Thursday, November 27, 2014

Power and the Penal System: A transnational comparison of penal strategies and the application of power

By Chasity West

The United States imprisons more individuals per capita than any other country. With a ratio of 751 imprisoned per l00,000, our fervor to incarcerate is only second to Russia. This figure becomes even more notable when one considers that the U.S. only makes up five percent of the world`s population (123 help When examining transnational incarceration trends and approaches to crime and punishment it becomes evident that penal excess is not an inevitable characteristic of all justice systems; it is a choice.

Although it is a common belief among the American people that harsh penalties and lengthy prison sentences deter crime, there is much to be learned from countries that employ kinder and gentler approaches in rendering criminal justice. Hard power and soft power application in the criminal justice system yield shockingly different results. The current policies in the United States are ineffective and counterintuitive and create more casualties than corrections. Additionally, by using the models presented by more benevolent societies, particularly those that also uphold democratic ideals, the U.S. can employ more effective uses of power in creating a more efficient and just justice system.

By taking a comparative look at international prison systems and the evolution of these systems - uses of power and the results - what becomes clearer is that historic factors and flexible attitudes toward justice best determine fixture results of a system`s failure or success.

Power, as defined in World Politics: The Menu for Choice, is "the ability to overcome obstacles and influence outcomes... [it] is the ability to get what one wants, to achieve a desired outcome through control of one`s social or physical environment. Forms of power include compellence - influencing another [actor] to halt a course of action it is already pursuing or to commence a course of action it is not pursuing" (2013, pg. 7l). In contrast to compellence, deterrence aims to influence another actor not to do something it would otherwise do. These forms of` power are employed in justice systems in different forms and degrees. David Kinsella. Bruce Russert and Harvey Starr identify a system as “a set of elements, or units, interacting with each other. It is more than a collection of entities; in a system, the elements, produce changes elsewhere in the system" (Kinsella et. al. 2013. pg. 61).

Understanding a system involves an understanding of its culture, hierarchical organizations of power and control, rules of behavior and societal influences by which it is supported. Countries that use power techniques more effectively regarding their justice system and prison management have lower recidivism rates and imprison fewer people.

In the political world, hard and soft power are tactics used to achieve certain goals. Kinsella, Russett and Star describe soft power as "a subtler form of structural power” (Kinsella et. al. 2012, pg. 72). Soft power is often a method used in influencing another actor to adopt the same values and goals that another actor possesses. Influencing another by attraction. In other words, “get[tingl others to want what you want (Kinsella, et al. pg. 72), Kinsella. Russett and Starr suggest that soft power is more efficacious and cost-efficient than its antithesis, hard power. Hard power is a more aggressive form of influence. It relies on coercion and force to influence the behavior of another actor in order to get him or her to do something that he or she would otherwise not do. Game theory (a mathematic approach to analyzing strategic interactions between two or more players) also plays a major role in the way hard and soft power tactics are used in the criminal justice system (Kinsella, et. al 2013. pg. 130, 132). These theories, though usually particular to government, can also apply to crime management and penal strategy.

Soft Power vs. Hard Power
Scandinavia and the United States

Norway implemented the prison system that exists today in Denmark, Finland and Sweden. In 1950, after these countries revamped their penal practices, the prison population dropped from 200,000 to 100,000 seemingly overnight. (The 8th U.N. Survey on Crime Trends, 2002.) This drastic decline in Scandinavia`s prison population was because of the introduction of soft power. 

Norway employs so it power techniques in its justice system and penal institutions. These tactics include providing prisoners with meaningful work and educational opportunities and elaborate post-release preparation and support services, Norwegians emphasize that education is the key to power-and empowerment. Therefore. Norway credits its low recidivism rates not just to the means it uses to achieve the end, but the objective of the end: the goal of its penal system is rehabilitation, not punishment. This differs from the United States’ "lock ‘em up and throw away the key” penal philosophy. If a system’s aim is to punish offenders, then that is what that system will produce: punished (but not necessarily rehabilitated) people.

With an incarceration rate of 66 per 100,000 and only a 20% average recidivism rate, (in the United States. this figure nearly triples) (Pratt, 2007, pg 19), Norway makes a strong ease for soft power. A shift in attitude, behavior and values in an actor (i.e. the 80% of the offenders who do not return to the prison population) is, after all, the name of the game.

It was not so long ago that Finland’s criminal justice system had much in common with that of the United States. By the mid-1960’s, in dealing with social ills, Finland deferred to similar hard power tactics that remain staples in justice administration in the United States: stiff penal policies and heavy incarceration, However, thirty-years later, the two countries reached a crossroad. Finland diverged at the intersection. Veering off the path of hard power, Finland rethought its criminal justice strategies. It was then that Finland decided to employ different tactics - soft power tactics - in dealing with crime. Some of these methods included more humanistic policies such as alternatives to incarceration, victim restitution, intensive rehabilitation, treatment for the mentally ill, reducing lengthy prison sentences and transforming its prisons into places that resembled and functioned more like outside society than institutions. During Finland’s more punitive days, violent crime, like in the U.S., continued to rise. But this shift to soft power led to a more than fifty-percent cut in Finnish incarceration and a decrease in crime, Finland’s current per capita rate of incarceration is at 68 per 100, 000, among one of the lowest in the world (Pratt 2007, 19).

