Have you ever been in a place where solitude and silence allowed you to see beyond the distractions in life and you end up in a place where new discoveries shape your worldview? Well, a few years ago, as I sat in a penitentiary cell drowning in the mundaneness of an incarcerated existence, I found myself in one of those spaces. It was one of those anxiety-filled evenings where sleep was chained, shackled and held hostage by demons of the past. It was in the crushing blackness of contrition, illuminated by the pale glow of a 19-inch TV. It was in that between-television-seasons time, when nothing was on, causing me to question why I continued to spend half my jailhouse checks on the bullshit cable the jail provided. I was bored out of mind, surfing from station to station in a fruitless attempt to find something worth watching. Finally, after flicking through the stations at least five different times, I gave up and resigned myself to watching everyone's favorite corporate news show, CNN.
Usually on these anxiety-filled, sleepless nights I would turn the TV off and employ the timeless trick of counting myself to sleep. Instead of counting sheep, however, I would count regrets, something I never ran out of. Right before I hit the ‘off’ button on my remote, one of PA's local politicians, Rick Santorum, fresh on his first presidential campaign trail, was on CNN eating up free TV time. I paused. After a quarter century of incarceration, I was always interested in hearing some new lies falling out of the mouths of the local politicians. After all, in my humble opinion, lies masquerading as political truths are the chief reasons why second chances leave such a bitter taste in the mouths of Pennsylvanian lawmakers.
For a full hour, I half-ass listened while Rick Santorum used the CNN interview as a campaign tool. His voice droned on, regurgitating these cliché-like catchphrases and conservative talking points: fiscal responsibility, small government, crime, anti-abortion, etc.
After some time though, his voice became a blur of sound and my eyelids became heavy as sleep broke free of its imprisonment. Just before sleep temporarily escaped the demons of the past, three words became distinguishable from the blur: "sanctity of life". I opened my eyes and watched as Rick Santorum – with this made for TV smile that never touched his eyes, and the pontification skills of a TV evangelist – ranted about the evils of abortion.
‘Sanctity’ simply means ‘holiness’. It is a term I often hear in the debate about abortion, so much so that it was never a term that was particularly noteworthy to me; so why did it strike such a chord with me on this night? Well, prior to his voice becoming a blur and the subsequent pro-life diatribe that “life is sacred”, Mr Santorum was espousing the virtues of State-sanctioned murder. Hold the fuck up, mister. How can you champion the morality of killing people, and then, out of the other side of your mouth, say “life is sacred”? This was my thought that I ended up screaming at the TV, hoping that the interviewer would not let him off the hook with such an obvious contradiction, hoping he would at least ask a few challenging questions like: “What is the value of a human life?” “Are all human lives sacred?” “Is it just the lives that lack generous amounts of melanin that have value, or is it just the folks who don't reside behind barbed wire fences and forty-feet walls, that are worth saving?” Of course, it was a wasted hope because, for whatever reasons, those challenging questions were never asked. However, they are important questions nonetheless, especially in light of the coronavirus pandemic.
When social distancing is the new norm for most for the world, how is it that this logical measure put in place to minimize risk of infection, does not translate behind prison walls? How is six-feet of separation possible when you're confined within a 13×7 cell with another human being for 23-hours-and-20-minutes a day? How can you be safe when testing is virtually non-existent and you are subject to constant exposure to potentially asymptomatic people who enter and exit the institution daily? Realistically, there are two basic steps that can be taken to effectively reduce the risk of spreading a virus within the confines of a prison. Number One: reduce the population. Or, Number Two: test everyone behind its walls. Anything less than this is just an exercise in futility. In PA, the Governor used his power of reprieve, making 1,800 individuals eligible for release. But don't be fooled by this shell game. Although 1,800 is a lot of people, out of the 50,000 men and women in the PA D.O.C., 1,800 is a paltry number that makes little to no difference in the sardine-like confinement of PA prisons.
In the mad dash to incarcerate as many poor people as possible, prison systems throughout the country have morphed into human warehouses bursting at the seams, and now that we find ourselves in the midst of a global pandemic, they've turned from warehouses to potential mass graves. So, the questions that CNN interviewer was supposed to ask Rick Santorum but failed to, I'll ask you instead: “What is the value of a human life?” “Are all human lives sacred, or is it just those lives lacking generous amounts of melanin who don't reside behind barbed wire fences and forty-feet walls, that are?” More importantly, “Do you even care?”
So, as I sit in this cell – locked away, stressed out, anxious about each breath I take of this recycled air, afraid that the next inhalation will be the one that condemns me, worrying about my family and friends and if any more of them will fall victim to this scourge – I keep asking myself: Does my life have value? Are any of the 50,000 souls doubled-up in PA's penitentiary cells lives worth saving? Or, are these questions better left unanswered, making it easier for us to be forgotten, ignored, and rendered voiceless, so that if this deadly disease – god forbid – really takes hold, no one will hear our cries or our labored breaths rattling in our chests? Will we just be gone?
Terrell Carter BZ5409
P.O. Box 33028
St. Petersburg, FL 33733