Our friend Matthew Harper reflects on a recent thirty-day stint in solitary confinement.
Grace and Peace to you all.
Sorry I’ve been incommunicado, I spent the last thirty days in segregation. Someone had been urging our band to do the Humble Pie song “Thirty Days in the Hole,” but we put it off. I guess I should have played the song. Instead I did the thirty days.
The story, in brief:
Unemployed since we lost the rescue dog program in January, I really needed a job. In mid-May I was recruited to work in the inmate commissary, a position of trust. Flattered, I accepted.
The first week was frantic and at the end we do a total clean-up. That day my boss had me clean up all the old razors. You turn in old razors when you buy new ones. So, at her specific instruction, I bagged up all the old funky used razors and then put that bag in the trash. As instructed, I took the trash out at the end of my shift.
Hours later another inmate was caught digging in the trash. He saw the razors (all prison trash bags are clear,) and went dumpster diving (for what purpose I cannot fathom). He was caught, charged, and taken to segregation.
That night a correctional officer questioned me and my coworker (who hadn’t even been at work) and cleared us of any wrongdoing.
At 9 the next night the same officer came and locked us both up. He told me that a warden had ordered us placed “under investigation.”
Prisons have the power, and tendency, to lock everyone up first and sort it out later. We refer to this as the “ready-fire-aim” approach. They can hold you in segregation up to15 working days ‘under investigation.’ Once that time expires it takes a week or so to process you back to population. Add in weekends and holidays and you get 30 days in the hole.
Not how I planned to begin my summer.
I never saw any sign of an investigation, but at least I’m cleared and back on the yard.
This spring two friends made parole, another transferred, and another was moved. While I was gone one more made parole, another went home, and another transferred. Things change when you’re not looking.
Being in the hole is as rotten as you would imagine, and being innocent makes it worse. At first I was in shock, angry, and frustrated; being powerless left me feeling hopeless. I live with a deep well of grief, and it’s always close to the surface. The grief, pain, and regret for my crime; the sorrow for the pain and trauma I have brought into many lives; and even the selfish grief for my own life that I have so destroyed and damaged. At times it overwhelms me.
I cried a lot that first week.
But crying is good for you. I got my feet under me and stood up. I’m experienced resiliency, discipline, and choosing to live with hope and purpose in difficult situations. I read and prayed, wrote, read the Bible, and did a lot of pushups. I listened to my whole music catalog, twice. Thanks be to God for the two encouraging phone calls home, letters from many of you, and books from my old boss and our dedicated librarian.
I don’t know how the church will react. I’ve done nothing wrong, but that may not be how it appears. Even in the best of circumstances this highlights the difficult and unpredictable aspects of incarceration. Quite frankly – I am scared, and ask you to pray with, and for, me.
The system has vindicated me, but things feel confused and uncertain. My incarceration is just and over the last twenty years I have never felt the system was my enemy. Now it begins to feel that way. Many of you have seen me occasionally suffer from the small minded and paranoid bureaucracy of prison, and been quick to point it out. This time I cannot argue. I have been a victim and I have suffered. All I can say is that I choose to forgive and try to move on constructively.
I’m tired of hearing: ‘God’s purposes are mysterious,’ or ‘all things happen for a reason.’ My Bible and Theology have no room for such nonsense. Bad things happen because people make mistakes, or act in cruel and selfish ways. Others have suffered for my choices and I have suffered at the hands of others. What God does promise is that evil doesn’t get the last word. We aren’t always shielded, but we are comforted and redeemed. During this time God has been with me in my tears, and through the kindnesses and words of comfort. I have had the time and peace to pray, meditate, study, and dive deeply into scripture. In the noise and chaos I found quiet, and the still small voice – blessings for which I will be forever grateful.
The day I was released I was sent to personal property to get all my stuff. Who should I run into but the man who had gone dumpster diving and put all of this in motion? He was surprised to see me, and asked what I had possibly done to go to jail. He was dumbfounded when I told him I was sent to jail because of what he had done. He never had any idea.
We talked, and it was good. He was profoundly shaken by what he had caused, and very apologetic. I had long forgiven him, but it was a blessing to look him in the eye and tell him so.
I was released and sent a different housing unit. I didn’t spend an hour there before my old lieutenant came and got me. I’m back in my old unit and surrounded by friends. Thanks be to God for the good guards. After 14 years in this building it is both wonderful and awful how comfortable it is. It’s only a building but my friends make it a community.
Being released from jail came at a fortuitous time because a week later I was in the hospital for knee surgery. I had been waiting for months and hate to think what would have happened if I had still been in segregation. As I write this I am in my bunk surrounded by ice packs and friends. I haven’t been able to get my own trays or refill the ice packs. My brothers are too quick to help me out.
I never take it for granted how the public will react to me as a prisoner. In the hospital, chained up, stripped, knocked out and cut open you are never more vulnerable. I simply cannot say enough good things about Southside Regional Medical Center. They were exceptionally solicitous and kind, treating me as a patient and never batting an eyelash at my armed escorts. To that I would add that I couldn’t have asked for better transportation officers. I needed kindness that day and received more than I can possibly count.
So I’m back in circulation, and just in time to get my surgery and be surrounded by caring brothers playing nursemaid. God’s timing has been wonderful.
After 30 days of staring at the walls I’ll offer a few thoughts:
There are deeply damaged people who need our prayers and help and there are good people who need them just as much. While I was in segregation someone committed suicide and another man was executed. I had a front row seat. The despair of hopelessness and the anger of revenge are soul-destroying forces. May God have mercy on us.
There are WAY too many drugs on this compound and people love them WAY too much. I will never understand addiction. This life is beautiful and wonderful and totally screwed up. We only get one shot and it is far too precious to miss in a haze.
God is good—really good—and people are often small-minded, paranoid, and judgmental. Coveting and greed really do damage other people. I choose to forgive.
Friends and family are priceless. Loving relationships are the reason we’re alive. Be grateful for love.
Norah Jones, Pat McGee Band, the Indigo Girls, and Dave Matthews. Soundtrack of my life – check ’em out.
Read Howard Zehr’s Changing Lenses, Restorative Justice for our Times. Seriously, it’s that good.
Missed the opening reference? Check out “The Abyss.” One of my favorites. The director’s cut is long but worth it, you’ll need lots of popcorn.
A summer night, a back porch, stars, dogs, cold beer, and someone to snuggle with. Life’s treasures are simple. Enjoy.
Go storm the gates of heaven.
I love you all.