|Illustration by Matt Starr.|
I’m currently editing a personal memoir “Light in the Jail Cell” so I can publish it one day. Here’s an excerpt from the prologue:
As a scientist would proclaim, “In the absence of light, every object shows its true colors.” With this statement of blackbody radiation, we find parallels within ourselves. In discovering who we are, we find our true nature in times of struggle. We address our issues as they are, and we can come closer to who we are as humans. As a result of this, in a nation of second chances, the punishment should fit the crime. But punishment can be insidious, never-ending. It can transcend the torment of everyday experiences into something greater. It shakes the individual soul and leaves a mark on the American soul.
Freedom tries to break the shackles. But despair lingers.
I want to share an episode of despair when I was arrested on account of mistaken identity. Locked inside a correctional facility for six days in Westside Detroit, I felt an anguish stir up inside of me. As an Indian American Muslim man mistaken for someone else, I felt the burden of my entire existence. Upon arrival, nothing but a few concrete benches, a toilet, and some dirty sandwich wrappers comforted me. Yet my experience in detainment gave me a personal freedom that I hadn’t found before. Listening to the stories of others and struggling the same way they did, I found an awareness to raise and virtues to instill in others. My experience gave me a voice to make sense of the world around me – even in an isolated jail cell of Detroit.
The light in the jail cell, if there was one, emerged like stars in the night. In the jail cell, men shared stories through wit and banal vulgarity. In the jail cell, I listened to the conversations that carried the messages from the men behind bars. Stories about getting caught at the wrong time and suffering at the hands of drug abuse and sexual exploitation. Socioeconomic issues, from crime, poverty, sexism, and a sinister prison- industrial complex, set the stage while the prisoners read their dialogue, line by line.
Their identities were gone, though they would struggle to make a new name for themselves. Men showed their vulnerability, and, while some raised the flag of defeat, others overcame their internal struggles. Behind their personas lied anxiety, fear, and fury. Some showed their true colors while others stayed solid as a stone. Different walks of life met in the underworld of Mound Correctional Facility in Detroit, Michigan.
Through the experience, I sat and watched. At times I joined in the conversation. I listened, ignored, cried, and slept in front of the horror show. I formed close bonds with some of the other inmates and stayed away from many others. When I would think about what those men had to share with the world, I wondered what their words meant. I had to find a strength within myself to make it through.
The punishment of detainment was the experience that my nineteen-year-old self faced all on his own, and it would permeate through the conversations I carry and the perceptions of the places I would go. Between classes at my university and in the back of my mind during my scientific research work, I always remembered this experience. I saw the nation in which I lived as a sinister, unforgiving world. From meditation and reflection, I would grapple with the experience but also pretend it never happened.
Throughout my life experiences, I kept the story concealed at the darkest depths of my psyche. In the end, the story was under control, locked away to never be found.
After forgetting about everything, I went about the rest of my life as normal as I could have. I went to my classes, but the despair hadn’t been defeated. It was only avoided and ignored. And the more I pretended, the more the desire to revisit the despair arose. The story’s weight was heavy and sinister, and the strength I needed to overcome the story lied on the path before me. The experience was more than I could have imagined. It tried to eat away at me, but I fought the demons as best as I could. Through this struggle, a light emerged. I found a story to share with others. It would carry memories, emotions, and wisdom to the end.
I took to my laptop and typed the experience. Word after word, line after line, and page after page, I regurgitated everything. The story took control of me like a snake charmer as I narrated it with precision and clarity. Every detail fell together to create my experience. This went as deep as the music that stuck with me in my head to the superficial, macho talk of the men in the jail cell. My memories stored the senses, from sight to sound, and everything meshed together with the theoretical escape I prized. And the trauma forced me to re-evaluate my beliefs and thoughts surrounding the entire experience. I recollected every detail from my thoughts, from flashbacks to my childhood to starry-eyed visions of the future, in sculpting this experience. My sense of reality would fade away at times, but I was usually able to catch it and pull myself together to release the negative energy flowing within me.
When I sat back and looked at what I had written, things seemed to make sense. Elements of the narrative, like rising action, exposition, and forms of foreshadowing, emerged naturally from the experience like fire rising from a wooden stove. The stories of the men in Detroit went from foolish jibber-jabber to meaningful prose that carried a deeper meaning. With these stories, I could understand how those men were feeling and find the sympathy and wonder to share with others. While writing the story, I hacked away on my keyboard and poured out idea after idea.
Reading it, I hope you can see what it’s like to be innocent inside of a jail cell. I hope you can understand what rage and redemption is found there, yet, more importantly, I want to reveal this sacred healing light.
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