walls and mattress. I can't see the night sky from this concrete sarcophagus. The Sea of Tranquillity and her ensemble pin pricks of ancient nuclear fusion; my cosmic comfort blanket which has both soothed and enthralled me from childhood, is absent for the first time.
I’ve never felt more alone.
After dressing the bed I retire for the night. Sleep comes surprisingly easy. Too tired to even contemplate the coup de theatre that the morrow may hold, exhaustion envelopes me.
A warm zephyr washes over me, carrying the faint smell of mint. An inky atmosphere, but it’s fading - almost thinning out as if the darkness has been diluted. Shadows are retreating to my peripheral vision, carrying with it things that I dare not glimpse - even in dreams.
A hauntingly hypnotic call of pan pipes floats up from unknown depths. I cross a simple stone footbridge. A colossal triumphal arch, not unlike the Porte Saint-Denis - rises from the ground to meet me. Its friezes and relief's are hideous, nefarious and not sculpted by any human hand. Such is the tooling on the ashlar blocks, that the joints are invisible - it looks as old as time. Maybe older. Obsidian or onyx, with a translucent network of red that seems to pulsate just beneath the surface -almost vascular. It is cruel, poisonous and absolutely lethal.
Ahead, the psychopomp Charon beckons me forward, like a malevolent concierge of the Karma Hotel. Behind, the bridge crumbles and turns to ash. Barely audible is the Acherons dark waters lapping against an unseen Plutonian shore. Shadows are falling, taking the form of the legions I’ve wronged. Breathing and beating revenge, this phalanx of foul revenants lock shields, advancing to deliver my
wages of sin. Like a sinister Gregorian chant, the chattering of crepuscular creatures marches to a crescendo. I dream walk in the footsteps of the Poets.
Can I ever go back?
Bathed in artificial light. Drenched in darkness. I barely have time to register the unknown eye before it’s gone again. The cover from the Judas hole swings eerily on its screw hinge - my only evidence that it wasn’t my imagination. It’s early, maybe 06:00……too early to be nervous. My limited knowledge of jail is gleaned from an eclectic mix of Dumas, Solzhenitsyn, Papillion and Dostoyevsky. All very entertaining and intriguing literature when read from the comfort of an armchair, enjoying a glass of wine, dogs snoring at my feet in front of a roaring log fire. The spell is broken when sitting in a dark cell at the coal face. Fact and fiction mutate; unleashed to wreak havoc and sow discord in the darkness of my educated ignorance. Not the best way to start a day. Fumbling for a silver lining in a ballooning mushroom cloud………… Well, it ain’t my worst start to a day.
09:10 - In the Bowels of the Beast, society’s misfits stir from their slumber. A new day’s dawn heralded by 90’s rap music competing with the latest progressive house track. Echoes of heavy grille gates banging rumbles up the landings. Coded communications barked by the arriving shift of screws. Weighty levers disengage spring-loaded tumblers, freeing the bolt from its mortise lock like a rifle shot. My door cracks open. One of life’s cruel ironies is that when we most need courage, it is hardest to muster. I go to the well once more.
Before I have a chance to exit, a welcoming committee doorsteps me. Although teenagers, youth is a stranger to them. The haunted look of heroin has left them with brush strokes of an unrequited love affair with her, painted onto their gaunt frames.
Sick with lust, their hopes of a chemical romance hinges on my reply.
“Sorry lads, I don’t touch the stuff.”
They skulk off muttering. By plebiscitary consensus, I’m not friend material.
“On offer today in the school, we have tiddlywinks, flower arranging and the much-anticipated Irish dancing - 4 facing 4 for the Siege of Ennis”
I search for the owner of the booming baritone voice. Amongst the milling crowd of the bad, sad and the schizophrenic stares of the mad, I see him. A jaunty swagger, build of a boxer, hands clasped behind his back and smiling to some private joke. Wearing a uniform, but oddly I like him already.