In previous decades, the U.S. used softer forms of power and yielded similar results. From 1925 to 1975, incarceration rates remained stable at around 110 per 100.000 (Liptak 2008). But in the late 70’s this number shot up with the movement to "get tough on crime.” With the introduction of hard power and more prisons came people to fill them. Few people would question whether Finland`s shift to soft power and Americas reliance on hard power produced this dichotomy in results. Other low-imprisonment societies of the other main European countries that are on par with Norway and Finland are Sweden (82 per 100,000). Switzerland (79 per 100,000), Denmark (67 per 100,000) and Italy (66 per 100,000). It should come as no surprise that these countries all approach justice not with an iron fist, but with a soft (power) touch (The 8th U.N. Survey on Crime Trends 2002).

Hard Power vs. Soft Power
Poland, Singapore, China and the United States

It would seem as though these countries of different governments, geographies and legal systems would have little in common with the United States. But the thread that ties all of these nations together is their use of hard power in criminal justice.

Poland, with a population of 38.5 million, once had an imprisonment rate of 340 per 100, 000 (The 8th U.N. Survey on Crime Trends, 2002). Excluding the Soviet Union, China and the U.S., Poland had one of the highest imprisonment rates in the world (Cook & Davies 1999, 162). But from a communist standpoint, the high rate of incarceration was a boon to the economy, as prison labor was cheap but lucrative.

In l985, in response to an economic crisis, "new crimes were established, heavier punishments were introduced and speedier trials were ensured" (Cook & Davies pg. 162, 199). Harder forms of power were introduced into an already unraveling system. This left Poland's penitentiaries bursting at the seams. Thus, a new humanitarian policy was implemented (for women only) with respect to the administration of penal law and penitentiary practice. Though women only constituted 5.7 percent of Poland`s total prison population, this change (which included an abrupt reduction in the imposition of long-term sentences and more frequent use of conditional release) more than halved the total number of imprisoned women. Although this provision only benefited women, one might infer that the statistics would be similar if these same terms were applied to the male population of prisoners. In 1989, this inference was tested. As a result of the success of Poland’s selective application of soft power to the female prisoners and with the advent of a new political regime, Poland’s prison population (with the inclusion of men) dropped from 100,000 to 40,000 in a single year (Cook & Davies 199, pg. 67). Today. Poland has approximately 80,467 people in its prisons (The 8th U.N. Survey on Crime Trends, 2002). Traveling to the continent of Asia, hard power takes on a more literal form. Singapore's criminal laws are some of the most "extreme and consistent laws found in the world”( Its government still employs the use of both corporal and capital punishment (even in this day and age, there are states in the U.S. that still practice the latter). However, many Singapore citizens believe that these hard power tactics deter crime and improve the quality and value of life in Singapore."

Curiously, places like Scandinavia (Norway and Finland) and Singapore have low crime rates but very contrasting criminal laws and of course, utilize opposite forms of power. But considering that Singapore is roughly only 3.5 times the size of Washington D.C., one could argue that the reason its crime rates are so low has little to do with its deterrence practices and more to do with its size (

With a population of l,360,700,000, China, (which is far more populous than both Singapore and the United States), has l.6 million prisoners. The only other major industrialized nation that even comes close to China or America`s incarceration rate is Russia – another proponent of hard power criminal justice methods. Russia incarcerates 627 per 100,000 people (Liptak 2008). Like Singapore, China has created a justice system that aims to deliver hard blows and swift results. Considering its size, its per capita rate of incarceration is relatively low at l20 per 100,000.

Though some might believe that rigid forms of penal justice and harsh prison conditions serve as a crime deterrent, others would object to a system that uses extreme or brutal forms of coercion in penal law and prison reform. Thus, questions can be raised about hard-hitters like China; namely, do penal philosophies that embrace the ideology that prisons are for punishment care more about correction - or control and conformity?

In this respect, the U.S. has little room to criticize. That we should have anything in common with countries that "we have long derided for governance and punishment practices" that we consider cruel and unusual is proof enough that our current penal policies warrant scrutiny (Talvi 2007, 219). Even though the application of power and deterrent tactics are different in type in countries such as Poland, Singapore and China than that of the U.S., they are similar in degree.

Another similarity between the U.S., and these other countries is their recidivism rates: two out of three released prisoners returns to the prison population within three years (The 8th U.N. Survey on Crime Trends 2002). Still, some would look at these numbers and insist that hard power penal practices work.


Though few studies have been able to show a direct correlation between stiff penalties and crime deterrence, some commentators believe that long sentences are effective means of deterrence. Michael Rushford of the Criminal Justice Legal Foundation in The Stanford Law and Policy Review wrote, "The simple truth is that imprisonment works."

A study was conducted in Italy after it passed a Collective Clemency Bill that set free all prison inmates who had less than three years left on their sentence. To test the general theory of deterrence, the conditions of their release stipulated that if the former inmates were convicted of any crime within the next five years that they would have to serve the maximum of whatever sentence they received for their future crimes. The findings of the study concluded that even a small increase in the expected sentence was enough to reduce recidivism.

These results might seem to have corroborated that longer sentences or the mere threat of them serve as a deterrent. However, one would need to consider both individual and societal factors unique to that particular person that led to his or her relative success. No data was provided detailing crucial information about the offenders such as incarceration history, lifestyle changes, treatment received while incarcerated or post-release, education level or what kind of support system the offender had upon release.

