Creases in the soul
The most overwhelming aspect of a jail is its normality. I chose to work there mainly because attracted by the dark side of a complex reality, so different from the one-dimensional representation of the world that had been mine from childhood to adolescence. There, I witnessed several atrocities, sailed a sea of anguish but occasionally, I saw redemption too. I learned how to distinguish the unique and unusual ambience, and the distinctive normality that so differentiates it from the outer world.
In a prison, at any time of the day, mixed stink of onions browning away in a pan wafts through the corridors and mingles with stagnant reek of cigarettes and stench of scantily washed clothes that never get to dry properly.
I was immediately struck by the facial expressions, a particular shape that only the faces of those who are constrained in a penitentiary acquire, and that has given, for me, a whole new meaning to the expression “jailbird face”; neither just a saying nor a set phrase, and not even what Cesare Lombroso’s physiognomic studies tried to demonstrate. My opinion, much simpler, is that a popular expression nailed that peculiar spasm, which disfigures the soul; a spasm which alters the shape of the face, and in which the shoulders become tense and anxious.
I also learned the characteristic noises, distant clanging of heavy metallic gates, which must be slammed, suddenly erupting in the all pervading silence; faltering upsurges of voices, at dawn, during the gates unlocking; metallic click of thick brass keys in the lock, echoing loudly from one wing to another, from one passageway to another. And after that, clashing of an iron rod on the window bars, rhythmic, piercing noise; an unrelenting, uncared-for uproar, during out-of-cell time, interrupted by rattle of rickety trucks with the victuals, which slowly diminishes and disappears to make way, at sunset, for a recognizable silence, overflowing with suspence, as soon as the distractions of the day faded, those souls find themselves gazing at desolate walls, and at random snapshots ripped from half-decade-old magazines.
I understand why nobody wants to hear about the prisons. They are not the same as a hospital, because people in a hospital are not usually criminals. A prison is dirty, smells bad, and human waste is just let to rot. As part of the everyday life of a writer like me, who took on the responsibility of being in command with a moral sense, it became a sometimes overwhelming task.
Austere normality can be inhaled, every morning, along the vast corridors, when a suede-coloured overall moves, its shoulders tense and bent, the head crammed into the shoulders, carelessly scrubbing a cloth in the long corridors of the wing, while the detainees who work in the kitchens begin their pilgrimage from the prison’s wings. The wings are dark. Their colors dreary: faded brown, unexciting green, sometimes gloomy blue or worse, a rusty brown.
The corridors of a prison’s wing seem neverending.
The sunken head glances sideways, unnoticeably pointing the chin, an indecipherable expression, which appears to be midways between the shame of doing a humble job and the awareness of what a privilege it is. This is normal penitentiary work.
Many of those working in a prison are addicted to cruelty and contempt. Their job is to spend endless hours, in a prison that stinks of prison, surrounded by detainees who are busy studying you and looking for a way to cheat. Yet, and this is so wonderful, though often the working group for which I was responsible hated them, I repeated to myself that I should not judge them further, that those are only ordinary people, held in terrible conditions, three of them, a mattress on the floor, cockroaches hurrying off all over, and on top of them, in the summer and in the winter, in a space of three square metres, no matter how torrid the summers and how absurd the winters, when one day is hot and the day after it snows. This is the reality. This is simply normal. Don’t let the newcomer, even though in mid-January, keep his padded jacket. No boots allowed, either. It's the law. Appropriateness and security. Only a sweater and a sweatshirt, two pairs of trousers, as long as they’re not padded. Two blankets each, as for the law. A prison condenses the very meaning of being human. My father - who is a severe but fair-minded man, who does not judge - always told me that a prison houses human beings. I tried to do my job, honestly and conscientiously, without giving anything more or less than what was lawfully expected. All right, one evening I did want to take revenge for a raped little girl, when we had to take action against that prisoner - who has no self-control, takes drugs, has got HIV, every type of hepatitis, spits at any time and screams all night. The doctor keeps telling us, almost chanting a mantra, this boy is ill, he has been heavily abused, as a child. I can see, doctor, that even now he looks like a child, a tiny, wide-eyed, helpless child, and it seems impossible even imaginiing he has committed such an atrocity. Yet, why don’t you tell the little girl’s mother?
