By Scott Culp #AY8092 California Institute for Men, PO Box 500 Chino, CA 91708
Pioneering cave explorers imagined that a prolonged stay in subterranean caves could permanently dismantle their psyches. In Somerset, England a 17th Century writer described exploring a cave. “We began to be afraid to visit it,” he wrote. “Every time we returned we felt sad and pensive.”
In the 1980s, in an expedition into a cave called Sarawak Chamber in the Mulu National Park in Borneo, a group of cavers succumbed to the enclosure and fell into a kind of paralytic shock and had to be guided out. The ancient Roman philosopher Seneca described silver miners who encountered phenomena from long-term mental distress, psychic pressure from claustrophobia. And the full tempest of panic as they imagined the ceilings and walls enclosing on them. Ask any chronobiologist who study the innate biological rhythms what the vacuum of solitary confinement does to the psyche. With no sunsets or sunrises, you pass time on a kind of primordial instinct. Like animals in zoos or cages, you pace.
My cage is the downtown County Jail. It actually gets worse, because my charge is armed bank robbery. I’m viewed as an escape risk and leader / organizer by the Sheriff deputies and have been placed here in solitary. I find it difficult to organize my own thoughts, much less lead an uprising against eating bologna sandwiches everyday!
Jails are the front lines of bad decisions and little hope. This system creates darkness where light is so desperately needed. There is an urban legend that you leave a piece of yourself in these places. Being isolated, you become adroit at communicating with your fellow condemned: reading lips, American Sign Language, passing lines, or speaking through a vent.
Yesterday I spoke with a kid from Stockton, CA. For hours we shared our life experiences vis-a-vis the vent. He was in jail for a probation violation. Although he lived in Stockton, he worked at the Costco in Tracy, CA. After speaking with him for a while, something just wasn’t adding up. He said he was part-time but left for work at 4am and didn’t return home until the evening. Finally he admitted that he was embarrassed to tell me that he didn’t own a car. For those of you not familiar with Northern California, Stockton is about 18 miles from the outskirts of Tracy. Can you believe that he was embarrassed to walk 18 miles a day to a part-time job? There is always an uncanny mixture of bravado amongst a den of thieves, however, any prisoner worth his salt displaces these false veneers and finds within himself elements of authenticity. I’d personally rather befriend someone who walks 18 miles to work then someone who drives a Ferrari. A lot of us here have lost sight of the beauty in the struggle. His story emboldened me to look deeper within myself and focus and listen to that inward voice as opposed to the echo of my footsteps resounding in his concrete cave.