Tuesday, August 22, 2017

J is for Jails (and other forms of incarceration)

This post is ©Kristin O. Lord 2015—17

J is for Jails (and other forms of incarceration)

After a hiatus of more than two years, I am feeling my way forward again with blogging. What follows is a truncated version of a post composed as a draft in the summer of 2015. Although I have removed the most obvious anachronisms, it is to some extent a period piece from the vanished world of the Obama administration.

For those who may wonder, I have eschewed venturing into the basement while alone in the house except when I have had no other alternative.

I. The basement

“Just a twenty-minute run through the living room with the central vacuum cleaner,” I thought, “and then I will be on my way to Vermont to my aunt’s ninetieth birthday party and my passport renewal on Monday morning. I should also get to Meeting in Middlebury. Since no one else is in the house, I will be out of here in no time.” It was an unseasonably warm day in the middle of May back in 2015. This meant that I needed to disconnect the cord to the dehumidifier and reconnect the one to the central vac. I opened the basement door, as I had done hundreds of times in the two decades that we have owned our current house, and turned on the light switch.

I then closed the door to keep the cats from following me. As I did so, however, the sliding bolt that some previous owner had installed on the basement door —perhaps to keep their animals or children upstairs— worked its way loose from the open position and slid across the outside of the door, locking me in.

I was in a bit of trouble for several reasons other than the obvious ones. Let me start with the basic geography. Our house dates from the Victorian era.  About two-thirds of the first floor of the main part of the house has a Victorian-style basement underneath; the rest of the main portion of the house and the almost equally venerable addition in the back has a crawl space. There is only one set of basement stairs and no windows. However, looking at my surroundings, I could see the hot water heater, electrical switch plate, furnace, and a nearly full tank of No. 2 heating oil. Aside from those necessities, one might find wrapping paper, sealed plastic storage bins of Christmas decorations, and detritus of various kinds. It is too damp to store much of value. Clearly, we don’t spend time down in the basement, so we have had no reason to spend the money to install a land phone line. Because women’s clothes often have no pockets, I don’t usually carry my cell phone with me (and I wasn’t that close to leaving the house on the day I was locked in).

I looked at my watch. It was shortly after 2:00 p.m. My husband and teenage daughter had been gone for at least an hour. It was thirty minutes’ drive to the mall where they were planning to run an errand. The errand should take no more than an hour, and then they should be on their way back. Thus they should be back no later than three.

In the interim, I tried in vain to wiggle to lock back or finagle the door just so. I pressed on the smoke detector and started shouting in the hope of alerting the next-door neighbors. Now, as it happens, the walls of the main part of our house are of masonry, about a foot thick. That means that I didn’t feel the minor earthquake we had a few years back, but that also means that the neighbors probably wouldn’t have heard the smoke detector go off even if they had been at the front door soliciting for the cancer drive.

At about 2:45 a phone rang upstairs. Great: the family at the mall think I have already left for Vermont, and they probably won’t be back until late this evening. Maybe they were going to see a movie. They usually go see thrillers and crime movies when I am out of town. That’s it.

“I’m going to have to escape from the basement,” I thought. I cast a gimlet eye on that tank of No. 2 heating oil. The master switch to the furnace was overhead —I did imply above, I think, that the heat of the day meant that the circulating fan was running, not the furnace per se— but, frankly, having control of the master switch was not good enough, given the mere existence of that fuel oil, nor was spending however many hours cleaning up the basement. Besides, there was no toilet, and the only item resembling a receptacle  that was readily apparent was a plant pot with holes in the bottom. So, how was I going to break out? Because of the dampness, we had removed any carpentry equipment of value years ago. Rifling through that one drawer that might have something, I could find the screwdriver we last used to repair the sewing machine. Elsewhere, my search turned up an ice pick, two ski poles, and a garden shovel with a pointed end. 

Where the ski poles should have been used:
Mt. Mansfield, Vermont
Photo © Jared C. Benedict 2004
Wikimedia Commons

I efficiently got the door handle off the door, but the hole was too small to work anything down to touch the bolt. I went after the side door jamb nearest the bolt with the ice pick, which broke off almost immediately. It was now 3:00. No sign of any humans, and by this time the cats, far from trying to get into the basement, would long since have hidden under a bed upstairs.

