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McCallum: On Captives And Captivity

10/26/10 5:55PM By Mary McCallum
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(HOST) With trapped miners making headlines and stories about corrections in the news, commentator Mary McCallum has been thinking about the stark contrast between those of us who walk free - and the many who cannot.

(MCCALLUM) When asked why she hadn't married, feminist Gloria Steinem famously quipped, "I don't breed well in captivity."  After working for years in Vermont's highest security prison, I know a little something about captivity.   With over two million men and women languishing in prisons across America, the word conjures up a visual landscape of incarceration, border to border.  But only since I've sprung myself beyond the razor wire and pursued other work have I had the time and distance  to think about captivity and its patterns.   

Those who live under the custody of their keepers share certain behaviors.  In humans there is the palpable marking of time.  Prison inmates covet new calendars every January.   I used to collect free calendars from local businesses in December and distribute them to men whose ritualized crossing off of days brought them one step closer to freedom.  Every X in a box was a day of captivity behind them.

Captives yearn for community,  open sky, the sight of a tree, and the feel of wind and sun - connection and nature.   A prison exercise yard is a temporary community, filled with clusters of inmates sitting on benches, leaning against cement walls in search of shade, and doing laps in pairs around the perimeter.  The flat expanse of dry grass and hard packed dirt is a poor excuse for nature and neighborhood, but it beats sitting in a cell.

I watched a prison inmate pace the perimeter every single day.  In winter he shuffled along, hands buried in coat pockets, head down, counting.  Five laps equalled one mile, fifty laps gave him ten.  He marked his sentence in miles, paced off in small steps past concrete cell blocks.

A friend told me about his last trip to a zoo.  In the ape exhibit a solitary gorilla in  a cement floored cage sat staring vacantly at visitors.  In an ironic gesture, his keepers  provided  a taste of nature by painting a mural on the cinderblock wall of  palm trees filled with swinging monkeys.  After a time, the ape stood and began to pace back and forth in front of the mural of a place where he belonged but could not get to.

There's a zebra living near me in southern Vermont.   I often drive by the hill where it paces in a small chain link enclosure.  Perhaps it's a contented pet, but I can't help thinking that it lives in a kind of solitary confinement, away from its own kind and its own continent.  The irony that it is clad in stripes is not lost on me.

From working behind bars I developed a heightened radar for the powerlessness of caged creatures.  And I understand the miner who, years after his rescue from a collapsed mine,  said, "I can't even look at a caged canary now without weeping."

We who walk free pretty much take it for granted.  We pass through open doors without a thought, unconscious of those who would give anything to follow.   We mark time too, but it's toward vacations, retirement, the beginning of summer or the start of hunting season.  

What side of the fence you're on makes all the difference in what you're counting toward.
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