For the last several years I have been visiting a man in state prison. He has been there for twenty-one years and was convicted of a double murder, a hideous crime that is beyond my comprehension.
I have learned that most people are puzzled and visibly uncomfortable when I tell them about this man and my reasons for visiting him. Even though his crime occurred twenty-one years ago, and he is a completely different person today, the difficulty of getting beyond his crime to his humanity is precisely the point. Or at least that is the way I see it, and that is what prison has partially and painfully done for him.
My reason for writing this is not so much to discuss him but to disclose how my careful friendship with him has affected me. Going behind prison walls to sit with him in a crowded visiting room for several hours and talk quietly about politics, writing, prison life, women, law, love, God and the future is a little like trying to judge depth while walking with one eye closed. I'm never quite sure of the next step.
First, the prison is unmistakably mean. The granite walls and clanging steel doors are there for total control of men deemed to be dangerous. And I am being allowed in because I am no threat to the prescribed and severe order that has been established.
When I go in I try to suspend reality as I know it because I am surrounded by convicted thieves, embezzlers, con artists, drug dealers and murderers. Yet what I see are men holding their children, men embracing mothers and fathers, men holding hands with their wives and girlfriends.
I was, at first, uncomfortable with this, because it seemed to me a thief should look and behave like a thief if he has been convicted of thievery.
But like human life itself, with countless illusions and concepts that collapse under clear examination, I have seen that this unholy prison cannot, for all its intended meanness, exorcise all friendship, humor, resilience, dignity, hope or the slow rise of the newly healed from the muck.
No matter what is written or done about prisons, or done inside prisons, a single life enduring the unimaginable, and emerging untouched, reduces a prison experience to a step forward. Thus, even a prison has worth. But make no mistake about it; few men emerge untouched from a prison. Most men are inside imagining the outside with as much ''reality'' as a baby regarding a soap bubble. Clarity of vision inside a prison, or even the presence of vision, is rare from any source, including me.
What is not rare for me now is a sharper, almost bittersweet, awareness of the commonplace. This has been an unexpected result of getting to know a prison and a prisoner.
I value the little angles and scenes of my daily life, not necessarily more than I did before I started visiting a prison, but with freshness and magnification. Books on a shelf, a pile of brown leaves, good people gathered around an old table, the smell of vegetable soup in a house, frogs at night, two cats sleeping in front of a wood stove, a light across a dark meadow, all such things have become heightened.
What has done this, I think, is the sheer monolithic presence of that large prison chunk now sitting at the edge of my thoughts; and it is the difficult fact that I know a man who has spent twenty-one long years inside a very grim place.
But my new views may be nothing more than that old parental admonition to a child, ''Eat your dinner. Don't you know children are starving in Africa?'' I may be saying to myself, ''Enjoy your life. You could be in prison,'' which is perhaps a selfish, almost pointless connection between two facts, or a touch of fear. Nonetheless, I see a light across a dark meadow with a new eye.
I do know, as so many others know, from the chief justice of the Supreme Court on down, that state and federal prisons in America have been nothing more than warehouses for troubled men and women. And I also know that there are those who insist a prison should be a warehouse and throw away the keys. But I am not one of those.
Even though I can offer no solutions to the moral and political dilemma of how to create ''better'' prisons, my view of the situation is influenced somewhat by visiting a prison and a prisoner. Perhaps, when solutions are offered, I will be better prepared to judge them.
In going behind the walls and sitting and talking with a small, lonely man, there is a temptation, because of the surroundings and the history of the man, to draw great significance from what is basically a simple gesture. He is there. I am with him. We talk. We share our thoughts. I leave. I go home. He goes back to the honor block. It is very simple. And that may be what is needed most of all.