At this point I remembered that falls on the basement stairs were notoriously dangerous. Indeed, I could think of an example. At the very least, I needed to brace myself with the railing against the inevitable ricochet of force if the ski pole managed to dislodge the door jamb.

Success!! But even with about a quarter to three-eighths of an inch of the bolt now visible, I couldn’t pry it off with the ski pole or whack it away with the shovel.

Let’s get real: The door was solid pine about an inch and a half thick. I had a weak right wrist and knee not completely healed from falling off the ladder the previous summer. I could try to use the shovel to break a hole in the door, but was that in my best interest? In any case, it was an insult to humanity to think that I was escaping from the Lubyanka. The thought of the Dannemora penitentiary in upstate New York might have come to come to mind had I bothered to consider the comparisons; I have driven by there many times, and two Friends from Middlebury had an once had an extensive research and volunteer project at that “facility.” However, the only successful escape from Dannemora in more than a century had not yet taken place. The two prisoners who tunneled their way out some days later were probably burrowing under the prison wall as I was contemplating whacking the shovel against the basement door.

I whacked the door. Splinters came off at the edge. I would be blasted if I would stay entombed without any means of egress. It would be just my luck to have an emergency with the furnace. There was no toilet. How long would it take for people to come back? It was 3:15. No one was clambering up the front steps. I kept going. 3:30. I was a third of the way through the thickness of the door, and the phone rang again upstairs. I found a bag and a wallpaper brush to start removing splintered wood from the stairs as I beat the door with the shovel.

By 4:15 I had chiseled a rough opening over an inch in diameter and used the shovel and ski pole to dislodge the bolt just enough to open it. I then locked the door from upstairs with the same bolt (which, amazingly, was still more or less intact). I retrieved my purse and found the two unanswered calls on my cell phone, to which I was finally able to respond.

The other humans in the family turned up an hour later, incredulous that someone with a weak wrist had even wanted to break down the door. Why didn’t I trust them? Trust?? By that time I had booked our handyman to repair or replace the basement door and install a modern door knob and lock. I was on my way to the shower and in no mood to take questions.

I was also in no condition to drive to Vermont until the next day.  That evening my husband and daughter alternated between fearing that I must have been out my mind just a bit (something they might have suspected already), expressing concern that the more nervous of our two cats might be in hiding for several days (in the end, she came out from under the bed at dinner time), and sympathizing with me to the extent that being imprisoned, to all intents and purposes, and for no good reason, would have been nerve-wracking. Any reasonable person would have been frightened.

Looking at a Psychology 101 textbook would show that what I experienced was a classic example of the fight-or-flight instinct. There is a rush of adrenalin, which explains why my wrist held up through the entire “adventure.”  People react better or worse in such situations, depending on a variety of factors specific to the circumstances, the society in question, and the individual. I belong in the “worse” category, for a variety of reasons which I do not wish to divulge at the moment, but which —believe me— would explain my response. Those reasons were no doubt the basis of my husband’s decision to not give me me a hard time for breaking down the door. Other people might not have been so generous.

As I drove to Vermont the next morning, I kept looking in the rear view mirrors. I was relieved when I saw no unusual situations on the road and no unexpected sightings of police officers. I kept thinking of how I might react if I were caught in the wrong place and the wrong time by a police officer  —or any other person wielding a weapon— who might have a negative presupposition of my ethnicity, gender, or some other feature over which I had no control.

I missed Meeting for Worship, my aunt’s ninetieth birthday party, and those relatives who got to the party but who had to leave afterward. As those who read my “I” post of 2015 will realize, I did manage to make the 10:00 a.m. appointment on the following Monday in St. Albans to renew my passport, and I spent some time with my aunt that afternoon on what was her actual birthday. Talk about privilege.

II. Jails as a paradigm of social organization: a personal meditation

The French philosopher Michel Foucault viewed much of a given society through the lens of how it metes out discipline and punishment. In this regard, Quakers in English-speaking countries in what is now the OECD have had an unusual trajectory, moving from the persecuted to the privileged leaders of reform, while using the experience of previous generations of Friends as the rationale.

