Monday, April 11, 2022
This is the second guest post by XYZ, a series written about prison life by a long-term friend now incarcerated. It was written while he was still in a California county jail, where he sat for 3 years while his case was prepared, plea bargained, and sentencing arranged. He has since been moved to a prison following sentencing. In this one, he looks to the value of dreaming to survive inside. Other friends of mine might know who this is. Please repost, but retain his anonymity for his safety.
Being locked up in a box about the size of a walk-in closet for 3 years of my life gives me time if not the space to examine daily life from a perspective that I would not call “normal.” This is modern day Covid jail time—approximately 23.5 hours a day locked in a tiny, usually dark and dirty room Sometimes we’re are not let out of our closets for 2 or 3 days, and then only 10 minutes to take a shower. Afterward, its “lock it down!” again. Back to your hamster hole.
Sleep is one of the great escapes. That is a very appealing and reassuring idea and, at the same time, appalling. How can anyone be productive, learning, creative, or growing if you sleep all the time? In the world out there, I usually slept about 6 to 7 hours a night. That’s all I ever needed, even when I might have been doing something physical. My engine ran well. I was healthy and mostly happy.
But, for the men who are locked up for years-- one man I knew has been in county jail over 12 years still awaiting a verdict of guilt or innocence -- there are different factors at play. Depression tops the list. When a person is routinely traumatized, responds with PTSD behavior, and is verbally abused among other pressures, sleep looks like a pretty wise escape. To curl up on your worn and creepy old mattress and pull the blanket over your head might be the closest thing you get to a feeling of peacefulness. Depression sets into the body and mind. It takes control. I've noticed that approximately 80% of the men in jail sleep a minimum of about 14-15 hours a day. Many of my cell mates, “cellies,” would sleep 19-20 hours out of 24, often without the aid of medication provided by the jail medical staff. They just checked out. Gone. They would wake up for meals, eat, then go right back to their bunks to saw logs.
Who can blame them? Jails rarely provide inmates with anything to do. Many do not offer even a deck of cards to take into a cell. No games. Few, if any, books, rarely any good, quality literature. Art materials are equally rare. Other prisons allow pencils for drawing, but jails provide no small hand-held pencil sharpeners, so men sharpen them on the cell walls or floor. Contrary to what jails promote, there is little or no counseling to help inmates through the crisis moments in their lives. For every 100 officers or guards (“hammers” with para-military mind set and training), there might be one or two mental health professionals or social workers. Jails are black holes for living day by day; all light and any joy is sucked back into its dark vortex and nothing escapes out into the world. Few know these places except those that have journeyed here. Don’t ask the sheriff what it is like to live in a cell—he will tell the public and media how good their facility is, how they treat all inmates with respect and care. Then ask those that inhabit these jails what life is really like on the inside. They will give it to you straight.
Pill Call is one escape, another way into a sleep state that hides the gray reality of daily jail life. When I first arrived in the jail, I was dumfounded seeing the number of guys, mostly young men, receiving medication from nurses at Pill Call. Almost every single guy was let out of their cell to go to the nurse. Suboxone is the choice drug for addicts who are incarcerated, a vial of substitute high, accepted by the medical industry to give to inmates. Prisoners will sometimes receive pills 3x a day. They tell me they love it. Others take a variety of medications. As I learned, if you know exactly what to say to the medical staff about your condition, you can easily get the drugs you want. Free pills. Some meds will zonk you out. Get to that sleep state in one way or another, dude! I refuse to take pills or other medications, although at times I was tempted as an easy way out.
These effects all bring us back to the sleep state of mind. Over time now, it is part of my cycle of being physically present, of being packed into a small cell to “live” each day. I have embraced sleep time in a way I could not when I was first taken into this jail world. This centers around the fact that at night, around 10 or 11 in most jails, the TV is turned off in the common room, lights are dimmed or turned off, and quiet blankets our little world. A peacefulness prevails. I know I will now have hours and hours of dark, quiet time, time for my mind and body to slip away into NeverNeverland and leave this harsh environment behind. This is my time. And hopefully, I will dream. I will escape my daytime suffering, worries, abuses, fears, and isolation, being taken away from friends and loved ones. It is a window, a door into the mysterious Dream State.
I have not studied dreams. I am no expert. What I share is simply from my own experiences. In the gray world of jail, isolated while being at the same time packed into small spaces like sardines in a can, my Dream State has changed. The importance of “good” dreaming has taken on new meaning. I deeply want to drift off in a sleep to a reality that is not of this world.
I awaken almost every night, somewhere around 2 am, I guess. There are no clocks here. Often this comes from the fact that few of us can lay all night on one hip or the other on these World War II relics of a sleeping mat, worn down and torn to oblivion but still in circulation. I usually now wake with the sharp, clear feeling and image of a dream in my mind. Some dreams are so bright and colorfully vibrant, I feel I could reach out and touch them. The impossible realities that are painted with emotion and pierce the heart leave their mark on my quickly fading memory of the events and places they take me to.