All those who, after watching the news, can easily forget that a child was tortured and beaten to death by his mother, or that another child has been forced to endure intercourse with a grown man- all of them should know, instead, that those individuals have a real face, have real eyes, and we - ordinary people, like me - have to protect, monitor, look at, talk, listen to, assure their rights, or even protect them from themselves, sometimes.
We are obliged to watch the same face that might have been the last horrific vision of an innocent creature.
In a prison, the most frightening aspect is, above all, the normality of people who committed those appalling crimes. Common people are the mothers who sexually exploited their children or tortured them, as well as the men who brutally took the innocence of those children; and they have normal faces, eyes, and voices. They wash their clothes, chatting and smoking. They want their rights to be assured, demand protection, almost claiming your support, since everyone knows that, in jail, those who hurt children are rewarded with relentless cruelty. They ask for another blanket, to be going to the barber or hairdresser, to be admitted to aerobics and embroidery classes. The have jobseeker’s lists, go to the cinema every week. Often they want to be moved to another cell, because, they say, their cell-mates are not good, smell bad.
"I am not like that one, Inspector”, they say, “I'm here by mistake, because my partner was abusing my three-year-old child while I was out, in the street, calling my mother abroad from a phone booth". "Why, did you not have a telephone, at home"?
"Yes, but that is not the point!"
Some say "I did not know how to buy food, so I decided to earn something by letting the pensioner downstairs touch my child; I didn’t do any harm, did I? That one is not like me, that one’s dirty. She's different from me".
"No," you think, "you all stink; you all are as rotten as hell. You all are as ugly, dirty and bad ".
But your soul cries. And slowly accepts the idea that we have no right to judge.
No one, having listened to one casual conversation, in a night like many others, with the men locked up in these special sections, would any longer be able to pretend that normality is so very reassuring.
It happens that the prison takes hold of people who, like me, cannot judge without condemning themselves for having judged, and it floods inside, with its stench, forcing the soul to a revolution. I’ve understood that sleeplessness is a good thing, although induced by the certainty that beings, resembling humans, were able to committ sickening actions, real beings that, if you just close your eyes, materialize in front of you, with their faces, their voices, and requests, and rights, and food and cigarettes. The alternative is to become dishonest, dirty. It is when the prison invades and devours the mind and makes you go mad, unstable, always attempting to escape from yourself, taking it out on your family, the weakest prisoners, or the prison volunteers.
The volunteers are admirable people that, without expecting anything in return, bring themselves to serve inthe prison wings. I loved so much an elderly lady, so distinct in her ways, with its unusual purity, that used to visit every week and, with the same grace and gentleness of an austere but loving mother, gently scolded the people of whom she took care. She understood, but but never let compassion overwhelm her estimations. She really is a dear old lady, dressed in a carefully disguised, sober and gracious way, maybe a little out of fashion, who, left her comfortable home, each and every time bravely fought a Kafkaesque system, blind and hostile, only to enter the prison, an oppressive and degraded system. Still, without judging, with her unspoilt smile, enchanting, she brings ease and gifts. She knows the human heart, because she has so many years, and has endured life. Every week, many bags hanging from her hands, she patiently let the penitentiary police suspiciously search her personal effects, someone looking askance at her, calling her a “trespasser”, pretending to not know, or really never understanding that in those bags she truly carries huge relief. Always smiling, her white hair bearing so much grace, she helps everyone, seems to have accepted all the wickedness of the world, trying to see the good, and realize people as human beings. Thanks to her, to her benevolent scoldings, sometimes men and women, even the weakest among them, found their self-esteem again.
Many believe that drug-addicts are the most defenceless detainees, but they aren’t. They are taken here, often late at night, stoned, and many times bewildered, having tripped over several times during their capture by the police force, committed to repressing drug-related crimes. They stare, silent, sick, thin and pale. The women are always grim, and less confused; most of them already know, have been there before, and if they want to hurt you, they know how, and they want to for no particular reason, other than deliberate, malevolent will.