It is difficult to believe today that when the penitentiary was first developed, it was considered an improvement on the status quo. Certainly the goal of rehabilitation is one of the great social innovations, even if the means of solitary confinement was disastrous. Solitary confinement entails taking the silence in Meeting for Worship to the extreme, denuding it of the Friendly community upon which it depends for both its spiritual division and sense of humanity. The Friends who were instrumental in the development the penitentiary system thus anticipated Foucault’s conclusion by using their religious organization as a social paradigm to exact punishment.

Reconstruction of the chapel of the penitentiary of Port Arthur, Tasmania
The chaplain and the head guard could see the prisoners, but the prisoners could not see each other.
Photo ©Kristin O. Lord 2008
What is my own experience with this paradigm? Mercifully, it is not direct, as my reflections in part I above will imply, although I suggest that privilege has been a much of a factor as anything.

I took the first level of AVP (Alternatives to Violence Training) in the now-defunct Guelph prison in 1995, but it became clear that I might have more to offer in another capacity, at least at that time. This is one of several areas that I may wish to revisit when I retire, although my rather strong visceral reaction to confinement suggests that I need to think very carefully about any role inside a prison.

I have known Friends who have volunteered at Dannemora, the prison in Guelph, and the Canadian federal women’s prison in Kitchener. They have all given a great deal, in both time and convenience. For instance, at  the very end of December, 2012, one Friend, a regular visitor at the local women’s prison, gave moving vocal ministry at Meeting for Worship about how she had spent a day of her Christmas vacation participating in the choir at the prison chapel.

Where had we spent the vacation? I started to fidget and look at my feet. I hadn’t done anything remotely comparable.

Admittedly, Christmas of 2012 was not a happy one for us for a host of reasons. To complicate matters, one of our cats died of an undiagnosed heart condition a week before the holiday, and then inclement weather precluded our annual trip to Vermont. There was nothing to do but to move up our trip to the local humane society, in this case the fine organization in Guelph, Ontario to look for another cat. For purely selfish motives, we wanted something to smile about, and we had no trouble finding that something —or, rather, that someone.

When listening to our Friend talk about the protocols for going into the prison, I realized that the penitentiary was the model for the local humane society as well. At least in this regard, Foucault is right about the prison as a paradigm for the broader society. For instance, since many shelters have not been able to save the lives of all animals who come into their care, the death penalty is a common part of the system. Animals at the shelter we visited are kept in barred cages, usually individually. Their feet cannot even touch the floor of the building due to risk of infection. While the people who run their shelter give everything they have and more to improve living conditions, animals can hardly be said to thrive. Some react worse than others; given several animals who are identical except for behavior, the one who has the fewest problems in the shelter will probably find a home first. Although the Guelph Humane Society is filled with caring staffers who give the animals more than most of us could muster, their charges had understandable received relatively little attention over the December holidays.

While the kittens at the shelter acted as kittens and received the typical amount of attention from visitors, some of the adult cats did not bother to wake up when people entered the room. The one we had thought might especially interest us based on the web profile —a sweet-looking two-year-old— gazed at us quietly and then lay calmly in our arms. She seemed to be a good fit for a household whose surviving cat was nearly a decade her senior. The fact that the staffer writing up her profile described her as “playful” seemed incongruous — until she was at our vet having her check-up after we had officially signed her paperwork. She immediately attacked the computer cables in the examination room. When she came home, she did not calm down for three weeks. She is still an extroverted, high-octane soul. The six weeks she spent in the shelter in that puny cage must have been pure torture.

the cat in question, about to break into a set of exams, despite a pillow as barrier
Image ©Kristin O. Lord 2017

If anyone wants to do an animal experiment to assess how human prisoners react when let out of jail, they need look no further than the typical humane society. (I have not yet checked the scholarly literature to determine whether such a comparison has yet been made.) Is there a better way to organize a shelter? Yes, there are healthier arrangements for most animals (some need to be segregated for various reasons), and the use of fostering is increasing. These alternatives require more space, attention, and money, however, and only the best-funded organizations can put them into place. That’s a real pity: in the longer run, fewer animals may be returned to the shelter due to behavioral problems and mismatches with owners.

The crux of the problem is the mindset that animals —whether human or non-human, quadrupeds, bipeds, furred, feathered, or scaled— are disposable.

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