On prisons (hellish and heavenly) and death-escape
Between February 27, 1992 and March 17, 1992, I lived in two separate
heavens. One was in Wadduwa and the other in Longdon Place. I was not
only served heavenly meals but my parents were allowed to bring me
equally heavenly food. I just sat around talking with my heavenly
co-residents. Whenever I felt like it, I read. I had a library. There
was poetry, short stories and novels, in English and Sinhala. I read
newspapers. There were heavenly toilets too.
Four days in one heaven and 15 in another is a lot of divinity. It’s
an experience of a lifetime and as such one that I am happy not to want
to live through again. I am just not that greedy.
I remembered my heavenly residencies quite by chance this morning. As
happens often, we are reminded of what are called small mercies (in my
case there was nothing ‘small’ about it, though) when confronted with
the less fortunate and indeed the miserable. Life does not give equally
and heaven comes in slices corresponding to the dimensions of lived
I realized this morning that there are all kinds of hells. Years ago
I was told that the shortest distance from heaven to hell was a few
blocks, i.e. from Bunker Hill to Skid Row in Downtown Los Angeles; the
former being the paradisiacal business-centre and the latter the hell
into which the homeless had been systematically herded by closing down
one by one homeless shelters elsewhere. I had to be taken from heaven to
hell in Los Angeles, for that city has been so planned that those who
get to Bunker Hill can’t find their way to Skid Row and even if some
outsider strayed into that above-earth place, bum-proof benches and
visible surveillance equipment scared them away.
I’ve seen Skid Row. It’s hell. This morning, however, I got to know
of a different hell which is also located in the same state, California.
It is a large hell, i.e. larger than Skid Row, but more containing and
controllable, I suppose. This hell is located in 275 acres and made for
the ‘worst of the worst’; in other words those who are so bad that they
don’t deserve to wait for assigning of afterlife residence.
Hell cannot be so big, I told myself. It was not. Within these 275
acres are windowless concrete cells the size of a small bathroom, I
found out. I felt better immediately, after all hell should be hell and
nothing less. These hell-cells are occupied or rather they are people
who are made to occupy them. There are no cell-mates in hell and that
made a hell of a lot of sense to me. Hell-inmates in this place don’t
get to see anyone face to face for 23 hours of the day. There’s no
sunlight in hell. Not a blade of grass. When hell-inmates are de-celled,
one hour a day if they are lucky, they are handcuffed and shackled,
hands-to-waist, ankle-to-ankle. They spend years and years in these
This hell has a name and an acronym: Pelican Bay State Prison (PBSP)
is ‘a “supermax” state prison run by the California Department for
Corrections and Rehabilitation, located in Crescent City in Del Norte
County’ where the baddies are ‘incarcerated in long-term solitary
confinement under conditions of extreme sensory deprivation’. The Law, I
found, was a creature that has been denied visiting rights to PBSP.
I hear that the inmates are planning to starve to death, which, all
things considered seems the prison-break strategy that is most likely to
succeed. That might be the shortest cut to heaven, or even a more
livable hell, hopefully something like Skid Row. The point is, getting
into this SHU (Security Housing Unit) is easy. Getting out is nearly
There are all kinds of hells, I found. Some are a tight-fit,
literally. Some are vast open spaces. Even as I write, the Unites States
of America and other NATO powers are dropping massive bombs and firing
missiles to obtain regime-change in Libya, a country that possesses the
largest oil reserves in Africa and the ninth largest in the world.
Two-thirds of the people in the USA oppose this illegal offensive which
cannot be justified any longer as an operation to protect civilians,
given the vast number of civilians being killed by the ‘protectors’).
That country’s infrastructure is being systematically destroyed. If ever
there comes a rebuilding time in a possible post-Gaddafi Libya, there is
no doubt that there will be lucrative reconstruction contracts for
Halliburton, Exxon/Mobil and other Western corporations and banks.
The people being bombed in Libya don’t need to exercise the hunger
strike option of exiting hell. I am not sure if they should be or are
relieved. All I know is that incarceration has dimensions.
‘To the fish in the net
a single drop of water,
to the guitarist
whose hands were cut off
to the heart that said ‘no’
to a love that will not return,
to the incarcerated
a sliver of sky.’
I know that the bleeding-heart human rights advocates who think fit
to lecture us on matters such as human rights, incarceration, prisoner
rights, due process etc., are not ignorant of the prison-industrial
complex that is the heartbeat of North American prosperity. We all have
places we really want to visit (and re-visit) before we die. I am
willing to wager that the Pelican Bay State Prison is not on the
must-see lists of the likes of Barack Obama, Susan Rice, Navi Pillai,
David Miliband, Bernard Kouchner, Louis Arbour, Hillary Clinton and
Almost two decades ago, I spent close to three weeks in two different
heavens: the Wadduwa Police Station and in the headquarters of a
counter-insurgency facility down Longdon Place, Colombo 7. These are
heavens I am not too keen on revisiting. I am sure, however, that those
seeking death-relief in the Pelican Bay State Prison, would not hesitate
to obtain permanent residency in either place if given the choice.