As a rule, drug-addicts have got nothing to lose. They aren’t free, and therefore the prison can’t take away their freedom. They’re slaves to themselves, of a life in which normality means blunting their own senses, and then as easily as possible procuring more money in order to do it again. Nobody so deprived will ever be free. Young and old, they just do not exist beyond their addiction, the very sole center of their own personal universe. They don’t care about personal hygiene, but know their lymphocytes’number, or how big a dose of methadone has to be given to them. They embody their own weakness. Past doesn’t matter, neither does to know how they got to become what they are. They’re infected. And it becomes normal to wear latex gloves and search them firmly, yet respecting their dignity. What dignity? The dignity of a man who might have a syringe hidden in the folds of a garment, an infected syringe? Some police officers, with unconcealed shame, and only if there is nobody around, help them carry the big black trash-bag used to carry the prison provision -a blanket, a few plastic utensils, soap, toothpaste. It’s not a heavy burden, but heavier than a boulder for those who are too worn and emaciated.
All of them, here, will find help, food and care. They will get better, and in the stinking jail, they might even be free for a while.
Many people, who work for them, beside them, will enlighten their days with hope. They are forced to feed themselves, to adopt a normal, regular life, get some regular sleep, eat, go to the cinema, and spend out-of-cell time playing cards.
“Why don’t you improve your life, see how good you are at working with clay. At painting. You can actually build something, with your hands, normally good only at making mistakes”. For them, normalcy is having constantly swollen and red hands. If you listen to them, with their half-toothless mouths, the few remaining, decaying teeth, all black and yellow, you’ll find out they often have a story to tell, a tale of loneliness and suffering. Sometimes it’s a true story. Drug addiction consumes them from within. During detention, medications fight opportunistic infections. They leave, healthier, often for a probation period. They are taken back, one or two months later, skinny and even more worn-outthan before, more tormented than before, you scold them, saying "back here? Not again!” "What can I do", is their puny answer, while they shake their heads, with a smile of purple and inflamed gums that is so pityful; and so disgusting. They are the kind of prisoners who habitually cut their own skin, on arms and neck. Normally, just superficial slits, that bleed and bleed and – “who allowed these convicts to keep the razor blades?” Blood flow is ordinary, too. Why? It depends. The nervous tension of being stranded, out of the real world for hours days weeks months years, before the conviction, in a void - the cell- their normal life environment, when having nothing is plenty already, thinking, re-thinking and thinking again, unable to escape oneself, while the cockroaches scuttle, plinc plinc in the cubicle – a dirty sink encrusted with grey limescale and grime, an even dirtier toilet-seat, they call it the bathroom- a TV on the other side of the wing is too loud, "officer, tell them to lower the sound, I am exhausted!" Unfortunate, those policemen.
Hormones, just testosterone if you are fortunate, whilst in the women’s units -as women ought to be more complicated- oestrogen and progesterone, and testosterone as well; two in the same cell with the menstruation and it’s a struggle, fighting and screaming, silent hating, fighting again, again screaming. And cutting themselves. It has beensaid that women in a community naturally tend to synchronize their period. Unfortunate, those policewomen.
The pressure has to come out, a prick in sore tissue, which never heals and keeps hurting. If people are in jail, maybe something is wrong. Humanity at the minimum degree of civilization can be found there, where nothing remains for oneself but oneself, for both prisoners and police officers.
Often I feel wrong, for the world outside the jail. Most of the time, I catch a glimpse of evil around me, while trying to find my normality, after having seen people smearing themselves in their own excrements, and having listened to all the lies that a human being is able to tell to himself. Normality, for me, is sniffing a smell of fried onion at ten o'clock in the morning, when walking under a window, and thinking about the prison; or coming across a group of South-American women, and thinking about the female detention unit; or observing a man holding a reluctant girl’s hand and immediately suspecting him of being a paedophile.
Nothing will ever be the same again, after having looked inside the eyes of captive people, people who cannot choose when to shower, it’d sound inane anywhere but in a gloomy and unadorned prison wing, where negligible details develop into extraordinary struggles; so, my soul has been forced to express its essence, the extreme pity and bitterness; I have learned to always choose the truth and never to lie.
