Prisoner’s ‘Thin Comfort’ dilemma

From the March-April 2013 issue of News & Letters:

Voices from the Inside Out

Prisoner’s ‘Thin Comfort’ dilemma

We are on lockdown status again, as every inch of the prison compound is searched for contraband. We’re living on thin sandwiches again. We call them jam sandwiches. You take two pieces of stale bread, put a spot of peanut butter on one and jam them together. This time around is the worst ever. I was hungry day and night until another con began giving me his bag meals.

Across the wide expanse of cellblock directly in front of my cell on the opposite side lives an elderly Mexican-American who is confined to a wheelchair. The day after Christmas he began refusing his meals. I didn’t think it unusual at the time because some people fast around holidays. But then I recalled that up to Christmas Eve he had been getting books delivered to him every day for months from the prison law library. That suggests he was working on his appeal or maybe even a lawsuit. Then abruptly after Christmas no more law books came and he quit eating. The guards didn’t take notice because they work a different cellblock everyday. There is always a con or two who skips a meal and whenever that happens the guard just gives it to someone else because there is no shortage of cons asking for any “extras.”

Nobody seemed to notice that the old man had quit eating. When we went on lockdown status on Jan. 11, he had not eaten in 16 days and he continued to refuse his meals. I don’t know his name or even if he speaks English. I stand at my cell door window and smile and nod across to him. That is the extent of our communication. I began informing the guards at meal times that the old man had quit eating.

Long ago I read an article about I.R.A. prisoners inside English prisons who went on hunger strikes en masse to force England to recognize them as prisoners of war instead of common criminals. Many starved themselves to death and the horrid publicity of it forced the English to agree to the strikers’ demands. One prisoner lived to see recognition granted and celebrated. But he was doomed nonetheless because after a couple of months or more of eating no food he had caused irreversible damage to his vital organs.

Not long after we began getting bag meals, at every meal the old man asked the guards feeding us to give his bag to me. So I began eating his sandwiches along with my own. He sits at his door at meal times and as soon as he sees that I have his bag he shoots me a thumb up sign and returns to his bed. I have asked a sergeant of guards and then a lieutenant and a captain to stop at his cell door to talk to him when they each came through the cellblock on their inspection rounds. They did, but still he refuses to eat. I eat his food and am grateful for it because it keeps the pang of hunger away from me.

As I write this on Jan. 22 it has been 28 days since the old man last ate. I woke up in the middle of the night to discover his cell door open. He was gone and I was startled by the sight of it. But then a few minutes later guards brought him back to his cell. I think they must be taking him to the medical department to monitor his weight loss. There are horror stories floating around inside this super-segregated high security prison about force-feeding cons who are trying to escape their sentence by starving themselves to death. They are strapped down to a gurney and a rubber tube threaded up their nose and down their throat to drip nutrients into their starved bodies.

I was able to get a guard to take a National Geographic and a religious magazine over to his cell and slide them inside under his cell door. A minute later the old man appeared at his cell door and shot me a thumb up sign. He is looking gaunt. I have done all I can to help him. I don’t want him to give up on life but at the same time I look forward to eating his food and confess that deep inside myself I hope it doesn’t stop. Does my soul have a hole in it for harboring such a thought? I reason with myself that if I refuse to accept his food the guards will just give it to someone else but that rationalization provides thin comfort. Prison is hell, I tell you. We’re still on lockdown.

—Joseph

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