On quiet

Gottsche, Marcus

Original

Transcript

On Quiet In the public discourse concerning prisons and prisoners, much attention is given to the issue of recreation -- meaning physical. activity. Little or no attention is paid the other side of rec: like physical activity, mental "activity" can be facilitated under certain conditions, and these conditions can be created by spatial design and maintained by institutional commitment to a philosophy that values the life of the mind. Physical recreation is a social activity for most people. Sports, exercise, table games --- all of these are activities that can be pursued in a social setting. Prisons are designed with these activities in mind. There are yards for outdoor recreation. There are gyms and weigntrooms and dayrooms for indoor recreation. For that matter, there are classrooms and vocational training shops and manufacturing plants; for some people it is enough recreation to go to GED class or to make government-issue desks. All are social activities, and all of them are time outside of the cage. In fact, the standard by which prison recreation is evaluated might be labeled, at its simplest, "time outside the cell". The problem is that all physical-social recreation ---- time out of the cage -- is just time in a larger cage. lt's still a cage. It still has bars, and fences, and razor wire, and men with guns and clubs and pepper spray looking for an excuse to use them. The only way to break free of these very stark, practical physical barriers, however temporarily, is via the mind: and while there are certainly some people who can concentrate effectively in a crowded, noisy gymnasium, which is what many cellblocks resemble from an aural perspective, there are many of us who cannot. For those of us for whom the life of the mind is the most valuable recreation, for whom silence and the quiet burble of thought is aqua vitae, prison is a bleak and terrible waste, indeed. I sit composing this essay at 11 p.m. on a Wednesday night in Attica. In eight short hours the bell will ring and my company of forty men will rise and go with other B-block companies to work in the Metal Shop, making stamped-steel furniture for state agencies. I work in the shop for various reasons: I need money; I like to do tangible work, for which I observe a physical result to my labor; and it makes the time pass quickly; but most important are the boxes and boxes of earplugs there for the taking. Even if they took away my twenty--six cents per hour, even if I had to throw a lever on a production line a thousand times per day instead of doing the useful, varied, and intricate work of tool and die making, I would probably still choose to work in the Shop, just for access to earplugs. The value that those little bits of shaped foam represent to me is incalculable. As I write, even at this late hour, there are conversations going on between occupants of nearby cells. Before the cameras were installed here, those conversations stopped at ten o'clock, after the last count. Now that there are video and audio records available, the days are gone when a guy who chose not to respect others' sleep was quickly and painfully taught the error of his ways. Progress is a mixed blessing. Without earplugs, I could neither think nor sleep in this environment. I put them in my ears, put on a set of powerful headphones, tune my radio to FM static, and bask in the white noise, the closest approximation to silence I can construct in this chaotic hive of distraction. Prison life is a constant barrage of interruptions. Wrapped in my cocoon of fuzz, I can let my mind wander where it will. I should not have to go to these lengths just to attempt to let blossom an original thought or two. when I was in college, there was a solution to the constant din of other people available to any student: reading rooms, tucked away in the libraries; spare, small, and sound-deadened. I think that there ought to be something like that available in prisons as a form of recreation, some respite from the constant inane blather of anger and sports and Kim Kardashian's anatomy that clutters the spaces between people in every prison. Someplace devoid of the neuroses of other social defectives, where one could think one's own thoughts and really dive into the deep, creative work that in a better-managed democracy could serve as a catalyst for the personal growth to which so many convicts aspire, and on which so many give up, subsequent to the unpleasant and alienating realization that "correction" is strictly euphemism, that prison is a warehouse, a people- Dumpster, and that reflection and creativity and growth are available only by main mental force, to those lucky enough to have arrived in Hell with a working knowledge of climate control. The static drones on. Just peaking above the sonic foam, a toilet flushes, a gate slams shut. I scratch, look at the paper, contemplate the 60-Hertz hum induced by someone's fluorescent cell light flickering to life. Try to remember where I was going with this, hope the guy in the next cell over has shut up for the night. Seven hours til morning count bell. would it have taken *you* an hour to write this much? My eyes have grown a fine stubble. If thought were valued like physical recreation as a "corrections" tool, I would be asleep by now. There would be no reason to stay awake. I would have signed up for solitude hours ago, gone to the reading rooms frisky as a pup when others went to the yard, and the enormous energy drain of uninterrupted creative activity would have afforded me the exhaustion necessary to ignore all inputs in favor of sleep. If silence was Valued as sweat, I might write home more often. might have maintained friendships that have lapsed these seven years. I might pursue my Master's, or write a novel, or both. might have options when I get home, other than manual labor. If creativity, introspection, the life of the mind, simple peace and quiet, were given their due in the American philosophy of incarceration, paradoxical and rife with euphemism as it is, I might have gotten to know myself better by now. I might have a clear idea of what to do with whatever free life I am left when this time inside is through. The words and thoughts I wrest from the daily vacuum of despair might be charged with something more useful than anger. It is one in the morning. I take the headphones off for a second, test the air. Some future Darwin Award is still talking, blah-blah-blah and screw everyone else. A snapshot of the problem that plagues us, We the Free. Another day in Paradise.

Author: Gottsche, Marcus

Author Location: New York

Date: July 30, 2018

Genre: Essay

Extent: 5 pages

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