The Thirty-Fourth Miner
‘Hey, they’re bringing them up ‘ they’re bringing them up. Channel 26. Turn it on – check it out. It’s wonderful,’ Saeed announced, bursting into my cell without as much as a courtesy-knock.
If his fire-alarm delivery and anxious attempt to find the T.V.’s on-switch hadn’t been so distracting, I would have bounced him out the same way he bounced in. Then, as live-footage from Chile filled the 14-inch screen, everything else – the book I had been reading, the mid-October rain-ache in my knees, Saeed’s unsolicited invasion – faded to irrelevance. Along with the rest of the world, I spent the next twenty-four hours with my heart wound around a 700-meter cable and its labour of love.
The next morning, breakfast line-up buzzed with play-by play reports. ‘Did you see the guy who came out and started jumping around like Crazy George used to?’ said one. ‘How about that boy waiting for his Dad?’ asked another. ‘I was a wreck watching that. It reminded me of my kids waiting for me at home,’ offered a third. While the color-commentary continued, my attention wandered off through the chain-link fence keeping us in line, past the chapel, past the hospital-unit, to a two-story concrete cell-block. The hole. From outside, the segregation unit looks like a run down Soviet-era apartment building – all hell-grey concrete and long-faded paint, splashed in forty-foot colonies of mould. Inside – entombed in anxiety and pathos – lie Canada’s dirty little secrets. One of them is Kona-beard.
Kona-beard is a lifer in his late sixties, whose real name is Dylan. His unusual handle stems from an even more unusual facial feature. He has not cut his beard in seventeen years, and grooms it the same way Rastafarians do their hair. The effect is a twisted hair-rope hanging past his knees. It looks like a three-foot long bud off of a Hawaiian pot-plant. Grooming is not Dylan’s only deficit. He also suffers from nervous exhaustion – not uncommon among those buried in the penitentiary for a decade or two. In Kona’s world, the day is done at 6:00 p.m. That’s when he cocoons himself in bed, and awaits the mercy of sleep. Unfortunately for old Kona, this custom puts him in direct conflict with a new CSC policy.
Three years ago, nineteen-year-old Ashley Smith lost her life in the segregation unit of Grand Valley Institution. Part of the political fall-out from that sadder-than-sad affair came by way of the Deaths in Custody report from the Correctional Investigator’s Office. While it’s unclear whether the report’s recommendations have reduced the number of dead prisoners, it has increased the number of times inmates are required to prove that they’re breathing. Since early this year, we have been required to ‘stand-to for count’ twice a day. One of those stand-to-counts happens at 10:30 p.m. – about an hour after Kona finally drifts off to sleep. You can probably see where this is going. Waiting for the pensioner to wake up, get up, get dressed, and demonstrate a semblance of sobriety, encroaches on the cold-beer-finish-line of guards whose shift ends a half-hour later. The pragmatic solution? The Powers That Be have chosen to brand Kona’s actions as insurrection rather than old-age. They’ve had him and his fur scarf locked in the hole for many months now – in something called ‘long-term-segregation’– and there’s no rescue capsule in sight.
Last week’s liberation of the Chilean thirty-three was a high-water mark for humanity. For the second time in a decade, the whole earth gathered around televisions to share in a life-changing experience. Unlike the last one – in Manhattan nine years ago – this gathering celebrated the very best of what makes us human: Compassion. Redemption. Family. Rebirth. Here in the prison, men were slapping each other on the back, using words like ‘miracle’, and ‘awesome.’ On T.V., even the most jaded cable-news correspondents dripped with empathy. Not one voice suggested that the isolated men had ‘put themselves there,’ ‘deserved what they got for entering a dangerous mine,’ or ‘didn’t have it so bad’ because of the phones and T.V. they had down there. Instead, we listened carefully to the names of each and every man. We hung on every turn of the pulley-wheel, and got to know their families, their work-history, and their hopes for the future. For twenty-four hours, people that most of us will never meet mattered to us. Today, I am wondering if that’s where it will end.
From my place in the breakfast line-up that morning, I watched carefully the dark windows of the segregation block. No movement. No sound. I thought about what reality is for the men buried in there. Twenty-three-hours-per-day of solitary isolation. Separated from family and friends. In summer, a furnace – in winter, a meat locker. Hang in there Kona-beard. Maybe the Phoenix will rise for you too.