I have been inside a prison only once, on an excursion to Alcatraz Island. This was almost three decades ago, and I was a teenager. The island in San Francisco Bay was a nesting place for seabirds, then a colonial fortification, then an infamous penitentiary, then an important site of indigenous protest, then a tourist destination. I remember how cold the wind was off the water though it was a sunny day. I remember how the buildings looked abandoned, paint flaking, walls run with stains of rust. I remember the tremor of anxiety running through our group of tourists as the cell doors were briefly closed, as it was demonstrated how tenuous was our freedom, suddenly enclosed by iron and stone, on a rock in the middle of the cold sea.
Sara Jolena Wolcott went into a notorious jail, Rikers Island, as a chaplain. In this piece she writes of that experience in relation to our history of colonialism and slavery, the long shadow of our ancestors’ brutal deeds on this continent. There is the grief and shame that will be familiar to many of us, and a yearning for some way to do repair, to atone. Meanwhile, even at Rikers, Sara feels the presence of the sacred, a small faint hope. She sees the beauty in the imprisoned people and their dreams, the arbitrary cruelty that divides them from those who are free. There is the paradoxical sense that though the horrors of the past and present cannot be unmade, it is incumbent on us to try. NI
The first time, I was terrified. Standing on the edge of my life up to that moment, waiting for the bus, I called in all the names of the Divine that I could think of: Gracious One, Dear One. Lord. Friend. Protector. Defender. Rock. Jesus, Yeshua. Goddess. Gaia. Kali Ma.
I came to the island as a prison chaplain in training. My supervisor is a devout Christian and she was raised to hate some of the faces of the Divine to which I relate most closely, so I am quiet about which names I utter when. (I don’t blame anyone for their upbringing; I used to hate fundamentalist Christians, too.) My supervisor is black and I am white, in a world that created these categories long before either of us was born, and through these categories our lives have been irrevocably shaped. Here, I learn from her. Here, on this island in the middle of a river, at the edge of a continent: Rikers Island, one of America’s most notorious jails.
‘Welcome to hell,’ said one Correction Officer to another as we got off the bus. The two men grimaced at each other. No-one denies the darkness of this place. Inmates arrive with battle scars and leave with worse, open gaping wounds from all sorts of illegal things, razors and the like, and from hurtful words, and too little time with people who love them. In his love letter from prison, De Profundis, Oscar Wilde wrote: ‘The most terrible thing about it is not that it breaks one’s heart – hearts are made to be broken – but that it turns one’s heart to stone.’ There are a lot of stones on the island.
I threw out the notion that God was only in the light years ago, long before I came to seminary. Here, in the City of New York, my formal entry into the study of ministry has been entrenched in the local politics of race and place, the dark underbellies of America, and the colonisation that has never left this country.
I spent a year working as a chaplain on the island. It was among the best, the hardest and the most draining work I’ve ever done. If God can be killed by human cruelty, then He is killed here, too. Killed – and, amazingly, reborn. If God is a force untouchable by human violence, She is here also, a golden thread weaving in between the stones, cold metal bars and flaking paint on the cinderblocks. She shows up in gestures of kindness, compassion – even love.
There is a strange force moving in the United States that has no interest in supporting life – and a particular fondness for turning humans into stones
The Fish on the Asphalt
It would not be entirely accurate to say that the first peoples of America, what many called Turtle Island, had no prisons. Some people were captured and put away in small places. There may be human societies whose members have never bound each other up without permission, but I don’t know of any here. Yet none of them had prisons or jails like the United States does today, at the beginning of the Anthropocene age, when the rising seas are already filling the streets of Miami with water on a regular basis and some days you can see ocean fish swimming silver on top of cracked asphalt.
No nation has a prison system like the United States. The ‘land of the free’ keeps 2.2 million of its people behind bars. Most of these people have never committed a violent crime. By some estimates, half of all inmates have a mental health problem; most are poor and uneducated, and 60% are people of colour. One in ten black men in their thirties are in jail or prison at any given time. As many as 6.1 million Americans are listed as felons, meaning they have lost their right to vote. That makes 8.3 million people whose lives are twisted out of shape by the prison system. That’s before you count the children, partners, friends, colleagues, neighbours and communities impacted by the prison system.
Between the fish on the asphalt and the men and women behind bars, there is a sense of a strange force moving in the United States that has no interest in supporting life – and a particular fondness for turning humans into stones by surrounding them with metal, concrete and fences.
When Your Ancestors Are the Problem
The fences came to Turtle Island with my ancestors, the English, sailing west with their heads full of paradise.
In her great work, Ceremonies of Possession, Patricia Seed traces the rituals by which each of the colonial powers would declare ownership of the lands that they sought to possess, none of which included fair and well-informed conversations with the existing caretakers of the land. The Spanish pierced the ground with their swords and planted the flag – so much testosterone.
The English, however, had a fondness for fences, hedges and gardens. ‘No-one owns land like the English’, writes Seed. It was the English who wove the first chapter of the Book of Genesis into their ancient practices of blessing the land during seeding time in the middle ages. It was English landlords (and their priests and vicars, seeing a good profit for the church coffers) who began ‘fencing in’ the commons in the 1500s, leading to a new kind of poverty as peasants were deprived of the use of forests, fields and fens which they had worked for genera- tions. It was the English who brought with them their burgeoning notion of private property, that land must be improved and progress made by the seemingly simple task of building fences. This is mine. That is yours. Develop it: seek profit.
This is good; this is godly: divide day from night, sea from land, man from animals, man from woman. Be fruitful and multiply. Seek profit.