Responsibilities here are always dealt with, and sentences served, by law and in actual fact, but there is nothing ethical about a jail.
I go up, to the female wing, as a young mother cut her skin. She knows that her daughter, less than two years old, has been given in custody to deceitful, untrustworthy relatives. She feels helpless, trapped, staring at a picture that is probably no longer a true likeness of her child, "they change so quickly you know, Inspector?" She expects a response from her attorney, who is not in a hurry, "she won’t be able to pay, anyhow" he will probably explain to the Law firm. In the meantime, it’s a little girl who’s paying the highest fee, and therefore nothing else is important, neither the reason why her mother is in jail, nor a stupid uniform, and not even the rehabilitation programs, or surveillance and security, but I’d like to slap her, "silly girl, he is the father of your daughter but, what an idiot, help him smuggle cocaine? You are a mother, you've given birth, and you’re stronger than this". Eleven pm. "Write a telegram to your attorney, tomorrow morning. No, social workers don’t steal children; possibly they might take your daughter to the visiting room, next time. I know, you can’t sleep now; the doctor will give you a sedative”. Bad timing. (“The doctor is probably watching TV, call him again”) Then, guardedly, you hug her, and tell her the words a mother would, rather than a senior police officer. But cautiously, because you'd be ashamed, your fellow officers (or subordinates ?) could see you. Then you feel remorse, for that shame.
I have to explain why, in a penitentiary, it seems wrong to have compassion and mercy. A nice, ordinary person, looking for a job, maybe dreaming of becoming a constable and after many years trying in vain to find a job in his native little town, which is so evidently small, and isolated -a place where cops and robbers are raised together and end up spending their Sundays side by side, in the only miserable tavern, watching F1 Grand Prix, a place where nothing can happen, where you only have two choices, cops or robbers in fact, and the world is clear and simple- starts working in a prison, suddenly finding the brass keys in his hand.
These big brass keys become the center of his new sphere of normality.
Keys. Detainees’ tally. Do not sleep at night.
Do not sleep when you are working, but then you hardly ever sleep at all.
Rounds, tally, check the keys.
"One hundred and four, partner". It's midnight. The good person has now a uniform, and more than one hundred prisoners to watch for eight long dark hours. That’s how an ordinary career begins.
The senior officer must ensure that his subordinates don’t fall asleep. I know some senior officers (most of them, unfortunately) whose only interest lies in learning the many different tricks -several of which have been tried or foisted on me, as a senior officer, like a Homeric poem- people whose only aim is to use for good the large amounts of non-written recommendations on how to catch the junior officers out. Not a single rule, on how to help those disoriented youths has ever been whispered, on how to manage deep feelings, which the impact with the prison stirs up.
Indeed, an unwritten rule says that it is downright regrettable to have feelings at all.
Their outside “normal” world comes in, sometimes, in the semblance of some distant cousin, caught while smuggling drugs a thousand miles from home, whilst the distant aunt believes that her son works as an estate agent. "Can I have one more blanket? We grew up together!" "Take off your coat, and shoes and pants, put them on the chair, please. Socks too. Do you have any tattoos?” "Come on, we got one together, when we were teenagers, you know it!" "One, left forearm, star-shaped, colorful. Do you have any scars? Turn around, open your arms." Naked, before people wearing a uniform, in a cold and miserable room. "Okay. Let’s see the pockets. You can get dressed. These are your things, sign here, it says that you get a blanket, beddings, a cup, plastic cutlery and towel and toothpaste and soap - but there is no soap, I know we run out, sign anyway, we’ll get it for you. Meanwhile, your cellmate will give you some”. The staring eyes widen even more those pupils, dilated from cocaine, "why, am I not alone in the cell?" "Of course not -voice is less resolute- this is a prison, not a four-star hotel. I'll make sure to put you with an Italian guy".
The prison grabs hold of the soul, like an inverse drug, which doesn’t deaden, on the contrary sharpens perceptions. My soul participates in the commitment to rehabilitation in its own ways, establishing abnormal human contact, which is imperceptible and at the same time manifest, absorbing the restlessness of a single soul in the detention wing, no matter where it comes from.
