Writing on the (Prison) Wall

Yesterday, I went to a training session at the prison in Baie-Mahault with a group of Protestant chaplains of Guadeloupe. As part of the training, we got a tour of the entire prison. We saw the area where prisoners go to meet with family members. We saw the area with services like a library and classrooms. We saw the “ateliers” center where they make clothes, picture frames, furniture, and more… all with great artistic expression. We saw the space where they house minors. One of the minors played a joke by surprising the last chaplain with a loud, “Boo!” from his room right when the chaplain passed by his door. (Causing a big laugh from all of us.) And we saw the two different housing blocks for men – the CD (for long term prisoners, after they’ve been judged) and the MA (for short term prisoners or those waiting judgment).

Admittedly, the CD was fairly uncomfortable for me. I got quite a few cat calls and stares even though I was in the midst of a group and was not the only female. (Although I was the youngest.) It was in this quarter that we also went inside a solitary confinement room. I’ve heard that energies can be imprinted on spaces if they’re strong enough. I don’t know if that’s true or not, but this place definitely seemed to have an angry energy to it. As if those who had been in this space had been filled with hate, frustration, anger, and despair. It was unnerving being in there, even with the door open and 6 of us in there together.

On the wall there was graffiti – varying in tone and message. There were religious phrases that said things like, “Jesus is Lord” and “Trust in God.” Then, there were other messages that were along the lines of “F the surveillants” (guards). Some of the messages were in French, some were in Creole, and some were even in English. While there were many messages, one note in particular caught my eye. It was above the sink in the room and appeared to have been written in sharpie so it was fairly pronounced. It was also in English and it was long.

It was something along the lines of, “[Name] was put out here for 20 days here because he boxed out a surveillant. That’ll teach them not to mess with [name].” I’m not sure why that struck me so, but I think a big part of it was that this guy wanted to be remembered. He wanted those who came after him to know that he had endured his time in solitary and that he was tough. It almost has a tone of, “yeah, I ended up here for 20 days, but it was worth it!” To me, this seems strange – that you would want to be known/remembered for punching or beating up a guard. But that appeared to be the only message that this particular inmate had left behind in the cell. Nothing else was written in sharpie and English or in that handwriting. It was the only message he left behind.

“[Name] was put out here for 20 days because he boxed out a surveillant.”

It was an interesting and eye-opening tour that helped us to get a larger picture of how the prison works, as well as the challenges that inmates, guards, and the administration face. As I usually only meet with the women at this prison, it was helpful to get a different perspective. However, I found myself asking the question, “What messages are we leaving behind and/or encouraging others to leave behind?”

While there are still many angry, defiant people in the world, proud of violent accomplishments, I continue to pray, hope for, and work toward a world and reality where that is less and less common. I work to adopt, as Howard Thurman put it, a “love ethic” – an ethic that chooses love regardless of what challenges, pain, or frustration we may face. While some days this ethic is easier to live than others, it’s the message and the memory that I hope to leave behind. It’s the message that we are all called to leave behind. Because as we know…

“And now these three remain: faith, hope, and love. But the greatest of these, is love.”

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