30 August, 2022

What Future?

Maybes and what-ifs don't get us very far. While its possible to predict, to a limited degree, what'll happen in the next few minutes, at the end of the movie, or in tomorrow's Zoom meeting, what happens next is unknowable. Anxiety and expectation remove us from the here and now, transporting our minds to a realm of fantasy that we call the future. Tomorrow is an obscure subject, even less trustworthy than a dream. Even so, I can't help but let my thoughts run away with me as I prepare to file a habeas corpus petition in the Missouri Court of Appeals.

Habeas corpus (literally "have the body," from Latin) is a legal process in which, basically, a prisoner shows the court why no legal reason exists for them to be held. In my case there are several of these reasons, based on newly discovered evidence, that show my accuser's tale of murder to be the fabrication that it is. Since a blog post wouldn't be a prudent venue to divulge particulars, suffice it to say that my issues are significant. They could well get me out of prison.

While being mindful not to lose myself in fanciful ideas, I still find it hard not to think about how life would be if I were suddenly released. A life untethered! Free, after twenty-one years in captivity! What would that look like for me, now? Dare I even imagine it? Against my best judgment, I dare. Exactly where would I live? What would I do for work? What kind of schedule would I keep? Would writing still play a big role in my life? How involved might I get with a real-world Buddhist community? What kind of car would I drive? Would I consent to reconnecting with old friends who dropped out of contact during my decades in prison? How mindfully would I shop? Would I expose any of my day-to-day life on social media? From the crucial to the trivial, nothing escapes notice when you're thinking of how to create a fully fledged life from scratch. Without chastising myself for having these thoughts, I gently explore them, peering into their motivations and conditions, watch their rising and falling away. In thinking about these (largely material, often insignificant) matters, I smile generously at my own habitual grasping. I've said before that prison's what you make it. Anyone being intellectually honest has to agree that there are far worse places to be trapped. Naturally, the philosopher in me asks, "What's out there that you don't have here?" If you're shocked, you don't understand the question. It's rhetorical. This is not an effort to talk myself into or out of anything. I'm just challenging myself, offering up a test, checking up. It's not pass/fail, it's just the stuff of an examined life, the kind we're told is the best lived. I've said before that there isn't much else of use that this environment can teach me, and I still stand by that assessment. Of course, even with the most solidly ironclad evidence, filing for a writ of habeas corpus can be a crap shoot. I'm not building myself up to be knocked down
not again. This time, I'm looking as much at possible futures as I'm looking at the here and now. What can I do, today, in this moment, to reap the most benefit for everyone? Whatever the answer is in a given moment, that's what I do. And then I'll do something else. Then something else.
Driving down an unlit highway late at night, you can't see past the reach of the headlights, but you can make the entire journey that way. Our lives are like that, too, whether we're moving at 75 miles per hour or sitting in a concrete box.

05 August, 2022

Prisoner, Inmate, Offender – Why?

Just as all words in English have, popular terms for the incarcerated have changed over time. Not long before I came to prison, people in Missouri's carceral system were referred to as inmates. Years before that, the official term used was prisoner. There were, when I first came down, still a few official forms with "Inmate Name" fields on them; however, preference for a different euphemism had been decreed from on high. I'm guessing that someone in the capital formed a committee to come up with it. For several reasons, I don't find it appropriate.

I remember watching an episode of The Daily Show with Jon Stewart (this was years ago, obviously) on which Jon discussed with a guest the isolation of sex offenders in America. The guest explained how, due to registration laws and parole conditions governing people convicted of sex crimes, ad-hoc communities of sex offenders have formed around the country, in locations sufficiently distant from schools, playgrounds, et cetera, to satisfy legal restrictions. It was an interesting subject, but what stuck with me was Jon's linguistic sidebar. He asked if offender was the best word we could use, as in: "Oh, I'm so offended!" He raised a good point.

Offender does seem simultaneously inadequate and overbearing. Maybe societal associations are responsible. Years of referring to the most odious crimes as sex offenses might've tainted the word. Now, labeling someone an offender for stealing a lawn mower sounds needlessly extreme. At the same time, offended hardly describes a victim of sexual assault. Especially considering how motivated people are to quell imprecise language these days, I'm surprised that no one's rallied for a change in this instance.

Oxford defines a prisoner primarily as "a person legally held in prison as a punishment for crimes they have committed or while awaiting trial." Prison itself traces its linguistic roots to Latin – prensio, "laying hold of." We can find the origin of offender in Latin, too. Offendere meant "strike against," which seems almost sensible in this context, until you think of those prostitutes, drinkers, and petty thieves who get the same label. Against whom did they strike?

Or is morality the thing struck against? There's no question that America's a country greatly concerned with matters of morality, particularly with whose form of morality deserves primacy. I can't possibly hope to argue with the egoism brought to bear on that particular fight. The point of this blog post isn't to launch a salvo at law-and-order types holding firm to loaded language. But I can hope that reason wins out in the end.

All I have to say is that behind the words are people. Not all of us are innocent. Most of us have done bad things some of them horrific but we're all people nonetheless. To lump together the imprisoned multitudes under the offender umbrella is wrong on so many levels.

I propose we return to that straightforward universal standard, prisoner. It neither sugar-coats nor damns. It acknowledges the unvarnished fact: this person is in prison. Well, I suppose many will argue against prison as well, since we now have the correctional center, but that's a dispute for another day.