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The Hell of Captivity

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My two-year-old son loves the aquarium store down the street. With the aquarium and zoo, I do not ask my boy to consider whether the mistreatment and suffering of captive water and land animals would change his mind about visiting these places, particularly not at such a young age. As he gets older, he will decide for himself how to address such issues.

Recently at the aquarium, we visited the reptile room. I was at first looking with fascination at a dragon lizard in a dry glass tank all alone. I then saw that this dragon lizard was clawing at the side of the tank in the direction of the adjacent tank that had two smaller dragon lizards. The larger lizard looked so anxious for companionship that it was not ready to recognize that it would not get to be with the other two lizards without the help of an aquarium employee.

Doesn’t the foregoing scenario help illustrate the plight of prisoners? Sure, they interact with other prisoners. However, in prison they must watch their back at all times. If they learn a family member died, they probably steel their exterior lest they be labeled and targeted as weak. if they break down crying in front of other inmates over the news (at least that was a real risk related by a juvenile inmate in television interview many years ago). When family members and significant others visit, if they are lucky not to be separated by plexiglass, the guards might permit prisoners to hug them hello and goodbye, but that is it. Most inmates probably cannot rely on their significant others to maintain sexual fidelity to them. Prisons can be suffocating hells.

Many or most people must know how much prisons are hells to want to radically overhaul and shrink the criminal justice system so as to make them less hellish and to have fewer people there. In the meantime, as I blogged last year, healing must continue, both inside and outside jails and prisons.

You can make a difference in providing compassion and more humanity for inmates, who consist of people still presumed innocent and awaiting trial, and those already convicted. After all, accumulated feathers still sink the boat. Every little bit helps, and every larger step helps all the more, including getting on the backs of your lawmakers and the other government powers that be; spreading the word of justice for prisoners and criminal defendants to your family, friends and acquaintances; and visiting inmates, giving them moral support, and even offering to provide them classes in your areas of strength, be it academic, creative, supportive, or otherwise. .

The Human Kindness Foundation has an excellent webpage about how to easily arrange to visit with inmates and what to do with the visits, and sends this message about what you can do to help inmates.

In this spirit of helping inmates, Vipassana meditation teachers have gained access to inmates in such places as Seattle — since at least 2001 — to help their healing and harmonization process. Hopefully, jails and prisons nationwide will welcome such programs, both for their inmates and for the jailers.

A Vipassana meditation program worked at India’s heavily crowded Tihar jail, which likely is more of a hell-hole physically than American jails and prisons. The initiative — see the video clip here — was led by longtime law enforcement official Kiran Bedi, who will hopefully give courage to law enforcement officials and jailers to avoid making prisons mere warehouses, but places where inmates are helped to transcend the hell of prison so that when they are released they may move forward and so that they may keep hold of a feeling of humanity before release. Ms. Bedi recounts her prison reform work in It’s Always Possible.

Before the year ends, please reach out to and humanize a prisoner, through a visit or a letter at the very least. It will do both of you good. Jon Katz.