By conservative estimates, there are currently enough wrongfully convicted people in prison in the United States to fill a football stadium.
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I started working at the prison only recently, and I’m not used to using the intercom yet. When I tell the inmates to come and get their medications, I hear my voice everywhere, loud but tentative. I park my nurse’s cart by the half door, and the inmates line up outside in the hall, where they shuffle and shout. They use the word fuck so often that it doesn’t sound like a curse anymore but like the call of some flightless duck.
Paul is first in line this evening. It’s Christmas Eve, and he has to set up for the church service. Paul does not say fuck. He is born-again. He has a neat, monk-like beard, short hair, and earnest blue eyes. He smiles a lot, and softly, as if he had a happy secret — which he does. Jesus has filled his heart, and all Paul did was open the valves and let him pour in, like a fine, lightweight oil. Now his heart beats evenly and smoothly, with no rubbing or wear. He is either a saint or a fool. Often I think the two are one and the same.
Paul is in jail because he assaulted a man and stole a gun in order to shoot himself. He told me he sat with the gun to his head and was just about to pull the trigger when he realized the pain was not in his head, but in his heart. He moved the gun to his chest and fired. The bullet hit a rib, went through a lung, and exited out his back, missing his heart. It seems to me that there should be a provision in the law that says you can’t be punished if you stole a gun to kill yourself.
Paul senses my pain. He wants me to be born again. He talks to me when I give him his meds. He says it is easy, as easy as opening a door. How can I explain that for me it is impossible? The door I must go through is locked, and I don’t have the key.
When I hear the evening Christmas service announced over the intercom, I wander out of my office and look through the windows of the classroom where the inmates have set up a makeshift chapel. The room is packed. The preacher stands in front, holding a guitar. On a whim, I signal for the guard in the control room to open the automatic door. It buzzes, and I go in.
I did not expect to cause a sensation, but the preacher is hungry for signs of God’s love tonight, and I, in my hospital scrubs, am the embodiment of mercy. I do not say this sarcastically. Aside from the pint of vodka I drink in secret every few days, I am, I think, a good person.
The preacher turns in my direction and freezes with his arm out as if he were a bird dog and I were a quail.
“Who are you, sister?” he booms.
“I’m the nurse,” I say.
The inmates, with their tattoos and mohawks and empty piercing holes in their ears and noses (they are not allowed to wear jewelry), turn toward me, curious and friendly.
“Welcome,” the preacher says. “Hallelujah. This lovely lady could be home, but she’s here taking care of you. Do I hear an amen?”
The crowd choruses, “Amen.” Someone hurries to find me an empty chair. I sit down and turn off my two-way radio.
The service moves me deeply. Willy, the preacher, is clearly of the Pentecostal ilk. The inmates all have photocopied carols, and Willy asks which one they want to sing. A man near the front says, “Amazing Grace.” Willy plays a chord on his guitar and asks if anyone knows the story behind the song. I do, but I don’t raise my hand.
“It was written by a slaver,” Willy says, “a man who carried slaves from Africa.”
The few African Americans in the room straighten self-consciously.
“He was a man of many sins,” Willy goes on. “But during a violent storm one night, he heard the slaves singing down below, and his heart opened. He saw that they had something he did not: they had faith, and he wanted it, too. He accepted Jesus. He stopped selling slaves, and he wrote this ageless song.”
I am intrigued by this explanation, because the slaves certainly did not believe in the Christian God. Is Willy saying the source of their faith didn’t matter? Or is he saying, as I would, that it was simply their fear and evident humanity that freed the captain’s shackled heart? I also want to know if the captain turned the ship around and brought them all back to Africa. I tend to complicate everything.
Willy plays his guitar, and the inmates sing:
How sweet the sound
That saved a wretch like me.
I’m surprised how many men sing, letting go of their macho posturing long enough to be what they are: hurt children. I sing, too, and cry, quietly.
Next we sing “Silent Night.” Willy pauses here to describe baby Jesus in swaddling clothes, tender and mild. Then he says that when Jesus comes back, he won’t be a sweet child. He will be riding a white horse, and there will be a sword coming out of his mouth. (This sounds awkward to me, more like a side-show trick than the end of the world.)
When we sing “Silent Night,” I think of my English grandfather on the Western Front in France, 1914. He took part in the famous Christmas truce: On Christmas Eve, the Germans began to sing “Silent Night,” and from across the way the English joined in. One saintly fool emerged from his trench with a tree lit by candles. The next day, they all climbed out, slowly at first, and then more of them. All along the front, soldiers emerged into the quiet day and met in no man’s land, by the corpses of the men they’d shot. They played soccer and exchanged tobacco and food. A cross marks the spot where the Christmas truce began. Was it the work of God? Was it the devil who sent the men back the next day to their guns? Willy believes in the devil. It is the devil, he says, who is making cocaine and whiskey and fast cars. It is the devil twisting us by the tail.
I won’t lie: I want to be born again. I want to fall on the floor and have Jesus lift me up. I want to be cleansed of doubt and sin. But my scientific, intellectual nature stops me. It’s all neurotransmitters, reason says. It’s all escape from a world in which there is no master, no rhyme or reason.
Even so, it is beautiful. I imagine rays of light radiating from that room, touching the guards, soothing the men in segregation poring over their girlie magazines, in which naked women are posed with all the loving care of Mary in a Nativity scene.
After the service, I go to the segregation unit to deliver meds. The unit is called Foxtrot. When I first began working at the jail, I was surprised that such an awful place had such a fanciful name. Then I learned that all the units were named according to the military alphabet: Alpha, Bravo, Charlie, Delta, Echo, Foxtrot.