I ask the nearest officer how to sign up for school.
“If you had stayed there, you wouldn’t be here.”
My, my, aren’t you the comedy genius? And if the educational requirements for your profession were higher, YOU most certainly wouldn’t be here.
First day down. As we prepare to be caged for the night, this morning’s thespian bids us adieu with a jocular berceuse –
“As Helios dies, it behoves me to offer thanks for your company. When the trumpet of the morn crows to awaken the God of day, we shall meet again. Say goodnight to your chums.”
Admirable he can exist here and keep his sense of humour. My own levity abandons me as the door is locked. Shuddering, I slip into another uneasy sleep…………
……………………Down into my Stygian heart, past smoking ruins of memories I sail. Rocked by the hand of hypocrisy, from the cradle of blame, an innocent takes his first tentative steps. The chronological kaleidoscope shifts…….Under leaden skies a cold, broken child, not even into double digits, pens his first suicide note before sawing at his wrist with a breadknife. He cries in the rain to hide the shame of his tears. The chains of low self-worth and self-loathing that will cripple me in years to come are forged here. I want to tell him that it gets better. But I can't - because it doesn't. His remuneration for surviving today is that I'll suffer tomorrow.
Compassion is prostituted, traded by the manipulative. This mausoleum of criminal aspirations and midden heap for the mentally ill is tended to by the exhaust fumes of society. At this stagnant confluence, scum rises to the top.
Peacock behaviour, invariably leads to conflict, although who they are trying to impress in an all-male environment is unclear. Posturing, chest puffing and a stare down explode in giggles as an officer shrieks out “Behave yourselves, THIS. IS. A. PRISON.”
Prisoners forced to wash in the slop out area to a backdrop of officers jeering. The key to the showers hangs from their belts.
Watching a poker game escalate into a slagging match.
“You’ll get nothing with jealously” the winner gloatingly brays.
To stunned silence, his elderly opponent, peering over his half-moon spectacles meets the victors gaze and intones flatly “It got me two life sentences.” This erstwhile handyman, occasional comedian and taker of two lives has a chainsaw in his cell.
I dread the nights, fearing my own mind. Morpheus unlocks the Horned Gate…..my last thought is hoping I don’t wake……
……………..The bewildering speed at which childhood melts into adolescence scares me. As does the incremental intensity of the crises that I created for attention - but each crisis washes over those that should know better. Nature vs. Nurture is a meaningless mental exercise for me; I was twice-damned - product of a poisoned seed and ruled over by a perfumed fist. A lightning rod for consequences arising out of others mistakes. Even at this young age, a prisoner to their dysfunctions. Give a dog a bad name, Seligman's experiments with canines - platitude and psychology coalesce. Afraid and insecure, I turn the other cheek while biting hard on my tongue. Bloods copper tang mingling with bitter bile is my reward for restraint. The mask of whatever innocence I once had falls to the floor. Ares awakens. Mars in Ascendant. An angry teenager opens his eyes.
Woken by screams last night. Guttural cries and pleas for respite were punctuated by the guffaws of the graveyard shift. Through the pinhole on my door, I can make out uniforms taunting a prisoner behind the safety of a locked door. Manipulated into a rage, he decimates his cell. After two hours of torture, they slide sleeping tablets under the door. He does what they dare not do – knocks himself out.
My childhood reading of The North Wind and The Sun has stood me in good stead. However, not everyone is receptive to civility. I have been forced to wipe an officers spit from my face. A ropey chain of phlegm was her measured response to an inquiry.
I was attacked today. Predators and carrion feeders circle when they confuse politeness with lameness. Happily, my morality isn’t limited to Aesopian fables, but tempered with Machiavellian reality. Aggression was met with a kettle smashed off his head.
