A few weeks ago, a guy I know was in the visiting room with his mother when the unimaginable happened. His mother passed out. Per protocol, the guards made everyone in the visiting room sit in place until the ambulance arrived, then after taking his mother out in a wheelchair, the guards terminated the son's visit and sent him back to his housing unit.
He came back to the unit distraught, with no way to know what had happened to his mother, what hospital she'd gone to, or if she was alright. That is where he ran into a friend of mine, who was on his way out of the building. Seeing the man's distress, and hearing why, my friend offered to call his own sister and have his sister check on the status of the other man's mother.
Though they hadn't signed up on the phone schedule, they took the chance of using the phone, and in doing so risked receiving disciplinary write-ups. This probably didn't occur to either of them though. Instead, they made the call and my friend's sister answered after a couple of rings. Then, hearing the situation, she got the mother's phone number, clicked over, and called the guy's mother. This was also a potential write-up, because it's against the rules for us to participate in "three-way calls."
Fortunately, no one got in trouble. Furthermore, my friend's sister got through to the mother and found out she'd only been a little dehydrated. Smiles and laughs all around.
It's been a couple of weeks since this occurred, but my friend just mentioned the event again today, and that's when it hit me; my friend is incredibly proud to be able to help someone. In many ways, making a call for someone is relatively small, but not in here, where the opportunities to do something that genuinely benefits another person are rare.
The food may not be the best, but no one is starving in here. We all have shelter, and since our basic needs are largely met, we typically express friendship verbally; rarely does it get tested. We live in highly structured environments where our movements and actions are always accounted for by CDCR staff. Regulations, like the one which prohibits us from giving any of our possessions to others, serve an intended purpose, as they protect incarcerated people from having their items stolen, and the recipient of those items claiming the item was given to them. But the unintended consequence is that, in order to give an indigent person a toothpaste, or a bag of chips to make his day brighter, the giver has to break a rule.
Perhaps taking decision making ability away from incarcerated people makes sense. After all, we made many poor decisions prior to coming to prison. Speaking for myself, I'll admit that taking away the stress of some decisions, like where to live, and how to pay bills, has freed me up to focus on healing mentally from the trauma that influenced my decisions before I came here. On a deeper level though, these rules serve as constant reminders of the things we did to come to prison, and often undermine our ability to connect with our own humanity. So, it's easy to see why the chance to be humane towards someone, and in doing so, be humane to yourself, feels really good.
My friend broke a couple of rules, and had he been written up, he would have had to explain his actions to the parole board one day. Still, he never hesitated, because that is what type of person he is. He always has a big smile and a kind word for just about any one he passes. In him, I see the limitations of regulations on human behavior, and the boundlessness of humanity's generosity of spirit. I believe he would say he was just being a friend.
Photo Credit: Day of Peace event at San Quentin. FirstWatch.