Even in light of this study, many social scientists would still contend that it is impossible to apply game theory or rational actor theory to crime management, incarceration and recidivism. The system is so broken; therefore, it becomes increasingly difficult to predict realistic outcomes. Moreover, one might wonder whether harsh deterrence policies have much, if anything to do with one`s decision to act or not to act. Kinsella, Russett and Starr validate this point: "an action that apparently was deterred might not have happened anyway in which case a policy of deterrence is not really responsible for the outcome. Analyzing actions that did not occur, whether as courses or effects of other actions, is a difficult task for the social scientist because it involves counterfactual reasoning" (Kinsella et. al 2013. 71).

When applying this theory to crime management in the U.S, "deterrence" policies contribute to the number of people being put into correctional institutions and the amount of time they spend there. Even "ultimate" penalties like death and lifelong incarceration do little but contribute to the overcapacity of our prisons.

Game theory and rational actor theory (decision-making theory) when applied to implementing new crime laws and deterrence policies aim to make predictions about what voters will do and voters try to predict what released prisoners will do. Still, empirical date (past and present practices and the results rendered) as well as current recidivism rates are the best indicators. These facts and figures are largely determined by the type of power influencing our criminal justice system and where our focus lies (rehabilitation or retribution).

Soft to Hard Power Pass-off
From the media to the courtroom

The media is a subtle but potent form of power. It has the ability to inform and to incite. Much of the public’s perception on crime is directly shaped by media exposure.

Misconceptions about crime have led many people to believe that the proliferation of our nation`s prison population during the past decade and a half reflects changes in crime rate. Few people would guess that laws and policies, not increased crime, have been responsible for this imprisonment epidemic. Changes in law and increases in the length of prison sentences account for a prison population’s growth from approximately 350,000 to over two million in just twenty-five years (Alexander 2012, pg. 93). Michelle Alexander in "The New Jim Crow," illuminates one of the reasons behind the spike in numbers. She writes:

….most people assume that War on Drugs was launched in response to the crisis caused by crack cocaine in inner-city neighborhoods. This view holds that the rapid explosion of the prison population reflects nothing more than the government`s zealous - but benign - efforts to address rampant drug crime in poor, minority neighborhoods. This view, while understandable given the sensational media coverage of flawed. A few years after the drug war had been declared, crack began to spread rapidly in cities across the country. The Reagan administration hired staff to publicize the emergence of crack cocaine in 1985 as part of a strategic effort to build public support for the war. The media bonanza…helped to catapult this War on Drugs from ambitious federal policy to an actual war."

This indicates that there was no war or combat-worthy crisis until the United States started one. Incidentally, when the war was declared, drug crimes were declining. This would suggest that some politicians take advantage of the media and the deep and protracted effects of its power. Though the media is a form of soft power because it affects the opinions of the public with such severity that it incites drastic action, it actually translates into hard power. Although the highest media focus is on the lowest frequency crimes, highest frequency crimes get almost none and if it is talked about it is more of a broad brush. This eliminates key facts and puts false ones into the analysis and thus, contributes to our social hysteria. Oftentimes in response to this, rash and irrational changes in law emerge-a hard power response that might temporarily restore public confidence but perpetually fills prisons. In "The Origins and Development of Scandinavian Prison Systems,” John Pratt and Anna Erikson said it best, "Policies pandering to the immediate demands of perceived public opinion rather than long-term planning that are emblems of weak rather than strong states" (Pratt and Erikson 201 l, pg. l8). The government’s use (and misuse) of the media reveals the strength of soft power.

The Courtroom

Other than media influences, propagandized images of crime, "the criminal" and politics, victim’s rights is another factor in the equation of justice, In Scandinavian countries, victim’s rights are associated with recovering losses, restoration and compensation, not with the right to exercise a personal vendetta in court. Instead, carefully prepared reports offering relevant details about the offender and the offense are presented before the judge, including the offender’s prognosis for success. In the United States, victim’s rights are not contained to restorative justice. Since retribution is often the main agenda of the aggrieved, this often transforms a courtroom into a forum for the very human desire to seek punishment for one who has inflicted harm upon another.

In most state and federal courtrooms, victims are encouraged to make a statement before the Court. These statements are a form of soft power as they are designed to influence the sentencing judge toward either leniency or in most cases, severity. However, this practice prevents sentencing from being administered on the basis of objective rationality. Instead it degrades the administering of justice to mere subjective emotion (Pratt 2001 l34). Victim impact statements shift some of the sentencing power to the victim, This soft to hard power pass-off victim to sentencing judge, contributes to more people being incarcerated and longer prison terms being handed down. This practice, however, is not universal. In most Scandinavian countries, victim impact statements are unheard of. This model provides a more appropriate function and framework than what is found in common sentencing practices in the United States and also raises questions about whether some of the people who are sent to prison could have been dealt with in other ways.