My unconscious nocturnal dancing with personal demons is taking its toll. Admitting to suicidal thoughts, seeking help lands you in a Close Observation Cell - a prison within a prison. I dodge Diogenes lamplight as hemlock doesn’t agree with me. If I bend any further, I fear I’ll break.
Corruption is endemic. Indifference contagious. Bullying actively encouraged. Looking the other way de rigueur. Stores plundered by officers. Food ordered in by the kitchen is sold.
Had to bribe an officer to do nothing more than her job.
A newcomer has confided in me that he is terrified of rape. I gently ask where such a fear originated. He was offered ‘protection’ upon committal. He mistook segregation for condoms.
My cell is something of a drop-in centre. A heavily muscled youth, proudly sporting a Swastika tattoo lingers after the crowd has dispersed. Bashfully he enquires did I see Dynamo the Magician on TV last night. I didn’t, but am familiar with the programme. His next question is a telling one – “Is it real magic?”
A core group of screws are alcoholics. If not drunk, then hung-over taking out their inadequacies on those in their care.
An aspiring artist has won a competition. His work had been exhibited in a gallery outside, now takes up residency in the school. Or it had, until an apparatchik was offended by it. The thought police tentacles extend to the library, but strangely they don’t view literature on prison escapes in the same vein as oil on canvas. Instead of preaching what to think, it would be beneficial if they were first instructed how to.
A young man with catastrophic brain damage has been sentenced. For reasons unknown, electrical appliances present a mortal threat. They are duly dispatched by dashing them against walls. Over the next week, another 4 cells are destroyed. During the day, he pushes faeces under the door. At night he cries.
“Where have you been?”
The question was posed by the yoga teacher. It wasn’t a matter of location, but arrant metaphysical nonsense dripping with ontological wonder. I have no doubt such sycophantic tropes have snared others, but her sickly sweetness is too much Jonestown Kool-Aid for my palate.
“I shall pray for you” the charlatan condescends.
“I shall think for you” is my retreating rejoinder.
The propinquity of a captive audience could be put to better use, instead of pointless fabric workshops, repairing hurleys and empty music classes. Criminally, there is no anger management. I understand ‘how’ this happens, but cannot fathom ‘Why?’
A sombre milestone, if not a sober one. A few friends have planned ahead and we mark the day with hooch. Rather than roam the landing, drawing attention with my flushed face and maniacal grin, I retire to my cell to work on a present, when a particularly vicious screw materializes.
My interlocutor’s hackles are raised by my sarcasm and acquiescence deficiency; his limited attention is focused on my homemade Guatemalan Worry Dolls. Glue, matchsticks and spools of coloured thread are viewed as a security threat. I’m too tipsy to wet-nurse this brute, yet in no mood to have my meagre possessions destroyed during a pedantic search. A storm has ignited behind his eyes, fuelled by my refusal to tug the forelock and avert my peasant gaze.
Changing tack, I enquire about the altercation last night. He gobbles down the bait.
“Gone are the days when you could charge a prisoner for ‘hurting’ an officer’s fist with his face.”
He cuts a tragic figure; it’s an open secret that he is despised by his own ilk. Forced to cross the Rubicon for conversation. Any pangs of sympathy I have for this wreck of a human, dissipates like a line traced through water. Many tread the boards of authority without the presence or personality to possess their own. Chillingly a disproportionate amount of them worm their way into uniforms.
His quota of human contact filled for the day, he takes perverse pleasure in gloating about the long, dirty weekend he plans on having while his wife visits relatives. I’m not sure who I feel sorrier for – his wife or the destitute bawd whom he mounts tonight.
With heartfelt candour, I aver – “See you next Tuesday.”
As night draws in, I reflect on his boasting of abuse. Such venom is a dish I know well. The waxing and waning of a few years has done nothing to improve its taste. A long dormant cold fury begins to bubble in the cirrhosis of my soul as I yield to, and fall on, sleeps sword…………………….
