Alpha Centauri

Peculiarity of communication with the outside world from American prison

January 1, 2014
MDC Brooklyn, New York

Alpha Centauri, only four light-years from here, is actually a double star, Alpha Centauri A and Alpha Centauri B. There is a third star, proxima Centauri, sometimes called Alpha Centauri C, in the system. Alpha Centauri B is thought to have a planet, which would be the nearest exoplanet to Earth, and so is know as Alpha Centauri Bb.
- from Astronomy textbook

In outside world, where one is free as a bird, we are fond to instant communication. One can get really used to be able to reach everyone, to call or message anyone at will. To rapidly receive replies, within minutes or maximum - days.

Waiting for a reply from prison is akin to standing on teh ocean shore: patiently, day after day, week after week, some time even month after month, glazing at the horizon. When does the surf finally brings back the bottle with the reply one have waited for so long?

Unfortunately, it is impossible for me to respond instantly to your messages and e-mails, nor do I have the opportunity to immediately react to everything that is happening on blogs and forums.

Please do not perceive the inevitable delay in my responses to your messages and postings as a form of neglect or inconsideration.

The reason is that, alas, in prison we have absolutely no access to the Internet or computers. At all. It is one of many consequences of my imprisonment.

As a result, from the moment you publish your post or send your email, until the moment I receive it in my hands in the form of print-outs delivered by snail mail from the outside world, a lot of time is passed. Very rarely, when circumstances are favorable and a little luck is on our side, I may get your message within the span of a few days. However, most of the time, due to different factors, the delivery process takes weeks, some times even months.

I don't have that many helpers outside to assist me in my endeavors, and the ones that are there are busy enough. So it isn't always possible for them to prepare the print-outs of all incoming messages and snail mail them to me the same day. 

Furthermore, the mail service operation in the United States, nowadays, is slower and less efficient than it was in Russia prior to the Revolution of 1917. In addition, the prison censorship substantially delays the delivery process.

As much as I wish to respond as quickly as possible, it may take an equally long time for the outgoing process as it does for the incoming. Therefore, due to all the obstacles and difficulties along the way, the entire round trip may take longer than even patience allows.

Let me elaborate.

Your ability to utilize tools such as mobile phones, computers, and the internet makes getting things done seem exceptionally simple and easy and most of you take that for granted. It makes prison, where we have none of those gizmos, feel like stone age.

Imagine the following scenario:

You are reading this text on the screen of your computer. Everything is a click away on your mouse. If you want to send an email to someone, you can do it right away. You can utilize dozens of tools from ICQ to Twitter and Skype to contact whoever you want anywhere in the world. If you want any information there is an entire World Wide Web at your service. Everything is easily reachable and instantaneous, and for you this is the norm.

Now, please print out this page and switch off your computer. 

The computer doesn't exist for you anymore. The same goes for your cell phone and landline. Neither do you have radio communication. You have no devices with which to communicate with the outside world. Windows? No. They are sealed and covered with metal bars and sheets.

How do you suppose to reach anybody now? Walk outside?

No, you cannot leave your room. Period. At this point your only link to the outside world is by way of a postman who stock-piles and thoroughly reads your incoming and outgoing mail, deciding what to allow to pass in either direction.

To tap into your imagination even further, imagine that your living area is actually a bathroom in which you are locked and may not leave without permission.

Please, take the print-out of this page and walk into your bathroom.

Are you there? Okay.

Close the door, sit down and look around you.

Imagine a metal door which unlocks only from the outside. Bang! You cannot open it from the inside. The door has a slot around the level of your waist. It also opens only from the outside, a few times a day to pass food and sometimes mail.

And there you sit. You cannot leave. Your world exists only inside that cell.

Possessions? Very few. And they are frequently searched and examined for anything prohibited by rules imposed on you by jailers. There is no way to get anything from outside. You may only posses stuff which the prison doled to you, or which you bought from the prison cantina with very limited but suborbitally overpriced inventory. Moreover, there are all kinds of limitations on what you may get and keep.

Photo by Rico Torres
The sounds you hear are those of inmates yelling to each other across other cells and the clinging of the bundles of keys hanging from the walking officers belts. And this is your existence day in day out, week after week, year after year. If you get lucky, you may get your hands on books, newspapers, legal material, a pen and paper.

