Tuesday, February 19, 2008
Tonight I am looking through the Indiana Department of Correction’s website trying to find an address for a student who will be a guest of the state for the next 90 days and can’t finish my class. You’d think I’d be doing something more productive, but no, J.R. is on my mind and I’d like to be able to write a note to my own personal convict who was a good writer and conscientious student and who will be missed in Composition II.
Though I’ve read the statistics on injustice in the US justice system and how poor people are something like 14 trillion times more likely to go to jail than the middle and upper classes, I’m still surprised. Apparently everything I learned from Sister Helen Prejean in Dead Man Walking is true. I punch in the names of boys I knew at my low-income elementary school in my hometown and a surprising number of them have done time, even one of my early crushes (whose name, despite being common, I recognize by both the middle initial and birth date, two pieces of info stored on a brain cell since 1976—no wonder I can’t remember my online banking password). None of these guys are in for violent crimes—all are drug or burglary (drug) related. Then I punch in the names of the most likely offenders at my nice country high school or the boys from elementary whose fingernails were always clean and whose mothers packed them name brand snacks in new Six Million Dollar Man lunchboxes. There is no evidence that any of them have had trouble with the law.
If any of the girls have done time, their last names have changed—it seems there are a variety of systems in which people can get lost.
It’s not like I ever doubted those stats about the number of poor people in jail, but to be able to put a face and name to those statistics makes me feel a little wobbly inside. It also makes me think of Mrs. Murray and my first grade field trip to the local police station. Maybe she knew half the boys were going to end up locked up and she was trying to scare them early. Maybe it was just a cheap way to entertain kids at an underfunded school. I was a good kid and the likelihood that I'd end up in jail was probably pretty slim despite my statistical vulnerability as a kid from a single-parent household living somewhere below the poverty line.
Yet in my mind, I attribute my succesful avoidance of a life of crime to a scorching case of diarrhea.
I had a stomach bug that day and was dying to get myself to a restroom but was too shy to ask a police officer if I could use the facilities. The school had dressed us in orange, mildewed rain ponchos, the smell of which only enhanced the level of my need for porcelain. Just when I thought I was going to die for sure, the police officer/tour guide herded us into the jail cell and locked the door so we’d know what awaited us if we failed to be law-abiding citizens. All I could think was that I was going to have to use that little seat-less toilet in front of my classmates. I suspect this was the genesis for what has become a life-long recurring nightmare in which I am wrongfully imprisoned.
This weekend I keep thinking of J.R. and wonder how the prison experience is going. It’s “only” 90 days, but when I think how long those 60 seconds were for me in first grade, I have to assume time is dragging.