Esteemed Reader of Our Magazine:
The entrance to the prison was through brick columns and a pool of bright fluorescent light. Small snow flakes hovered and fell, creating a soft coating on the cement and concertina wire-topped fences. Inside was dry heat and stale air. We waited in a line to turn over our keys and cell phones, and empty our pockets of everything but lint, before walking though a metal detector that rang loudly as I passed. I froze, unsure of what to do. “Your belt” said the guard.
People passing through security gathered in groups until guards, some in front, others trailing, guided us through something like airlocks, with steel doors locking behind us before the next door opened. We inserted our hands through a hole in a window of one-way glass, to have them stamped with invisible ink, by an invisible stamper.
We made our way through a maze of hallways, with small groups of men looking out of brightly lit rooms with hungry, curious expressions. This was our first sight of inmates who live there for decades, often dying within the walls that they enter, sometimes as early as their teens.
I was with a group of people from the community who had come at the invitation of a teacher of dancing—in this case teaching dance to a group of inmates at a maximum security prison. That night the inmates were to demonstrate what they had been practicing and rehearsing with the teacher every Sunday for 3 years, 52 weeks a year, 6 hours a week.
Our group entered a typical gymnasium—it could have been in any high school built in the 1960s, with abundant basketball hoops and wooden accordion bleachers. Inmates mingled with visitors, clearly eager for the contact. They were mostly dark-skinned men, and burly. It was difficult to imagine them dancing.
The dance began with a warm-up routine that was parts chi kung, modern dance, and calisthenics. The 30 men stood in lines on the gym floor and did their practice. I felt more like a voyeur than an audience member. They exuded an intensity and focus that was in contrast to that of the onlookers who sat back in folding metal chairs, betraying the softness of our daily lives. Behind us, several hundred other inmates watched from the bleachers. There was heckling, but the dancers were unfazed.
The convicts performed well-choreographed-and-executed modern dance pieces for over an hour. They danced as though they had nothing to lose, and as though their life depended on it.
In a circle after the performance the audience offered comments and questions. I could only say, “I have learned tonight from these men how I should live my own life.”
I have long seen the absurdity of the US penal system. I’ve held the notion that it is wrong to lock people away for most of their lives; that no crime warrants life in prison. I’ve read of countries like the Netherlands that are more lenient and have lower crime rates (the longest sentence for any crime in Holland is seven years). I have believed that the US prison system is a corrupt, profit-driven, criminal institution that has no connection to the origin of the penitentiary, in which criminals “become penitent” to emerge cleansed of their sins.
But going inside a maximum security prison to watch inmates dance gave a more direct impression. I saw 50-year-old men who have been inside since they were 17, and with baby faces that made them look 30, seeming to be at peace with their karma, with the hand they had been dealt. Some had earned advanced degrees in prison and applied for and been denied parole scores of times, by a system that is invested in keeping them incarcerated.
I saw conditions of oppression and harshness that allowed certain of those men to develop themselves, with the help of their teacher, in a way that remains elusive to most civilians who are incarcerated in the prison of our psychic inertia, though believing we are free. Prisoners cannot suffer that illusion and some are able to make use of their conditions.
The Sufis tell us that to conquer death one needs to “die before you die.” In watching the dancing inmates I saw men who, for a few moments at least, were free before they were free.