To define good and evil is to define the shape of a society: what it does, what it does not do, what it punishes. Whom it punishes. Whom, and how, and for what duration of time. Because that’s all we’ve got in this life – time. In our time, the seas are rising, and we should have all hands on deck, but at least 8 million Americans are so crushed by the prison-industrial complex that they can barely take care of themselves, much less join in the work of creating a different society.
Apples & Peaches
‘My grandfather used to make apple butter and my grandmother used to bake fresh apple pies. And we would all make peach jam together. Oh, that peach jam was soooooo good!’
I don’t recall how we got to talking about apples and peaches, but the inmate’s face lights up as she remembers, the brightness of her smile at odds with our grey surroundings. In the day room of her building, the only natural light is dimmed by the grey dust and bird squat on the poorly washed skylights above us. Behind her is her cell door. Fourteen doors of individual cells make a horseshoe around the day room; on the fourth side is the control centre where the officers sit watching. Who knows how long she will stay here? A few weeks – or a few years? Rikers Island is a holding place until you get tried and sentenced. No-one should be here for longer than six months. Many of the women I pray with have been here twice as long. If the inmates were fit for society before they came to this dark grey place, they rarely are when they leave.
In this grey darkness, only anxiety grows: how long will I be here? When will I see my children again? When can I go home?
This is not the sweet moist darkness of the earth, the underground home where seeds take root and green shoots grow, where I most gladly find the Divine. In this grey darkness, only anxiety grows: how long will I be here? When will I see my children again? When can I go home? Why am I here? Why does God hate me? What’s wrong with me?
Yet that afternoon, the memory of apples and peaches led our conversation to the woods: how nice it is to take a long walk among trees. Another inmate spoke of her fear of bears. We talked about the smell of the meadows in the springtime and the snow in the winter. These were East Coast women who grew up with snow in the winter, not like me.
‘In California,’ I said, ‘the summers are brown and the winters are green.’ The women shook their heads. ‘That’s all messed up,’ one of them said. We laughed, remembering a promise of wholeness. (‘Nature’, Wilde wrote from the depths of prison, ‘will cleanse me in great waters, and with bitter herbs make me whole.’)
When we prayed, we prayed that God would bring down the prison walls and that all of our children would be able to eat apples together.
The Doctrine of Discovery
I had entered Union Theological Seminary, the oldest seminary in New York City, to study eco-theology. I spent as much time as possible with the Centre for Earth Ethics, a newly-formed initiative within Union working on the intersections of indigenous rights, climate justice and faith. That’s how I came to be standing in one of the seminary’s swankier rooms, wood- panelled, with a great view of the green quad, when I discovered that the story about climate change which I had spent most of my life learning and repeating was inaccurate.
I was one of a handful of white women there that day. I spent most of my time making sure the water containers were kept full, the elders cared for and the compost bins clearly marked and used. In a down moment, I struck up a conversation with a young man named Roger Drew who worked with the American Indian Law Alliance, based in the Onondaga nation in upstate New York.
‘What can we do to help you guys?’ I asked.
‘Well,’ he said, ‘what we need is to rescind the Doctrine of Discovery. That’s what we have always asked for the past 500 years, and that is what has been needed.’
By then, I had heard of the Doctrine of Discovery – a series of Papal Bulls, written in the late 1400s, which gave the moral, legal and political authority for the colonisation of Africa and the Americas – but this was hundreds of years before the Industrial Revolution. How did it connect to climate change?
It has taken a long time to remember, to re-member, stitching together pieces of history, bit by bit. Timelines help us tell stories, but some of the best storytellers I know don’t put much weight on linear time.
It starts with the Empire that killed the indigenous dark-skinned man we commonly know as Jesus. It starts with the history I always knew but somehow never knew, growing up as a white child in the shadow of Mt. Diablo, the devil’s mountain, where the Indians went for refuge – and for war – when the Spanish came. In retracing the history, I became obsessed with timelines, because we live in a society that says the order of things matters and yet our society gets the order all wrong.
Nevertheless, my non-Western teachers talk of time in a different way. They talk of the past as if it is in the present and the future as if it had already happened.
In the world of the Spirits, time is still time, but the past and the present and the future live together differently than they do for us, bound as we are to our bodies, these beating clocks of time and matter, never knowing which beat will be our last.
You can read the rest of ‘From the Darkness’ in Dark Mountain: Issue 12 – SANCTUM
About the artists:
Drury Peregrine Brennan is a creative soul from Los Angeles who’s lived in Berlin since 2013. Having been at different periods a book- seller, jazz drummer, potter and photographer, calligraphy was for him the sap that can bind all of these meditative-listening arts together. He’s interested in cutting up words like worms and seeing how they wriggle in disparate resonances across paper, and trying to write his most obscure, tangential memories down nicely. And he still makes music! Will he be lucky enough to be between the fingers when the hand of doom smashes down? drurybrennan.com
Rik Rawling has worked as an artist for 30 years, but in the last decade has concentrated his focus on paintings and drawings that express his ideas about the world as it enters the Anthropocene. Taking inspiration from the 159 writings of J.A. Baker, John Burnside, Cormac McCarthy and Ted Hughes, Rik refutes the ‘pathetic fallacy’ of John Ruskin by directly seeking out expressions of the human condition in the landscape and the creatures that inhabit it. He says: ‘If we are indeed “whelmed in dark riot” it’s incumbent upon us to know the shape of the territory and the form of the animals that are going to accompany us along the way.’ rikrawling.co.uk