News reports that Jerry Sandusky, the Penn State assistant coach who is facing 442 years in jail for molesting at least 10 boys was being watched against a possible suicide attempt raises the question: what goes through a man’s mind when the gates of darkness open up underneath him? How do people make the transition between the ordinary world and the cell that will be all they will know for the remainder of their days?
Going into prison for life creates an experience that may be as terrible as that of counting out the hours before execution may be to a man condemned to death. Charles Dickens, describing the latter, depicted the compression and distortion of time that accompanied Fagin on his last nights alive.
At length, when his hands were raw with beating against the heavy door and walls, two men appeared: one bearing a candle, which he thrust into an iron candlestick fixed against the wall: the other dragging in a mattress on which to pass the night; for the prisoner was to be left alone no more.
Then came the night–dark, dismal, silent night. Other watchers are glad to hear this church-clock strike, for they tell of life and coming day. To him they brought despair. The boom of every iron bell came laden with the one, deep, hollow sound–Death. What availed the noise and bustle of cheerful morning, which penetrated even there, to him? It was another form of knell, with mockery added to the warning.
The day passed off. Day? There was no day; it was gone as soon as come–and night came on again; night so long, and yet so short; long in its dreadful silence, and short in its fleeting hours. At one time he raved and blasphemed; and at another howled and tore his hair. Venerable men of his own persuasion had come to pray beside him, but he had driven them away with curses. They renewed their charitable efforts, and he beat them off.
Saturday night. He had only one night more to live. And as he thought of this, the day broke–Sunday.
It was not until the night of this last awful day, that a withering sense of his helpless, desperate state came in its full intensity upon his blighted soul; not that he had ever held any defined or positive hope of mercy, but that he had never been able to consider more than the dim probability of dying so soon. He had spoken little to either of the two men, who relieved each other in their attendance upon him; and they, for their parts, made no effort to rouse his attention. He had sat there, awake, but dreaming.
But those who are condemened to life imprisonment — what Robert Johnson called “America’s Other Death Penalty” — suffer an extinction of an altogether different sort. One way to understand it is to observe its effects on Ira Einhorn, who will die in jail for the murder of Holly Maddux. He was once the toast of Philadelphia radical society, but that was then. This is now. Ronnie Polaneczky, who interviewed Einhorn in 2010 wrote “at 70, Einhorn is thinner than the husky bear we knew back then. His hairline has receded, revealing a scalp that looks like marbled ham, and he has lost some front teeth. Those that remain are lemon yellow, and his breath is foul.”
At least Einhorn had the advantage of going into jail a murderer, a crime that is accorded much respect behind bars. Sandusky will start at the bottom of the pile.
In prisons, there exists a social hierarchy which is determined by the types of crimes that a prisoner has committed. For instance, offenders who have been convicted for either robbery’s or burglaries are considered to be at the top of the hierarchy, particularly if the crimes committed required a lot of skill. Whereas, at the other extreme, pedophiles are placed at the bottom of the hierarchy and are looked down upon and harassed by their fellow inmates due to the nature of the crime that they committed.
Against this fate all Sundusky can bring with him are the following: “the options include six pairs of white underwear, white socks and white undershirts, prescription glasses or contact lenses, a wedding band, religious prayer book, no more than 10 personal photographs and 10 letters and no more than 4 inches of legal documents or materials.” That is all that will be left of his former life.
Robert Johnson, who has made a study of the psychological effects of life imprisonment says that the chief suffering it inflicts is the awareness of a life ebbing away while the world goes on without them. This is especially acute in people who once had a life of fame, prosperity and respectability — like Sandusky or Einhorn. They are reminded day after day of all they have lost.
Gradually the letters stop, the visitors become fewer, the attention — even the notoriety — ceases. Ronnie Polaneczky says of Einhorn, “I’d mostly forgotten about him, until his letter landed on my desk some months ago. He wanted to talk about the flawed U.S. justice system.”
Einhorn – whose intellectually hungry followers used to devour his perceptions, then clamor for more – says that he is virtually ignored now that he is Prisoner No. ES6859.
During our five-hour visit, he complains that most of the copious letters he writes – to this genius author or that ground-breaking professor, in hope of stirring delightful discussion – go unanswered.
Einhorn should get used to it. It will only get worse. He probably has gotten used to it. Then there is the miserable company. Joseph Parsons, a Utah prisoner who dropped his appeals gave as reason the desire to escape the people he was penned in with through the door of execution. But maybe that was because Parsons remained, in his innermost self, a rebel to the end.
Most lifers eventually settle for the dregs of life. Johnson noted that it is the younger prisoners with shorter terms who were most likely to violently resent their incarceration. Those sentenced to a life without parole had nothing left to be angry about. They were in some way dead already. “A substantial body of empirical research supports the claim that lifers are less likely, often much less likely, than the average inmate to break prison rules, including prison rules prohibiting violence.”
At some point, after the period of shock has worn off, if Sandusky is like the statistical norm, he will forget suicide. His world will become small. Looking forward to that extra piece of chicken in prison holiday meals, being granted little privileges, getting a better prison jobs and looking forward to checkups in the infirmary because it reminds you of a hospital on the outside.
All he has to look forward to is the chance to cling to a narrow, day at a time existence until the last hour comes which Dostoevsky in Crime and Punishment described brilliantly.
“Where is it I’ve read that someone condemned to death says or think, an hour before his death, that if he had to live on some high rock, on such a narrow ledge that he’d only room to stand, and the ocean, everlasting darkness, everlasting solitude, everlasting tempest around him, if he had to remain standing on a square yard of space all his life, a thousand years, eternity, it were better to live so than to die at once! Only to live, to live and live! Life, whatever it may be!”
I once thought that hell was waking up buried alive with not an inch to move on any side. But maybe no one who truly belongs in that hell will be surprised at being there. If it exists at all, then hell is really the process of seeing yourself for the first time, without artifice. The worst aspect of being on Dostoevsky’s square yard is the sudden awareness that you would gladly live on it forever; that this is the true measure of yourself; to realize that it was always thus, that you belonged on that small space. It was the previous adulation you had been accorded which was the mistake.
Doestoevky’s understood that we are our own prisons. The only jail worth escaping is that guarded by our own twisted selves. Once past those walls, we are free, no matter where, no matter what. That is as hard an escape as any ever attempted. But hey, in Sandusky’s case, what has he got to lose?
How to Publish on Amazon’s Kindle for $2.99
The Three Conjectures at Amazon Kindle for $1.99
Storming the Castle at Amazon Kindle for $3.99
No Way In at Amazon Kindle $8.95, print $9.99