However, many confound courtesy and human respect with weakness, and therefore try to obtain benefits, usually by reciting snivelling and artificial rigmaroles. The most appropriate reaction, for me, has always been smiling - at their naivety.
Having a high number of foreigners transforms, in our prisons, the very idea of normality. They have totally different features, smells, appearances, and they are the majority. When a cell is searched, the ignorant Western officer brashly touches what is the most precious book, without even knowing how ominous his action. “It is my duty, to touch any books, clothes, to open drawers and cabinets”, is it? To brusquely uncover beds that had just been made? They actually don’t want to know anything about race, religion or suchlike. “These convicts shouldn’t be allowed to keep too much of their stuff in the cell, it stinks in here”. A prison sentence must not become an inhuman or degrading treatment, (recite the Penitentiary laws) and must aim at reintegreting the offenders; this must be the reason why our (Italy’s) newest prisons were built over twenty years ago, each cell for a single occupant, and you ought to put three in there, at best foreigner with foreigner, and end up managing situations in which one of them becomes a slave, washes, cleans, endures every kind of pressures to force him out, to ask for a cell shift, “because you're lesser and you have to leave. We are from a big town, we are of noble lineage, we know each other, we are from the North of Maghreb, you don’t, and you must go”.
I am off to the wing, look at him. He seems acquiescent, but who can say? I pretend to not know anything, I might discover something new. "You drank washing up liquid because you want a cell shift? Look at me: you are not crazy, are you- don’t play any more jokes on me. (Is the doctor coming or what?)"
This is normal penitentiary medicine.
Laws talk about reintegration, but reintegration is a wrong concept in itself, and surely unsuitable to prisoners whose culture and habits couldn’t be more different from ours. Thus jail reeks of noble resolutions whilst marking deeply anyone who enters it. Thus cultural diversity, far from being an enriching experience, intensifies the suffering.
Extraordinary women come in, wearing the stench of a night of prostitution and hardly anything else, so miserable and stubborn. I remember the effort to stifle our giggles, once, when a new inmate, while being registered, took off a hair extension. They carry almost nothing with them, seldom valuables. In their handbags, a brush, a flamboyant-colour lipstick, old and rancid, sometimes a deodorant, tissues. A knife. "What for?" "I slice apples and cheese." Two o’ clock in the morning, writing a seize report, words slipping away, thoughts attempting to evade, will wandering in a limbo of sleepiness. Foreign prisoners have a peculiar stench, weird scars in odd places. Small jewelry, with colored stones. You almost chat with them. "Do you have any children" "Yes, four" "Are you married" "No" "And with whom did you leave your children" "I do not know." With their aunt, grandmother, sister, neighbor. The devil. They are going to live the same miserable life, they were born by mistake, don’t know, don’t care, I want to go to sleep and to not think; tomorrow, anyway, I'm out of here. Their young faces are marked by a life experience that resembles a painful oldness, which wears them away, making them indifferent and disillusioned. Eyes without glow. The village’s shaman has power over them, with a bag of dried leaves and a strand of hair in his hand. They are terrified of something so unreasonable and indecipherable for us, because of their culture, suspended between religion and superstition and mysterious rituals. "If I speak, I’ll get sick to death". They are a bit like us, denigrated, despised penitentiary police, as we too see what “being human” truly involves. Sometimes they try to touch your arm, for a physical contact, and their eyes light up for a moment, a velvety softness. Humanity. A large and stout foreign woman once simulated a fainting. I pretended to believe it, took her step by step to her cell, holding her, side by side. She was giggling, like a little girl. Then she lost her balance, almost falling on me, and scared me. I still feel ashamed for my fear.
