Fidelio's hope, and mine

TWO deep interests of mine are prisons and opera. With Beethoven's ``Fidelio,'' these interests converge. The opera takes place in a prison outside Seville in 18th-century Spain. The setting is a prison courtyard. Cells are seen with barred windows and iron doors shuttered with heavy bolts. In the background looms a high wall with ramparts.

The world of high walls, barred windows, and locked cells, along with more recent prison paraphernalia, such as fences topped with gleaming razor-ribbon wire, is familiar to me in my capacity as chairman of the Correctional Association of New York, a private organization authorized by the Legislature to report on conditions in New York's state prisons.

I suspect that prison sounds have not changed much since the 18th century. The loud, cold, clanging made when steel impacts on steel produced by the jangling of keys carried by guards and the locking and unlocking of cell doors. The shuffling feet as prisoners march to and from their cells.

In the opera, the jailer, Rocco, comments, ``Hard is the jailer's gloomy task.'' Life in prison continues to be hard for both the keepers and the kept. Walls and bars produce a deep sense of claustrophobia. Today's cellblocks are not the dungeons of ``Fidelio,'' but they can be grim. Long corridors lined with steel doors, each of which has a grating through which one can look into a prisoner's small, dark cell. Some inmates stand behind their cell doors, silently gazing into the corridor. A portion of a face can be seen through the grating. Others lie on their beds and stare at the ceiling. On weekends, when most prison programs are not in operation, inmates spend almost the entire day in isolation, confined to their cells.

Tensions exist between guards and prisoners and among prisoners. Yet, acts of kindness do occur. In ``Fidelio,'' Rocco releases the prisoners from their cells to walk in the castle garden on a day when ``The sun is shining/The Spring begins to smile again.'' Joyfully, the prisoners emerge from their dark cells into the sunlight. ``Oh what delight! To breathe the air,/The open air around us./Here light still comes to greet us....''

On my visits I have met correction officers, as youthful as the prisoners they guard, who are sympathetic and understanding, and prison staff who work hard with inmates to address the problems that afflict most perpetrators of crime: illiteracy, lack of job skills, and drug and alcohol addiction.

In prison, it is important not to lose hope, for the absence of hope leads to despair. Leonora, who has entered prison disguised as the young man Fidelio to try to free her imprisoned husband, realizes the need to avoid despair. ``Sweet hope, oh never let your star,/Your last faint star of comfort be denied me.'' Even the prisoners in their dungeons cling to hope: ``The voice of hope still whispers here....''

Hope is nurtured when a prisoner has loved ones on the outside who care about him. It is Leonora's devotion that sustains her imprisoned husband. ``By your love,'' Florestan tells her, ``I was protected.''

I have watched inmates waiting for visitors and seen the warm smile of recognition when they arrive. ``No, my family has not given up on me. I may be without a job, without a future, but still I have something.'' An embrace. Hand in hand, the inmate and his loved one walk to a table and begin their precious hour together. These visits, and letters from home, are a lifeline for prisoners.

Release from prison is the central concern of every inmate. In ``Fidelio,'' the prisoners ask, ``Oh freedom, will you be ours once again?'' Florestan, who has committed no crime, is freed, to the sound of trumpets, with the arrival of the king's minister. No trumpets of deliverance will sound for the inmates I meet. Few claim to be innocent. Some have done terrible things to other human beings. But all, except those serving life sentences, will return to their communities on a date to be set by the parole board.

Life on the outside will not be easy for the released prisoner. He receives $40 in cash from the state, a suit of clothing, whatever money he may have earned while working in the institution, and a bus ticket home. If prison has served as a repair shop for the inmate, a place where he learned job skills, rather than a scrap heap that has left him no better able to function on the outside than before, his chances of succeeding are vastly enhanced.

May every person leaving prison share the aspirations of the prisoners in ``Fidelio'': ``We shall be freed, we shall find peace.''

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