……………..I floated face down in a miasma of desolation. The flotsam and jetsam of bitter memories drift by. Thoughts of a better life overwhelm me, the weight of that which I'll never attain. The burden of dreams is snagged on life’s undertow. Anger and rage serve as lifebuoys before I’m washed ashore. Shipwrecked on the jagged edges of reality. Penniless. Homeless. Unfed. Unwashed. Unwanted. Unloved. Alone.
Here, nobody can see the bruises left on my body nor my broken heart. The abuse hurled at me, haunts me. Her screams fill the silence. Here, the smell from not washing, catches in my throat and makes me want to vomit. Except I have nothing to throw up. Here, I stare vacantly at the four walls
looking for a sign - but they all say ‘No way out’. Here, I cry, tears cascading down my sunken cheeks. Here, I die.
How can I convey the exact moment you give up on living? A split-second decision 30 years in the making. Hoping you have the courage to do it. Knowing that you will never do anything ever again -go for a walk, have a coffee, make love, smile, laugh, breathe. Morbid questions enter my head. The last vestiges of vanity. I wonder how long my body will remain here. How advanced will the decomposition be? It can’t smell any worse than what I do now. Fashioning a knot as I wish for death, mere heartbeats from defeat. The final, fatal countdown- 3, 2, 1…………But I can’t do it. A voice from my not so distant past joins me in my solitude. After crucifying my heart, her words break my tired legs -‘you cannot even hang yourself’. I collapse, crying. Maybe I am useless.
Bound for an Open Centre via another prison.
Here a day, I ask an officer how to apply for the school. “Do you thinks I cares about your education?” was his honest answer. I repay him with the same currency - “As you cared so little for your own, probably not.”
Forced out to the yard. Icy rain hammers down as 40 prisoners huddle against the heated window that the officers are behind. Our misery is toasted with steaming mugs of coffee.
Finally, after a typical inexplicable delay, I am in an Open Prison. Tonight, I will go outside and enjoy the night sky.
For the most part, my nightly terrors have been silent.
Drugs tolerated as a matter of policy.
Tick-box mentality buries any glimmer of rehabilitation under a bushel of paperwork.
IPS core mission is a master class in PR spin. Acolytes of Apathy that infest middle-management are closeted alchemists - they lacquerer losses, vice into virtue, failure into festivity and organisational incompetence into a pay cheque. The illusion of doing something outweighs doing it.
I refused early release months ago. Tomorrow I am free. Tonight, I will raise a glass with the sinners. Potatoes á la dauphinoise, medallions of ostrich on a bed of grilled asparagus, washed down with a bottle of vodka. Engaging company in interesting times – Sláinte.
4 Months after Release:
A letter came today………..
Fates wavering thumb will settle the gladiatorial stalemate between hope and history. I still bear the scars of the lost paradise that is innocence. Some injuries never really heal and although the tracks of my tears have long since eroded, each sneer sends me reeling into the ashes of Eden. Head bloodied, not yet bowed; dazed and in the gutter, I gaze forlornly at Orion’s arms...
The letters contents bring me to my knees. I cover my face with my hands and silently weep. Smiling through tears, I re-read it – I’ve been offered a place in University to study Law.
It all seems so distant now. A different person, a different life. In unbroken silence, a weary child sleeps softly in the far reaches of my fractured mind; never to be disinterred. Forever young for evermore.
It is oft said that different roads lead to the same place. I travelled to jail to be free.
Could I have done better? The wilderness of smoke and mirrors that is retrospective analysis binds me nevermore.
Could I be happier? For years I couldn't look in the mirror, I was taught to hate what I saw. Now, I am at peace with who I see smiling back at me.
You may think that my past life - that my past choices define me. I take a more enlightened view - it is my bedrock to bear the burden of your prejudices. They are my shield with which I deflect your ignorance. Approval isn’t a gift I seek from you; it isn't your job to like me.
It is mine.
I loosen my tie. The bill has been paid.