Thursday, September 11, 2008

Freedom Behind Bars

by Vanessa Leggett

We all remember where we were on 9/11. I’ve often wished I could forget. I was in jail—Day 53 of an open-ended incarceration. That summer, a federal judge had found me in contempt of court for my refusal to give a grand jury confidential source material gathered for a book. Surrendering my research would have meant burning sources. I could not do it. And so the judge ordered me jailed for as long as the grand jury was in session. That turned into a 168-day stay at the Federal Detention Center in downtown Houston. When I rejoined society a few months after September eleventh, we were a nation at war and the world I had known was not the same place.

The morning the world changed, I was in my cell, nursing a cold and reading Omerta by Mario Puzo. It was my third day back in general population after a night in solitary. I had made the mistake of questioning the enforceability of a jail policy. Guards made sure I understood what enforcement was all about. The Bureau of Prisons calls segregation blocks the Special Housing Unit, or "SHU" (pronounced shew), fedspeak for what inmates know as "The Hole."

The day I emerged from The Hole was the freest I’d felt during my incarceration. A night in solitary showed me that I'd taken for granted simple freedoms allowed the general population in jail.

For example, outside of SHU, I was free to roam the common area during designated hours. From the dayroom and library, I had several windows with views to the streets below. I considered this privilege a kind of glass-partition visitation with the outside world.

Every day until 9/11, I had watched Houstonians talk on their cell phones, check their watches and PDAs, and sip coffee from Starbucks. (I could spot the cardboard-sleeved cups from blocks away.) By day's end on 9/11, there was little sign of life in downtown Houston, the fourth largest city in the nation.

Another window to the world unavailable to those in solitary was the television. The morning of 9/11, a fellow inmate summoned me to the lower recreation room minutes before the second jet hit the World Trade Center. The north tower was smoking from the impact of the first aircraft. We watched in stunned silence.

Later, I held hands with a group of women in a circle as a chaplain led us in prayer. I remember the inmate to my right squeezing my hand and not letting go immediately. Her home was in another country.

I did not need to speak her language to understand. Each of us wanted to connect with family, with those we loved, and with the people who loved us, to make sure they were safe, and to tell them we were okay. But visitation would be out of the question. For security, the entire detention center went into lockdown mode. My world shrunk to the size of my cell.

I've often thought of how my day on 9/11 would have been no different from my day on the tenth had I remained in solitary confinement. I would not have had access to television. Guards who checked on me would have had no obligation to tell me America was under attack. For my own safety, jail staff might have been ordered not to inform segregated inmates of the national disaster; it didn't take much to lose it in solitary.

Though I was in jail, separated from the world, at least I had been released from The Hole, and was able to see, however horrific, history unfold in real time. My only conduit to the outside world that day was the TV screen, which gave me a sense of connection to other Americans.

That connection was broken once the detention center went into lockdown. All I knew of what was going on in the world was what I had seen through the celluloid window that day: The World Trade Center, our twin trophies of commerce, had disintegrated. Our seat of military might, the Pentagon, had been hit. And another aircraft appeared to have been headed for the Capitol. When I saw members of Congress join hands and sing "God Bless America,” I must admit I feared the end was near.

It wasn't. My incarceration felt like it would never come to an end . . . but it did, eventually, when the grand jury disbanded in early January. For months I'd lived under fluorescent lights, without a single trip outside. As I emerged from the jail, the transition felt as disorienting as walking out of a matinée.

Over the next few weeks, I saw evidence of how the world had changed: metal detectors and pat-downs, building barricades, Middle Eastern cabbies whose well-worn taxis sported crisp, new American flags. Fear was everywhere.

It did not take long for me to realize I was about as free as I had been when I rejoined general population from solitary. Though I was part of the free world again, among my fellow Americans, none of us was truly free. Not like we used to be.


Leah said...

Excellent post Vanessa and very humbling. I would love to hear about your entire jailhouse experience sometime on an appropriate blog.

I think 9/11/01 has a significant & special meaning to everyone. What started out as a typical workday for me ended up being very traumatic and frightening. I honestly couldn't believe what I was seeing on TV.

Susan Murphy Milano's Journal said...

Excellent story. The legal system can seem backwards as times. Here you are protecting your source while uncovering the truth and you are placed in jail until the system gets what they want. Is that justice or politics?

Again, excellent post.

A Voice of Sanity said...

Have you considered becoming an ordained minister (online, free and takes a few minutes)? Then you could also argue priest/penitent privilege. That would add some difficulty to these attacks on free speech.