Author - Speaker - teacher

May 19, 2002

Fresh raw feces lined the “cage” in which prisoner Moyers* lived. I call his 6 x 10 foot cell with steel doors a cage because there is no other way to describe the way this animal lives. And I know little about why he lives this way.

Recently I toured the Iowa State Penitentiary (ISP) at Fort Madison, Iowa as research for a novel. The warden gave me free access to every corner of the place, even the pit where Moyers lives – or exists.

Moyers exists in the Lockup Unit at ISP. Some prisons call it Isolation or “The Hole.” Several other men currently occupy this maximum-security cellblock within the walls of the maximum-security prison.

Lockup is for the worst of the 550 murderers who reside at ISP, the dumping ground or last prison for these men. When they check in they are told to expect to leave in a coffin. Except for those rare cases when a court overturns a sentence, or the governor commutes a sentence (three times in the last 25 years) no inmate leaves ISP alive

It is a frightful and depressing place.

“Why does he live like that?” I asked David, my “tour” guide.

“Because he can,” was his simple answer.

A few cells down from Moyers lives Williams*, an equally dislikable fellow. He threatened to urinate on me; he had already done so all over the floor.

“How long will these fellows live like this?” I asked, expecting they would be released to slightly less restrictive cells once they quit spreading their waste around.

“The rest of their lives,” Captain Moore*, head of lockup security told me.

Never before in my life had I seen humans choose to live in the manner of the men in lockup. Twenty-three hours a day they lived in their cells with nothing but a concrete bed, concrete desk, a sink and toilet as amenities. If they wanted to, they could go outside once a day to exercise inside a 12 x 20 foot chain link pen. I doubt that Moyers or Williams ever choose to do so.

From lockup we toured General Population cellblocks where the more agreeable of these murderers live. Here in their 6 x 10 cells with one inch steel bars, men reclined on a metal bunk, sat at a small desk or watched cable TV.

Some men had books. Some had dirty pictures. Many had Bibles.

Understand that I am a hardliner on prison punishment 

I believe murderers should be put to death when there is clear evidence of their crime, and there are at least two eyewitnesses, no court or prosecution corruption and the prisoner’s constitutional rights have been protected. It is likely that very few of the 550 men in ISP would be alive if my choice of justice prevailed.

Iowa banned capital punishment during the 1960s. The gallows is gone, but death row, though empty, still exists and it is not a nice place.

So what?

I have longed complained about murderers getting to live in “country clubs,” and I suppose some do – but I doubt it.

As I stood inside one of the cells, I wondered how many of us could stand the oppression of living in a 6 x 10 room for the rest of our lives – or even a week?

What about those athletic fields and weight-lifting rooms, fitness centers and basketball courts? Why should murderers be allowed to bulk up? A simple answer; for survival, that is, to defend oneself and signal to predators that it would hurt a lot if one were attacked.

Suggesting that we should allow these animals to finish off each other does not meet the standard of a civilized society. The Romans made such men into gladiators. It was a sign of Roman decline. We should not be like the Romans.

I paused to reflect that there is an element of incarceration that we conservatives have long misunderstood. It is what the Declaration of Independence calls the unalienable right to liberty.

The Creator, the founding fathers said, endowed men with Liberty, just as He endowed them with life. When men violate others’ unalienable rights (such as by murdering them), they give up their right to liberty. It is the loss of liberty, like the loss of life, that is the punishment, and it is a costly punishment, even when the inmates themselves do not realize it.

When men live entire lives within the high cold walls of a maximum-security prison, or within the confines of a 6 x 10 room, they are being severely punished. Cable TV really does not much lessen that punishment.

Of the 550 men at ISP, less than 10 percent see a visitor in any given year. Less than 5 percent have regular visitors. Everyone has abandoned these men; a severe punishment perhaps befitting their severe crime.

In Matthew 25, Christ suggested that Christians should, as a matter of practice, visit inmates. I cannot imagine that He would leave out the 550 men at ISP.

Christ’s liberty can set believing inmates free from Hell’s degradation, though they might never be set free from behind prison walls. Us? Maybe we’d rather see them fry here and in Hell forever.

But, then, we are not Christ.

* Fictitious name

Prison is not a nice place