Since the U.S. has a highly politicized criminal justice system, the strategy in solving the problem of high crime rates lie in redressing current policies, recognizing societal influences that play a role in how citizens view crime and punishment and rethinking the role government plays in exacerbating the existing problem. This can be accomplished if government leaders “[adjust] their preferences and strategies" (Kinsella, Russett and Star). When considering the role in which public support plays in what laws are created people must consider that:

"[p]eople in government have their own personal interests: to keep or increase their political power, their wealth, and their status within society, or to promote their values and beliefs. These and other interest lead political leaders to seek societal support in order to gain control of government, remain in office, and implement their policies. To do this, public officials must recognize and respond to the needs of society… society support can also enhance leader’s willingness to act…. Governments do not just passively respond to societal demands. They also try to shape and control them.

Thus, many of our policies are instituted by factors outside of justice and even general utility. Public support for anticrime laws and prison reform measures are often steeped in irrational fear. This fear is often fueled by media images and specific political agendas. Oftentimes, decision-making strategies of politician rather than domestic concerns play the largest role in anticrime measures such as the "war on crime" campaign. For example, in the United States, most state court judges and prosecutors are elected and are therefore sensitive to a public that is, according to opinion polls, generally in favor of tough crime policies. In the rest of the world, criminal justice professionals tend to be civil servants who are insulated from popular demands for tough sentencing. (Liptak The Times). Game theory and rational actor theory recur when rallying public support for a new crime law. Again, politicians make calculations based on what they predict voters will do. Voters want to predict the behavior of released prisoners. But that is impossible to solve unless one understands what values underpin the ideal game.

The strategy in solving the problem of the penal excess lies not only in redressing current policies, but in addressing our use of power in the criminal justice system. This involves rethinking the role of incarceration and in what way our application of hard power in penal law and corrections exacerbate the existing problems.

Scandinavian societies like Norway and Finland prove the soft power yields better results. By creating humane prison conditions, placing a strong emphasis on education rehabilitation, treatment and deferring to non-custodial alternatives where appropriate and employing moderate sentencing practices, these countries keep their prison population at bay. But most importantly, Scandinavia’s willingness to use historic insight concerning its practices makes the Scandinavian justice system one from which the U.S. could learn. Even when studying propitious models of penal justice, one must keep in mind that a truly successful system is one that prevents its people from becoming a part of it in the first place.

Countries like Poland, Singapore and China that employ hard power have proven that bullying its captives into reform might generate results (i.e. influence an actor’s behavior) but that is not correction; it is coercion and compliance. And their recidivism rate, along with ours, is evidence that that is not enough.

In the name of deterrence the United States justifies its notorious draconian laws and harsh sentencing practices, yet prisons continue to fill; proof that these hard power tactics almost always lead to fuller prisons and more returns.

Soft to hard power pass-offs by way of the media and the courtroom also contribute to prison overflow. People have the right to be informed. But they also have the right to know the truth. However, media hype often creates false ideas and instigates policies that fill prisons.

Additionally, we should understand that countries that do not condone courtroom procedures with ulterior purposes render the most effective forms of justice. One of the ostensible goals of corrections is to change an offender’s behavior so that he or she can reintegrate into society and abide by its laws. But of the three objectives of incarceration: rehabilitation, deterrence and punishment, the U.S. falls short in two out of the three of these aims.

Our answer to our failure is tougher laws and stiffer penalties for violating them. Hard power application to crime management trickles down into correctional facilities where more hard power tactics are employed to "correct" the offender. Rather than considering that maybe it is time to develop a change of consciousness as to how we view crime and punishment, we continue to rely on costly, ineffective techniques that simultaneously cause and contribute to the current incarceration crisis

Soft power does not mean soft on crime. It means that we are serious about finding solutions that actually work. Soft power application in criminal justice means that we see value in every citizen and care enough to implement policies that reflect this; policies that show that we care more about people than politics. Reparative justice for victims, restoring offenders to productive members of society, reuniting families, and repairing broken communities-this should be the chief concern of any progressive society. Adopting soft power tactics means that we are wise enough to recognize when it is time for change because penal excess is not an unavoidable feature of all justice systems; it is something that we choose. And it is time for us to make a different choice.

Chasity West 266589
York Correctional Institution
201 West Main Street
Niantic, CT 06357

My name is Chasity West and I’m a lifelong native of Connecticut.  Prior to my arrest I worked as a licensed nurse.  In 1998 I was sentenced to life without parole on a first offense. Since my imprisonment I have written dozens of short stories, memoirs, essays and poems.  I have immersed myself in many projects and programs, including writing workshops, dance and yoga classes, college courses, gardening and agriculture and drama classes. I think that prison can be a catalyst for self-reform.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

The Other Half - Part Two

By Steve Bartholomew

To read Part One, click here

Charlie floored it.

The cop leapt up onto a shelf of air a foot or more above his own hood. The hollow clatter of clipboard and flashlight bouncing off sheet metal as the Jeep passed.

They came out of the parking lot sideways, accompanied by the headlong thunder and shriek of automotive rampage. Behind the wheel Charlie was knuckle-white and angular, his face showing nothing. The four-wheel drive made for an unruly drift, the tires lurching unpredictably. He felt the center of gravity heave up and shimmy before he remembered to ease off the throttle while counter-steering.

This was a five-lane thoroughfare wending through forestland between affluent suburbs, an upscale parkway lined with a dronish species of strip malls. Its curves were unbanked, designed with leisurely drives and rush hour in mind. He kneaded the throttle deeply, working the mechanical sweet spot between terminal velocity and control, exploring the limits of factory metallurgy.

