Nobody here ever deserved to be a prisoner in their own eyes, a man said to me. He was dressed rather nicely, so I thought he must be on the prison staff. When I asked him, he said that he was indeed a prison doctor here in addition to having his own private practice in one of the worse parts of town. I suppose you see some people in both practices, I asked him, seeking to be polite. Oh yes, he replied to me, I see some of them quite frequently on both sides of the prison walls. It is very rare when someone comes to me and openly admits responsibility for what they did. Most of the time they have someone else to blame. Maybe they killed their partner because they had a bad day, or maybe they blame their lack of emotional control on the failures of their parents, or maybe they lack respect for property and so they engage in various acts of hooliganism. Many of these people that I see here have been engaged in some kind of socially deviant behavior since they were young, and they never learned anything no matter what discipline they received at home or in school or here in prison. And so they drift in and out, unable to start a life without crime, unwilling to accept responsibility, and ungrateful for how they live on the taxpayer dole whether in or out of prison.
How old was I then? I must have been about eight years or so when I first entered a prison. It must have seemed rather scary for a timid child such as I was, but I was brave and clearly no threat to anyone, and I am sure that the prison guards made sure that no one was a threat to me. My grandfather conducted Bible studies for a couple of people who associated with our church but who were behind bars. Perhaps he thought it would earn him some respect and make him a deacon someday, but it never did. At any rate, it was quite an interesting time. One of the prisoners was there because in the heat of passion and faced with a cheating wife and her paramour he killed the two of them and ended up being found guilty of first degree murder. He blamed his lack of legal advice, as he was a poor man living a tough life and did not get the best of free legal counsel in Florida, which I can readily believe. Looking at the facts of his case, he was clearly guilty of second-degree murder or something of that nature, a crime in the heat of passion and not one that was premeditated. But he had life plus no parole, and would be in prison for the duration, even if as a model prisoner and a religious one he was no longer a threat to anyone else or himself, and so he was in the low security prison that I visited. The other prisoner was a different matter, a man who had fancied himself a somewhat important businessperson on the outside, who was in prison for having committed statutory rape with his stepdaughter who was about fifteen years or so and had committed many other crimes like drug running to and from the Bahamas that he had not been tried and convicted for. He blamed the teen girl for seducing him, as sexual predators tend to do, and fancied himself one of those prison lawyers who are smart enough that they think the rules do not apply to them. I know the type. Sometimes I see it in the mirror.
Chillon is far too beautiful of a building to have been the site of a fearsome prison, but there it was, a small castle that I visited during the Feast of Tabernacles in 2004 on a road trip. A group of us who were attending the Feast in France that year had made the tour to visit the city of Montreux and especially its famous prison. While some people enjoyed Montreux for the memory of the events that inspired “Smoke On The Water,” those of us with a more literary mind pondered the reality of life for a lonely prison who was the last Prisoner of Chillon. He had been a Protestant who, in the dangerous days of the 16th century had wandered into Savoyard hands and had been imprisoned for the crime of being a Protestant. Fortunately for him, his days as a prisoner did not last too long, as a year or two later an army from Bern conquered the city for the Bernese and freed him from his imprisonment. Why was it that the Savoyard counts, who were by no means hated rulers, did not seek to regain their pretty town and maintain their power over it? Were they too focused on other enemies on other fronts that the loss of lands on Lake Geneva did not concern them too much? I do not know, but I do know that at least according to Lord Byron, a man acquainted with much crime, the prisoner even regained his freedom with a sigh.
When I lived in Thailand, the village where resided was quite full of prisons, with at least a couple of them. What these prisons were for I never fully understood to my satisfaction. I had a decided incuriosity about prison life in Thailand, but for a variety of reasons the subject kept on forcing itself into my consciousness, as much as I wanted to keep it away. When I rode my bike or traveled on truck to and from the farm where the students at the school where I worked helped to take care of various plants that we used for food in order to save on food costs and encourage a sense of hard work, the prisons were passed each way between the school and farm. When the secret police came to visit the school, they reminded me to obey the law, and I pointedly asked them what laws they meant, being a generally law abiding sort of person, aside from my perhaps too free and easy and critical view of those in power, which may get me in trouble one of these days no matter where I live. I knew, of course, that is the law they had in mind, but I wanted them to say it out loud so that we would be open and honest with each other. One time when I visited the city of Chiang Mai nearby a coworker of mine had found a reasonably inexpensive place to get fantastic massages of a distinctly not sensual kind. And what should happen but that the women who massaged our tense muscles for only a few dollars were prisoners learning a worthwhile skill that could help feed them when they were released from prison and had to earn a living. Were they happy that we were not the sort of Americans who were sexual tourists but people working hard for not very much money who appreciated an inexpensive massage that we would not feel guilty about telling our friends and family about, secure in the innocence of our behavior? I hope they were.