There are such deprived women, who come from the airports of large cities, with dozens of cocaine’s packets, ovules, in their stomach, ready to explode and kill them mercilessly. Only a return ticket, is in their pocket. "My mother needs surgery"
"Fifteen of us live in a favela”
"I was raped and threatened"
"Those people have captured my son. My husband. My brother. "
They whiff. They are small or big, have flabby bellies or iron muscles, sunken or protruding abdomens, folds of fat, breasts of every shape, texture, size. They have dark curly hair; huge, odd, tiny tattoos. They have cellulite or chiselled bodies. They’re human, tired, scared. Having been detained for hours before arriving in prison, absurdly this malodorous place becomes almost a relief, and other women, even though wearing a police uniform, give a glimmer of humanity and ask them who they are, hoping to finish as soon as possible, and not to find other drugs on them, praying that they simply comply and yield. "Your poverty-driven spree was not lucky, indeed. Empty your pockets, show me your bag. It wasn’t worth it, was it. Yeah, right, always the elderly mother who cannot see, or the lost son. Come on, you wanted to earn easy money. Here, have a cigarette”. They too have magic rituals. Sometimes they are ruthless; they invent stories, and a hellish fire burns in their eyes as they try to move you when inquiring for something; their eyes blaze like Mephistopheles’, when they fail. Sometimes they are superficial, immature, very concerned about their body fitness and all busy with their hair. Sometimes they suffer, and their silence, their unspoken requests for help make a thundering sound to experienced ears, in a restless hubbub of childish needs. Then the gypsies, so ridiculous, laden with gold and money, banknotes it takes hours to count, listing serial number after serial number, and their chanting, their constant pretending not to understand what you asked, droning, bawling; "I not do anything – Police take me, but I not doing anything, I didn’t, agent give me cigarette", while trying to reach out, with leering, shining eyes, to recover something, because they have quite a physical attachment to their property (which is often theirs soon after it has been taken from their rightful owners) and those mischievous brilliant eyes, peering continually; they have gold teeth, are hard-featured, hairy, and sometimes have hairlice, and believe that you would steal their money. Money counts a great deal, in a prison; it is something that deeply affects the inmates’ life. Someone wealthy dominates others, who cannot afford anything; some girls quarrel because one can buy biscuits and the other gobbled them secretly, as if you could hide that three snacks are missing, in a skimpy cell, where only two people are allocated. They fight over the more affluent, hoping to get their crumbs. Some can buy perfume, some can’t. Some stink, others don’t. Yet others would kill for cigarettes. Buying cigarettes is a real power. There are prisoners who require maximum supervision, because they pose a huge threat for the society; they usually honour true self-respect and law obedience, and then they never ask anything unlawful. Theirs is an indescribable mix of graciousness and arrogance. And that is a battlefield that exudes a fragrance, which it is not wise to analyse.
For me, working in a prison was like having to impose rules, day after day, to a group of bored and rude teenagers. Days and nights. Afternoons, evenings, nights, mornings with rowdy teenagers, accustomed to satisfy their whims quickly, with minimal effort, who all at sudden found themselves subject to rules, and in captivity. They squabble and smoke, sleep late, watch TV, play pinball, eat food specially prepared by someone else and distributed to them; if the weather is hot, wear sandals and shorts and tank tops. They challenge you. Stubbornly refuse to return to their cells. They cut themselves and bleed profusely. Sometimes they overlook personal Hygiene, or scream all night, setting the whole institution in turmoil. Sometimes they have abused children or women, defecate on the floor, and are frustrated. They are in pain. In an unpredictable environment of normalcy, one can only uphold the truth, and try not to take the stench along, after a shift. Prison is extreme, and as such pushes humans to the utmost limit. Bungee-jumping? That’s recklessness. True courage is the lucidity with which men and women face, day after day, hour after hour, side by side, convicts or turnkeys, an identical condition of ordinary misery, of great, unexpressed violence. This is the true courage, power over oneself. Although many believe it is a daily occurrence, abuses are rarely committed. It happens, sometimes, that one person, knocked down and handcuffed by ten other, still receives kicks and punches. No matter the reason, no matter whether that person’s a rebel, an intractable, or has committed atrocious crimes. When this happens, and fortunately infrequently, the muffled growling, after every kick, echoes forever in the soul, along with the vision of the inconguous normality of people to whom the contact with stench, diseases, drugs, prostitution, money and power, has squeezed out all humanity. I think jail just gathers the worst natural impulses, which can be found in the real world. Or, perhaps, the real world, where a man can not hide his normal brutish nature, is the prison. I surely know that working there injured my soul, forcing me to leave, not to surrender to the pain.