The fluid geometry of flight. He swept back and forth across all five lanes, trimming radial degrees from shallow curves. The headlights were switched off for concealment, and the better to spot approaching vehicles while pushing a hundred and ten in oncoming lanes. He glanced at the rearview. The distant red and blue colorsoaking of roadside trees behind them. Here we are. You may drive for a living and maybe you’re better at it than me, but I’m willing to drive for our lives.

"He‘s back there," Moira said, turning around fully in her seat, "he‘s coming fast."

"Sit down. I told you," he said, as if to the mirror, "put your seatbelt on."

"You don‘t have yours on."

"I'm a little busy here. Just this one thing. All I'm asking."

"Fine," she said, and crawled across the seats, reaching around his middle to grab the belt beneath his arms, tugging it across him and fastening it. She pushed herself back to her side and fastened her own.

"Jesus. Keep your ass in the seat. Sometimes, girl."

"You want to put me over your knee?"

"Beat the dimples out of you, is what I want to do."

"Throw me down and choke me like I'm rented? It's okay if you say yes."

"By the half hour. And you can keep my deposit."

Up ahead, trees lining a bend in the road took up the glow of approaching headlights. Charlie swung the wheel, swerving to the opposite edge of the road as a box truck flew past in the other direction.

"You're sweet for saying that," she said, "I might hold you to it later, like I did last time."

He knew she was trying to bolster his confidence, to remind him that he was skilled at the art of eluding. But he preferred to think of every chase as his only chase. To have faith in a winning streak is to underestimate your opponent. A couple weeks earlier, a sheriff had spotted them as they were leaving Bellingham. As he ran through the gears, he told her to talk her dirtiest, because the distraction would keep him from overthinking instinctive maneuvers. After he'd outrun the county mounties, they holed up, car and all, in an abandoned barn that leaned cartoonishly to one side. Even the best hide is a bust, he told her, if you come out one minute early.

They crept to a boarded window and stared through the cracks, watching hand in hand because touch carries a trustworthy bandwidth of information. His fingers twined between hers, and he could feel the quickened pulse in her thumb. The dried traces of animal in each inhale, the grip of uncertainty loosening gradually with each exhale.

Evasion can lace the blood thickly and he felt it build like a thunderhead, a tantric rush crackling across the air between them. She looked lethal in the rising dust, hushed end smokey with intent, daring him wordlessly like a character in a smutty plot. Daylight seeped through cracks and knotholes, and as it died away he could feel their chances improving. Something about the play of light-stripes on her skin made him claw the ground, firmly alive and primitive. He pulled her down roughly, whispering demands he'd stored up on the way there. Even the stagecraft felt real, a textured scene stolen from the world-beyond, and he lost himself in the role of the toying villain while she played captive in the hay.

The distance to the pursuing lights was impossible for him to gauge at this speed, but he thought their lead might be increasing.

"Seems like I was the one doing most of the holding, the way I remember it. Which, I'm not complaining."

"I want to have to make up a story this time, why I'm walking funny tomorrow."

"Tell them you fell on a doorknob again."

She lowered the window a few inches and flicked her cigarette into the roaring wind. Then she hit the switch to reseal it. "Does it make me way complicated? Because I'm all 'Respect me, but ransack me like I'm stolen first?'"

"I’ll respect your brains out."

"Prove it. Get us somewhere I can be noisy."

The Jeep had a little gumption left, he knew it would do maybe one twenty, but he could not remember the lay of this road. Whether a given side street was a cul-de-sac or an alternate route, he had no way of knowing. He cursed himself for not at least studying a map before being tested in the actual territory. He could feel a peculiar floating sensation, the quirky physics of drag and centripetal force contesting with suspension designed for gravel roads and soccer games.

The State Patrol precinct was somewhere up ahead, one of the hives sure to be emptying by now and swarming towards them.

Charlie came down hard on the brakes, swinging into a wide arc that would bring them in line with an intersecting road that led sharply to their left. It took them up a steep grade. He could see that it disappeared farther ahead, winding into the forest that covered the foothill above. He took the first right, breaking line of sight with the parkway, and slowed enough to not draw attention. Darkened upscale houses set back from the winding curbless street.

"Oh," she said, "I feel like I've been on this road before."

Moira claimed to remember her own birth. She had described the event to him in terms of its pathos, the watershed expulsion, and how this had congealed into a motif throughout her life. She would never admit as much, but Charlie wondered if she'd let this inform her expectations ever since, looking for the sayonara lurking behind every smile or hidden within a fuck. He pondered the weight of blaming your life on your own birth, and how that might become self-fulfilling.

"I‘ve been to that house before. That exact one. I think maybe inside it."

Charlie wondered whether this was another instance of the deja vu she experienced so strongly sometimes.

"Which way then?" he asked, hoping her comment related to an actual event.

"I don't know. It‘s not that specific. It‘s more a feeling, like reading the past, I guess."

"So we're talking post-diction, as opposed to prediction. This is what you're telling me. Like reading your own palm. Not the most useful thing at the moment, I have to say."

"Post-diction isn't a word or a thing. And you‘re a condescending prick sometimes, that's what I'm telling you." She turned toward the blackened window before continuing. "What else I can tell you is that your palm is in your future. How's that for a useful prediction?"

"So you got a reading about this neighborhood, one way or another?" He caught himself dressing the word "reading" in snark and instantly regretted it.