From time to time you are allowed to come out of your cell to a common area to socialize with others like yourself. And if you choose to do what everybody else is doing, you can watch some American football, basketball, or baseball on television or play cards, dominos or chess, and listen to tons of bullshit.
Before you know it, you have to get back into your cage where you wait for you next meal or a stand-up head count.

Are you still in your bathroom?

Mail call is going to be soon unless it's Saturday or Sunday. Wait till after lunch. Be patient. Maybe you will get some mail today. Maybe you are not yet forgotten, even though you've been gone for many years now.

By the way, I forgot to tell you! You are not going to be in your cell alone. You have to have a cell-mate or two. Sometimes more. All crammed together in that bathroom-sized cell. 24 hours a day, you are stuck together whether you like each other or not. Like a box of chocolates, you never know what you are going to get.

It could be a 550 pound guy who has a sickness that causes him to pace around the cell in his sleep at 3am and grab on you from time to time. 

It can be a 6'5 tall African American gang member with a dozen of murders under his belt who constantly yells about Lebron James and how much money he makes. He never shuts up.

You may get some extreme fanatic Arab or an illiterate but insanely religious Spaniard from Dominican Republic who is praying-wailing out loud 20 hours a day and then spews hatred for the remainder.

Or you may get an "Arian Brothers" gang member who's got tattoos from his head to his toes, with a swastika on his forehead. He's serving two life sentences with 60 years on top and hates everyone, especially Jews, Blacks, and foreigners.

There are many other similarly colorful characters with whom you must coexist on a daily basis. People from all around the world and from all kind of strata. You may remember Sartre's "Hell is the other people" from his play "No Exit"? Prison shows you clearly how true it is. 

You can bang your head against the wall and may lose your mind in the process as many people do. But that's okay, you can always refer to the psychology department who will gladly drown you in heavy medications that have more side effects than can fit in a five minute pharmaceutical company's commercial.

But that will not bother you no how because you will no longer be yourself due to ensued permanent stupor and irreversible brain damage. Alas, there are more than enough prisoners who chose this path. Meanwhile, you have to keep going without such "medical help".

There are all kinds of jails and prisons in the United States, some of them worse, some better, but all of them crowded with desperate people serving outrageous sentences.

You may end up in a small cell with a few people, or in a dormitory with 80-250 inmates. In any case you have to forget about privacy or peace. You are in complete pandemonium for as long as you're there. 

But we understand that it's just business, nothing personal. This country's prison-industrial complex needs us to keep operating, making huge profits for everyone involved.

So it goes.

But not everything is so bad. Prison gives you time to reflect on yourself, on your life and on the world. The veil, which in India they called "maya" is lifted, possibly giving you a chance, for the first time in your life, to glimpse behind worldly preoccupations and fake values thrusted upon you by one matrix or another. For the first time you may awaken to the true nature of reality. Prison gives you an opportunity to sort everything out.

The problem is that this government gives you too much time to think and reflect, much more than anyone ever needs, even to reach enlightenment. "Time sneaks up on you like a windshield on a bug."

Aside from reflection, there are many other things to do in prison. You are churning day after day, doing your chores, sticking with your daily prison routine, slave working for $6 a month, struggling to fight the system and do your legal work with limited resources, exercising when possible (some prisons prohibited even push-ups). You do your laundry, mend your clothes, talk with other prisoners while trying to avoid arguments and fights if possible...  

You read books and write. And you wait for mail from the outside world, if someone still writes you after so many years. Mail is our thread of Ariadna. For some of us the only thread which still keeps us alive and sane. Imagine how you will feel waiting for mail call day in day out. Just imagine.

Many prisoners get no mail at all. I am lucky. I got mail almost every day, for eleven years, so far.

But mail takes a long time to arrive. It's like communicating with a spaceship heading to Alpha Centauri when it is light years away. There's a chasm of time separating messages and responses.

However, one thing is for certain: eventually you will get my reply. Just don't be discouraged by the length of time it may take to reach you given all these obstacles and roundabouts.

Be patient. All things come in time to those who know how to wait.


January 1, 2014


1 actor John Lithgow
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