Jail seems like a metaphor for the human condition: we all have life without the possibility of parole. And, as in life, some people serve their sentences in nicer places than others. Foxtrot — or “the hole,” as the inmates call it — is the worst place to be. It is like the underworld, a frightening and remote region where everything is cement or metal. Every noise is amplified by the hard surfaces. In the common room, there are blocks of what looks like petrified hay all over the ceiling, to dampen the sound.
I follow the guard with my tote bag full of water and pills. The inmates take ibuprofen, antidepressants, antiseizure meds, high-blood-pressure pills. I always put in some packets of bacitracin, a topical antibacterial agent. The inmates are mad for it. They show me their little nicks and cuts, but I suspect they may use it for something more private.
The guards are typical Vermonters and have no veneer of sadism or cynicism. They enter Foxtrot in the same assured, methodical way that they might enter a cow barn. The entry door between the common room and the cells is operated by remote control. I have been through it many times, but tonight, after that Christmas Eve service, everything seems fraught to me. When the guard says, “Foxtrot,” into his radio, and the door opens, I think, Knock, and the door shall be opened unto you.
We enter the hall, which has four cells on each side. At his belt, the guard wears a ring of immense, medieval-looking keys. On each cell door is a small window, scratched and grimy. You can’t really see the prisoners unless they press their faces against these windows, which they usually do. Any visit breaks the tedium.
There is a large crack under each door, probably to prevent prisoners from jamming their sinks and flooding their cells. The inmates use the cracks to shove messages and contraband to one another, and to play book hockey, a game in which the inmates take homemade bats (such as a rolled magazine), poke them under the doors, and slam a book back and forth, up and down the hall. There is no goal except to keep the book in play. Tonight, on Christmas Eve, they are using a Bible.
The inmates often use the Bible in their game because there are plenty of donated ones lying around. One time they were using a book called Masters of Death, and without telling anyone, I took it and put it in my tote and read it back in my office. It was about the Einsatzgruppen, the special Nazi death squads that killed millions of Jews in the Soviet Union. I opened to a section describing the unfathomable killing at Babi Yar. Seemingly random sentences had been underlined by some lost, semiliterate soul trying to find fodder for the Aryan Brotherhood. I never returned the book.
When the guard opens the first cell door, the prisoner is standing ready in the gloom. The guard watches him while I put my tote on the floor and find the right pills. I am quite jolly as I perform my task. I know all the inmates by now and have given them nicknames, such as “Speedy” and “Miami Vice.” I crack jokes. Recently they were all given new red jumpsuits, and I pretend they are having a Santa Claus contest. “Where’s your beard?” I ask. “Miami Vice is working on his. He’s gonna win the Santa contest.”
If an inmate has been very bad, the guard doesn’t open the cell door, but rather slides open a waist-high slot in the door. The inmate and I kneel down and look at each other through this slot. Tonight it is Sean who receives this treatment. He was in another unit, but he trashed his cell and threatened to kill a guard. Now he spends most of his time screaming and punching the wall. The guard has asked me to look at his hand, which is bruised and swollen. Sean and I kneel and look at each other, and I notice a tattoo I haven’t seen before: a blue dotted line around his neck and, printed under it in plain letters, the words “Cut here.”
“Let me look at your hand,” I say. He puts it through the slot. I take it and gently feel the red knuckles. I look into his eyes. “Listen, Sean,” I say, “I can give you ibuprofen and an ice pack, but it won’t help if you keep hitting the wall.” I am still holding his hand.
“I’ll stop,” he says.
“That would make me very happy,” I tell him.
“I was flippin’ out because of all this bullshit —”
“Practice acceptance,” I advise. “The world isn’t fair. You want an ice pack?”
He nods. I activate the ice pack by squeezing it and put it on his knuckles. Then I pour ibuprofen and Prozac into his other hand. Somehow this seems more like a prayer service than a med call, the brightly colored pills I hand him like Communion wafers.
On Christmas Day my boyfriend and I strap on snowshoes and go for a walk in my uncle’s sugarbush. This is the place where we met, when we were both married to other people. This is the place where we broke a commandment or two: committed adultery, coveted our neighbor’s spouse.
Before leaving for the walk, I had a few swallows of vodka, as I often do early in the day. It eases my pain for a time, but when it wears off, the hurt returns with new horns — spikes and stingers, too. Because I am fighting my addiction, I did not bring any vodka with me on this walk. When those swallows wear off, I have no recourse but to march on, up the snowy hill. I want to see God. I hope Jesus will appear at the ridge, like the Shroud of Turin backlit by klieg lights. I want him to reach out his hand and, poof, free me from my torturous secret. But all I find are deer tracks, wending up the hill, and a bright bird on a bare branch, and the sun swaddled in cotton. And suddenly I realize I won’t find God in the beautiful places. I will find God in Foxtrot, playing Bible hockey; in no man’s land on the Western Front, holding a tree lit by candles. I will find God singing in the holds of the slave ships, and with the Jewish couple who lay down on the pile of dead at Babi Yar and were shot, holding hands.
When I get home, the CD player is blasting, and my teenage daughter is belting out a song by the Indigo Girls: “How long till my soul gets it right? / Can any human being ever reach that kind of light?”
And God is with me when I kneel and reach under my bookcase to find the last swallow of vodka.
I just finished rereading Sybil Smith’s “Bible Hockey” [July 2003]. I can’t remember when I’ve been so moved by a memoir. She knows herself and has insight into the people around her (almost more than she can stand, I think). And she can write: every word counts.
I don’t know whether Smith will ever find the kind of bliss-inducing God she’s looking for, but if she continues to write, her readers will be blessed.