"Just that I wish I was riding through it with anyone but you right now. You‘re a bastard."

They came around a curve and on their right was a low-slung school, an array of portable classrooms arranged about a central building. Charlie swerved into the small parking lot, bouncing over a curb and onto the lawn. He drove along a narrow sidewalk that led between two of the outbuildings and then turned, steering them up a small grassy bank behind the school and out onto a playing field.

Surrounding the field was a thinly wooded greenbelt, younger maple and alder among a smattering of old growth. Beyond the far edge of the field the elevation rose sharply to the crest of the ridge, maybe a hundred feet higher than the school. He nosed into the woods below the rise, threading carefully through the gaps between trees, dropping the transmission into low gear to crawl over fallen limbs and through brush as tall as the windows. The condensed dark beneath the evergreen canopy made him feel myopic.

He killed the engine and nodded at Moira. After getting out slowly, they leaned into both doors, half-latching them. The powertrain ticked and sizzled like a recent wreck in the wooded stillness. He waited for her to pick her way through the dense groundcover and around to his side. Taking her hand, he pushed through the foliage, pulling her along.

At the base of the embankment she pulled up short and looked up at the stubbly clay rearing far above them. Milky light bled through the dark along the crest. "I can't," she said, "Not in these." 

He knelt at her feet and, placing her hands on his head he lifted one boot at a time, snapping the six-inch heels off and tossing them into the brush.

"These were my favorites,” she whispered.

"Sorry. You can take it out on me later."

He grasped her by the forearm, their wrists intertwined so that she could hold onto him, and in this way he began towing her up the steep incline. He would scrabble to gain a couple feet and then with his free hand grab onto a sapling, root or vine, digging his side-heels into the loam before hoisting her by one arm until she could find a purchase. The fire in his lungs spread to his shoulders, his back.

Halfway up, a branch broke off in his hand and he lost his foothold, sending them skidding backward. A racket of cascading debris announced their place in the night before he could plant his toes enough to stop their descent, his hand clawing dumbly at scree. "Charlemagne, I'm scared," she said. "I don't think I can do this." She'd called him by his full name only once before, the first time they'd seen themselves on the news. She knew he thought it sounded like men's lace and French dressing.

"It's only a few more feet," he lied, and began towing her upward again before her reluctance could gain inertia.

At the crest of the cliff they came to a wooden slat fence. He raised up on the balls of his feet and peered over it into a dark backyard. A split-level deck arranged with patio furniture, and in the far corner of the yard a large doghouse. The idea of facing a hostile dog made his nervous system pucker. But there was no way around without backtracking part of the way down and traversing the face of the bluff. "Take off your coat," he whispered into her ear, "and put your bracelets in your pocket. Quick." She must have felt the tremble rising in him. She stared at him, her face a jumble of fear and trust. She handed him the coat and slipped off her jewelry.

"Wait for me to jump down first," he whispered, "and try to stay calm. Whatever happens, keep going." with the leather coat held in his teeth, he laced his fingers together into a step. He lifted her until she could straddle the fence, steadying her before he pressed himself up and over. As he dropped down into a crouch, a floodlight mounted on the house blazed like an instant sun, pushing the darkness from the yard. A deep growl emanated from the doghouse. Charlie wrapped the thin black leather around his left forearm and, keeping Moira behind himself, ran backward toward the side fence.

A potato-colored pitbull came toward them at a dead run. It did not bark, instead making small anticipatory grunts as it ran. Charlie stooped, holding out his arm covered in designer leather the way he‘d seen trainers do. If dogs can really smell fear, than I must reek right now. What if it prefers balls or throats to arms?

The dog lunged, clamping its jaws onto his forearm. The impact was hydraulic violence, high-voltage jolts of bone grating against bone. Nails. The feeling of nails hammered in, sinking and tearing into his flesh even through the leather. Searing cold. His vision strobed in time with the dog's neck muscles, a vicious back and forth, drastic pressure and tugging.

The pain shrank his world, reducing all there ever was down to canine teeth and the nerves in his arm. The paralyzing shock of being consumed.

Fight thoughts flurried through his skull, discrete packets of kinesthetic possibilities, hopes really, entertained without language. But hand-to-hand tactics do not translate against teeth and claws.

His brain was misfiring from the trauma, and so he did what he could do mindlessly. He lifted. He grabbed hold of the collar with his free hand and lifted explosively, swinging the animal's weight as high as he could, and in one motion he slammed it down onto its side. This stunned it, he could tell, a reversal of aggression that confused its sense of dominance.

The jaws loosened and he pulled free his arm, motioning for Moira to run. The dog scrambled to its feet and Charlie backed away, trying to broadcast menace. He wondered if alphas ever back down. It came at him again. This time he almost didn't offer up his arm. But he could not let this dog past him, he knew she hadn't climbed the fence. When it lunged and reclamped its jaws on his arm a brilliant renewal of agony burst loose in colors behind his eyes, making the backward-driving force register slowly, unkiltering him. He stumbled and went down.

Pain is a private language you use to frighten yourself.

This is where it happens, this is how an attack dog makes a kill. He punched at the side of the dog's head but his angle was wrong for any effect.