Books or materials that I have read earlier that day often appear in some form, characters I was reading about or places visited, sometimes twisted in strange ways. Once there was an old beat-up, cement-chipped wheelbarrow upside down, stuck in the massive limbs of a great oak tree. My buddy and I were trying to get it down safely to the ground. He is an old friend and contractor who lived near me in a small town. Earlier that day I had received a letter from him with a paragraph about the remodel job he was doing at his home in a neighborhood filled with old oak trees. The wheelbarrow upside down in a tree? I may never understand the mystical meaning of that. I don’t care to. There are mysteries that I am comfortable with. Call it “the artist in me,” a touch of the avante garde, a contemporary thought ahead of its time, a Dadaist moment. A wheelbarrow in a tree? Interpret that! Others might agonize over its deep meaning. I was just happy with it being in my dream.
My mother and father passed away years ago. Are they somewhere looking in now and then on my life, or protecting me still from another dimension, from what some would call heaven? Could they visit me some time? Would they love me still, accept me as I am with all of my faults and mistakes, despite the shame and embarrassment of being the son in jail? All men in here feel these same emotions from being in jail, from the stigma and symbolism associated with the words criminal, prisoner, or inmate in America.
My father has only appeared in my dream state a few times since his death many years ago. Recently, he made an appearance, a cast member in my nightly dream escapades. It was somewhere in a drought-ridden landscape of the Midwest, a simple one level farmhouse right out of an Andrew Wyatt watercolor painting, my father’s favorite medium to work in. I was only 10 or 11 years old and was walking outside the house, a house unknown to me. It was vacant, old, weathered. I was looking for a home, a place to call my own. The tall, dry wheat colored grass surrounded the old house as I walked around it. I peered in the windows, thinking “I could be happy here, safe, warm and comfortable.“
Suddenly we had to get in the car. I sat on the front bench seat next to my father who was driving. He said nothing. The old vintage car, a sedan, was a dark red. My father wore his usual outfit, a plaid red shirt and his simple work jeans, clean and neat. I forgot something that was very important. We had to go back to the house. I was so sorry and started to cry. He was neither mad nor emotional. He focused on the road ahead, driving very carefully as he always did. He found a spot to turn the car around. He simply projected a feeling of caring. “I got you, son.” He never once looked at me. He was just there. When I woke and thought back on what I had just dreamed, he was still there. Did he come by to reassure me that all will be ok?
I now often dream of the house I grew up in the Midwest. My father built that house. It is no small feat. Building one’s home has great meaning, as I myself now know from my own building experiences. In my Dream State, I can see the exact pattern on the kitchen flooring, the pine staircase paneling on the stairs down to my father’s art studio, the exact shelving and layout of our playroom and combo laundry room where my mother spent many hours washing and drying clothes as we kids played on the throw rug near her. The very smallest details are revealed as my mind dredges up specific images, sorting through trillions of bits of stored information. How is this even possible? In one recent dream, I could see every single object my mother had arranged on individual shelves above the kitchen sink.
Our dream state is especially active in times of stress and trauma, taking us even further down the rabbit hole. Almost every night now I am transported to imaginary places, encounter new and old friends. The other night I went on a flying adventure, gliding easily with my arms outstretched. I was exercising that day in the cell doing arm extensions, telling everyone below that it is really not that hard to do.
Food is certainly a big topic of thought and discussion in a jail, as one can imagine. Our lack of tasty, diverse meals is evident every day when we only receive our cold “hot” meals, tasteless, boring, and a repeat of the same meal two days ago. The various dreams I’ve conjured up about food has been both a blessing and a curse. But it the level of detail in my food dreams baffle me. The tables of food in one particular dream required a master chef days to conceptualize and lay out. I am not a master chef. How could I have created such numerous and unique dishes?
In some dreams I have about music, I dream full compositions, every part, every note, for a full orchestra. Though I am a competent composer and musician, I still wonder how my unconscious mind is able to create a whole, beautiful, complete multi-layered composition of music for so many instruments, which would take me a week to write when awake. What magic is taking place?
How does the brain uncover scenes and memories from our past that have not been tapped in decades? Are the new creations and designs created by the untapped power of our brains internally or are we somehow stepping outside of ourselves in our Dream State to venture forth into other dimensions, to other outside sources? Maybe the answer is that the brain, along with the heart, is able to do both—to work wonders we can’t imagine are possible internally and also tap into higher forms of awareness.
One of the rules of art that my father taught in his art classes: In every painting, leave a little mystery, a spot that evokes a doorway, an unknown path, something unfinished, unknown, yet to be. In other words, leave an opening for the possible. For hope. In our darkest hours, in times when little is left, when there only seems like endless days of pain and suffering till we can stand it no more, I hang on to that little kernel of hope, that small space of light that is magically still there
In the worlds of jails and prisons, I rely on that Dream State. In the darkness of night, there is a time for recuperation and rejuvenation. In the quiet, there is hope. Nothing less than hope to be free again and to live a good life in the light of the world.
To fly. To eat. To love. To come home again.
© XYZ, via Scholarly Roadside Service
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