Our Reading Lives

Evil Off The Page: A Reader’s Experience In Prison



Always books. Never boring.

You’re sitting on your bunk, reading Jane Eyre. Jane is locked in the Red Room, afraid, when you start to hear the yelling and pounding from the tier above yours. You dogear the page, lean against the bars with your cellmate, trying to figure out what’s happening. 

Reading is a major part of my life, has been since I was a child; as it has and was for you, I would assume. Otherwise why would you be reading a post on a literary website?

So when I was arrested and locked in jail, then prison, reading naturally was a part of the experience. Not only did it occupy the endless hours of nothingness and noise that comprise the majority of time served, but it also gave an escape, a relief valve, a security blanket, and a weapon to someone who most would not expect to survive the experience well.

“Stop it man! You’re fuckin’ killing him! Yo, C-O! Stop it!”

The first book I read after my arrest was The Holy Bible (Good News Edition). It was a copy given to me by a pimp who bragged about having a harem of heroin and crack addicted women waiting for him back in the city. “You’re a father,” he told me, “you need to get right with the Lord.” During my arrest, I was beaten by the police officer who had responded to the scene, so I squinted through ten days of the Old and New Testament (and Apocrypha). Once I was allowed to have my Super Glue glued eyeglasses back, my reading pace reached a speed it hadn’t been at for years. I averaged a book every two days, ranging from disposable crime novels and romantic adventure stories, to literary works from the nineteenth century and graphic novels.

“What’s going on?”

“Dude’s whipping his cellie’s ass.”

“Like bad?”

“Blood everywhere. Where the fuck are the C-Os?”

The path I took during my incarceration was typical for an inmate of my level: after a night at the police station (and a day at the hospital), I was brought to a county correctional facility. Donated paperbacks floated around between inmates; stacks of them appeared and disappeared in dayrooms and on mailboxes. Once I was sentenced, I was moved to a state correctional facility, what prisons are called in my area of the United States.

The name implies correction, reform, education, but mostly I saw prison boredom and violence. Books, and exploitatively expensive phone calls to my loved ones (through Securus Technologies, a for-profit prison company), were the few rays of light I saw when locked down for 22 hours a day in a two-man six-by-eight foot cell. I cannot properly express the eye-dampening joy of being able to hear my children’s voices through a crackling payphone, or the glow of hope that comes from entering a small prison library to scoop up four donated books to fill the hours other spend yelling about sports, crimes (past and planned), and women.

But off the page, the other inmates were difficult to avoid, not only on account of the close proximity of our bodies, but the nature of many of the personalities. Favors were requested (phone calls to loved ones who can’t afford it right now but seriously man I’ll get you some soups), arguments were invented, exploits were bragged about, masculinity points were challenged. The Id and the Ego ran wild in many of the inmates, and perhaps in myself as well, though I expressed it silently, in letters to my spouse, in inner monologues, in the few moments with a few close not-friends-but-not-enemies where I broke.

What I learned most from being surrounded by the real life counterparts of many fictional characters you and I read, evil or having done evil, is that the actions they, and I, are condemned for, are typically mile markers in time. Actions and thoughts lead up to these moments, but they can almost always be avoided, diverted from, treated, recognized like a patch of black ice by the eye of a skilled driver.

A Correctional Officer (C-O) leisurely walks to the center of the bottom tier, leans his head back, cocks his ear. In one hand, an almost empty bag of Chex Mix.

“What’s goin’ on?”

A chorus of voices implore him to get off his ass and stop the fight. 

The C-O sighs, downs the crumbs of the bag, and walks to the stairway.

In my case, I was arrested for drinking and driving. It wasn’t my first time. I could have gone back on my antidepressant medication, called my friends in Alcoholics Anonymous, been honest in how I was feeling, not stopped at the grocery store (and, apparently, the one or two liquor stores after that), gone home that night, and not be magically-legally transmogrified into a Felon.