He fumbled beneath its chest, finally gripping its front leg, near the paw. Ha wrenched it in a lateral movement, torquing it outward until he felt the wet snap and crunch of bone and joint parting ways. The dog let go and began keening, hobbling on three legs away from Charlie.

He stood and ran behind Moira to the side fence, a cyclone type woven with privacy slats. "Oh my god. Are you okay?" she whispered. Examining his injuries now would only infect his mental state, so he simply nodded. He could feel blood dripping from his hand but he could move it, or at least flex the muscles, so he figured no critical bones were broken. He peered over the fence bordering the next yard.

"Let me see it," she insisted, reaching for his injured arm. But he turned her around by the shoulders and slipped one hand between her thighs, gripping her by the crotch, his other hand at the nape of her neck. He lifted her with no thought of grace or comfort, pressing her overhead in a clumsy wrestling move, and then dropped her over the fence into the next yard. He hoisted himself up and over and they ran to the next fence. He lifted her again.

They ran through the hollowed-out landscapes behind the row of houses where the other half lived, past the darkened windows of the sleeping. The stillness felt combustible, as if they were poorly contained sparks edging alongside tinder. He focused intently on listening for the sounds of pursuers, dogs or both, until the blood rushing through his ears started taking on imaginary meaning.

There was a wobble in Moira's movements, a telltale slowing. Exertion and the mental strain of being hunted can bleach meaning from the moment, and he could see the detachment in her face, pale as prison-bread in the dimmest light. She was looking blankly to him for the next move, to somehow divine their exit strategy. His leg muscles were approaching failure and his arm was a kaleidoscope of pain. He knew there would be no more lifting or running. He gestured for her to wait, and she stood there fingering her hair. Her eyes were wide and seemed to drift across their surroundings.

From the rear of the property he could see through a break in the trees a narrow swath of the valley below. Red and blue lights trickled toward them in discrete streams. The gathering mass of lights pulsing somewhere below meant roadblocks. In the middle sky were the blinking blue markers of an approaching helicopter. The visible signs of the snare being tightened. He scanned the yard for options, for somewhere to hide. A lattice arbor covered in vines, clusters of broadleaf bushes and small decorative trees. A rectangular patch of earth, a garden maybe, and along the far side a tall privacy hedge. Two towering fir trees blotted out much of the sky. Near the back fence was a compost box made of landscape timber, maybe three feet deep and eight feet to a side.

Charlie climbed onto the great pile of rotting grass and prunings within the box and shoved in both hands up to his elbows. Moira stood a few feet away, keeping watch while he lifted out clump after clump of blackened mulch, his forearms coated in a paste of blood and plant juices. The syrupy plant rot filled his lungs, his mouth. Steam rose to coat his skin as he scooped out the heavy, moist matter warmed by its own decomposition.

When he had cleared out what he thought was enough, he motioned for her to come near. She looked at the coffin-sized trench and the pile of muck beside it, and then at him. She shook her head, No Not that. He wiped his palms on his pant legs and pulled her close. Please, do not fight me this once. Holding her head in both hands he breathed two words into her ear.

"Thermal. Imaging." He gave her a look that said, This is the only way. He wrapped the punctured and bloody leather coat around her shoulders.

She looked at him for a long second before moving. She lowered herself uneasily into the steaming black hollow, arranging herself on her side and leaving room for him.

Remembering the wheelbarrow he‘d seen while crossing the yard, he held up one finger in a gesture for her to wait, and crept toward it, picking his way through the pitchy darkness. In the wheelbarrow was a folded canvas tarp. He lifted it carefully and made his way back to the compost box. Wedging himself down into the warm slime facing her, he thought, this is it. No more running. We're fully committed now. Her body pressed tightly against him. Propping himself up on one elbow, he began packing around and onto them the piles of removed plant matter. The weight of it felt like damp hands pressing them warmly into the earth.

The wisps of evaporating rot enveloped them. He could taste the ferment. He left the tarp partially folded so it would not look large enough for someone to hide under. With his free hand he pulled it over their heads, just a wad of canvas someone had left atop their compost. He hoped desperately this was something people do.

Their faces were inches apart. His only view was of her eyes, in and out of dim focus. They searched his face for some reason not to be so afraid. He kissed her mouth reassuringly, a chaste lie half told to himself. Her fingers twined between his, pressing into his drying blood. He could feel her pulse outpacing his own.

His lizard-brain shrieked for flight, to somehow flee because this plan will never work and this is not a good enough hide. His thoughts took on a charged quality, the grim mental blurting of the unprofessed. She was printed indelibly on his heart, but this had seemed dangerous to express plainly--until now, and how that bracketed his general regret. He had failed to prevent what was happening, and this was an unspoken part of their pact. Because whatever you name a relationship, at its core it is a reliance.

He wondered if she could sense his sorrow, dumb and powerless. He thought about their self-entombment, the irony someone else might see in it. Why had he been unable, or unwilling to tell her she was the first human being he‘d ever loved?

They communicated in scant movements, the flex of a finger, a roll of the eyes more intuited than seen. He wanted to tell her this one thing, the words pushing toward his surface, but she either already knew or couldn't tell what he meant.

He figured there was a strong likelihood that the incident of the dog and floodlight would draw the police to this neighborhood. The homeowners must have heard the commotion and called 911. He peered through a wrinkle in the canvas.

A helicopter walked across the sky on bluish stilts of light. The swelling throb and muted chopping of another rotor, much nearer.