In the case of the man a few cells down from mine, he could have dealt with his drug addiction, refused his friend’s offer to join in on a burglary, and not been sentenced to several years incarceration for a home invasion (there were people present in the home when he robbed it).

In the case of the man I spent a strange bus ride observing through a plastic wall, he or someone near him could have recognized his obvious mental illness and addiction, availed himself to the many programs in our state for such people, and not raped and murdered most of a family.

A herd of jingling keys. Screamed vulgarities. Orders for all inmates not in their cells to get the fuck into their cells. Squacking radios. The rolling squeak of a gurney. The tiers flood with C-Os and medical staff.

But I didn’t do that. The man next to me didn’t do that. The murderer on the bus didn’t do that.

Does the phrase evil make sense? Not in every case.

Am I evil because I drank and passed out in a car that ran out of gas at an intersection? I don’t think so, but others do. Because of a mandatory minimum sentence, I spent more time behind bars than Stanford rapist Brock Turner, despite my crime having no victim or property damage.

Did my tier neighbor act in an evil manner by invading the home of a family? Absolutely. It terrified an innocent family and could have lead to injury or death. But is he evil? I don’t believe so. After months of talking, playing card games, exercising, and dining with him, I could see that, when sober and level-headed, he wasn’t the villain his record showed.

Is the man in the plastic box, the one who violated and eliminated most of a family in an unspeakable way, evil? Yes, undoubtedly. But was there a moment in time when he wasn’t?

That is the question that has kept writers writing since the Old Testament onward.

The gurney is pushed by a sweating nurse past your cell. A white cloth is stained red and yellow, covering most of the inmate’s face. The topography of the face is wrong: a dip where it should be the peak of a nose and upper lip. The hands are still, the leg turned at a strange angle. You aren’t sure if the body is breathing.

A C-O with a camcorder marches behind the gurney, filming the procession. A small herd of C-Os follow the cameraman, some talking on radios, some shining flashlights into your cell, the other cells.

Evil people and organizations will always be fodder for fiction, as well as reportage. What is the most terrifying to me, now that I’ve witnessed it first hand, is what Hannah Arendt deemed the Banality of Evil. For me, the fear comes when humanity is reduced to an object or a task to be dealt with, not a living thing.

It’s Halloween time as I write this, which makes the topic of evil somewhat timely. Now that I’m no longer on an ankle bracelet, able to wander the streets (or, more often, sit on the couch and apply for jobs on my laptop), I’ve been Halloween shopping with my family. The bloody knives and axes, the leaping clowns, the rubber zombies ready to crawl out of your lawn: they don’t frighten me. But the cheap plastic handcuffs my children swung around like nunchucks? Chilled me to my bones.

An inmate making $1.75 a day is tasked to clean up the blood and urine. You hear the mop slop back and forth as you try to get back into the book. Tomorrow you’ll be locked down all day as the investigation grinds on: the who and where is obvious, but the why, and the evidence collected, is used as an excuse to keep you in the cell almost 48 hours. There’s little else to do but listen to your cellmate’s attempts to rap, the stories shouted through the bars, the cart with the Styrofoam clamshells full of slop rolling by, so you keep reading Jane Eyre:

I care for myself. The more solitary, the more friendless, the more unsustained I am, the more I will respect myself.

I am no bird; and no net ensnares me: I am a free human being with an independent will.

Do you think, because I am poor, obscure, plain and little, I am soulless and heartless? You think wrong! – I have as much soul as you, – and full as much heart!

Surrounded by evil, perhaps a bit evil yourself, you read until the lights go out, and then you lay back and dream with eyes open, counting the days to your End Of Sentence date. When you are released you will make amends to your family, and plead your case before countless hiring managers. You will try to show that, while you acted in a manner some may see as evil, you yourself are not evil.

But you have seen evil, off the page. And every story with evil you read is a reminder, an echo from the darkness.