The canvas came alight like someone had turned it on. A tiny noise escaped her, a gasp at their sudden illumination. She had a mucky thumbprint on her forehead. Charlie squeezed her hand and moved his eyes back and forth, Not yet. The light moved on.

They lay in the racket of their own heartworks, their darksight wrecked. Time passed in a way impossible to gauge. He thought of the go-bag back in the Porsche, and the evidence it contained. They would throw him back into the stone man-hive at Walla Walla, they would throw her into the woman's prison and they would be forever broken apart without ever having broken up. This knowledge gnawed at him more deeply than that of his own imminent capture. How the final frames of a life-stage tend to outlive the highlights, enduring articles of unwanted recollection, and this, he thought, this noxious burial with something crawling up my ankle, this will be how she remembers me.

He could hear the distant approach of a well-tuned engine, idling and than accelerating, idling again. The signature whine of a police-duty alternator. The engine grew nearer and then changed pitch, surging slightly, the sound of someone shifting into park. A car door slamming. And then another. He tried to slow his breathing, eye-screaming for her to hold onto whatever she had left. His entire awareness shifted into his ears. 

The light jingle of a small latch being thrown, the metallic grating of a rusted return spring and gate hinges. The snick of a latch closing. Froggish creaking of leather, rhythmic and footstep-paced, growing nearer. The muffled clinks of steel hardware enpouched on a duty belt. And then, the sounds of stealthy movements coming from farther away, maybe in the next yard. Someone inhaled nearby, sighed. The canvas over them made Charlie unable to gauge the true distance between the sigh and their last good-bye.

And then Charlie‘s watch beeped once to signify the change of hour. Beneath the tarp it was an electronic shrike, a half- second banshee. He cringed. How could I forget this one thing, to disable my goddamn watch alarm?

Her eyes sharpened in reproach and she dug her nails into his fingers. Really? After you bury me in this? He waited for the hand that would yank back the canvas.

“Was that you?" a male voice half-whispered from a short distance away, maybe in the next yard.

Another voice answered, this one coming from directly overhead, "Think so." Charlie could feel the presence of the cop standing over them. They lay utterly still, listening to the tiny whistling in his nostrils.

Every moment was a storyline, its rising conflict played out in heartbeats and tiny breaths, each one a crisis. The creaking struck up again, moved farther away. The snick of a latch opening, the metallic grating and this time the sharp wooden clack and jangle of a gate slapping shut.

They gulped lungfuls of deliciously stale air.

The adrenaline ebbed from his bloodstream and he felt dopey, a puppyish delirium relaxing him muscle by muscle. He thought of nothing, let himself be aware of nothing but her bodyheat and the softness of compost. The weight of his eyelids was staggering.
Just for a second, he told himself, I can close them for a few seconds.

The cold woke him. The brunt of it had settled into his core, making him shiver uncontrollably and out of phase with her. Their frames were clattering against each other. She was watching him across the inches, her face half lit by the gathering dawn.

He imagined a homeowner discovering them there, and how the pursuit would start up again, this time without the cover of night. He slowly pushed back the tarp. His arm had stiffened and felt like a disorder. Fog had rolled in and clung to the trees in webbed clumps. He looked at his hand. Blood-caked sausages creased deeply at the knuckles, the taut skin glowing febrile already.

He rose slowly, moving first one limb then another, the millionfold needle jab of neglected flesh. He held out his good hand and pulled her slowly to her feet. The damp in their clothes was wicking the morning chill. She leaned against him, her shivering coming in fits now. Petting her hair, he inhaled the trace of French shampoo and plucked from her collar a rotting weed.

"Damn," she said, "I sure wish my smokes made it."

"I fucking love you."

"Are you sure you don't have a couple words backwards?"

"Even if you do look a little like a bog person right now."

"Prove it," she said, sliding one hand into the front pocket of his pants and fingering the master key there. "Take me somewhere that has heat and breakfast. I‘m starving."

"Deal," he said, plucking a worm gently off her shoulder and then showing it to her. "But this time you're leaving the tip."

Steve Bartholomew 978300
Washington State Reformatory Unit
P.O. Box 777
Monroe, WA 98272-0777

To view Steve's art, click here


Here is a video clip of a stunningly beautiful reading of an excerpt from another of Steve’s essays, "Tearing Down The House of Gemini," by Katherine Hervey

Katherin Hervey is a multimedia producer, college instructor and restorative justice facilitator for incarcerated populations. She is also a former Los Angeles Public Defender. As a multimedia producer she was the Publisher and Editor-In-Chief of Shades of Contradiction, a nationally distributed not-for-profit arts and culture magazine dedicated to promoting critical thinking and creative action; and co-founded Raw Love Productions, a multi-media production company focusing on visual storytelling. Alongside her partner Massimo Bardetti, she is currently producing THE PRISON WITHIN, an interactive web-based documentary exposing the failure of the U.S. justice system to restore justice through the stories of those most impacted.

Katherin first met Steve as in instructor for University Beyond Bars inside the WA Monroe Correctional Complex, and continued filming him as a character in THE PRISON WITHIN. She chose this piece, "Tearing Down the House of Gemini" because it showcases Steve Bartholomew's emotional depth - his willingness to dig deep within himself and reflect what he discovers through the creative process.

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