Sunday, July 28, 2013

Crime, Incarceration, and the Human Spirit: On Billy Sell and the Escape from Alcatraz

Frank Morris, Clarence Anglin, and John Anglin, courtesy
the BBC UK.
Billy Sell's tragic death yesterday, ruled a suicide by CDCR, raises some disturbing and urgent questions. How many such casualties will it take for CDCR to take the inmates seriously? We are on Day 21 of the hunger strike and there is serious concern for inmates' well being, especially those of them who are aging and infirm. Their physical condition is being monitored. Conditions in the SHU debilitate and harm not only people's mental health, but their physical constitution. It is admirable that, under these circumstances, inmates are committed to deprive themselves of food and drink. And if being prepared for the ultimate sacrifice, because a life of torture and indignity is worse, is not a good reason for CDCR to reconsider its position on isolation, I really don't know what is.

I wonder how much coverage Sell's death will receive in the mainstream media. Any effort to honor and remember his honorable sacrifice in the struggle for better incarceration conditions is likely to be blighted by ignorant commentary negating its value because, after all, he was doing time in prison, and therefore he must have been a very bad person, or worse, not a person at all. This is the same pervasive thinking that leads people on the outside to think that inmates are somewhat coddled by what folks who are not in the know perceive as "free health care." This dehumanizing attitude means not only that people can be disinclined to stand side by side with the hunger strikers and demand better conditions for them, but also that they could completely miss the heroic aspect of the struggle and not find anything admirable in it.

The tragic news of Sell's passing were particularly poignant for me yesterday, as I received them after completing my sixth successful Alcatraz crossing, which made me think about sacrifice and heroism within walls. Every time I jump off the ferry near Alcatraz and start swimming toward San Francisco I take a few moments to look behind my shoulder. In the first ten minutes of the swim it seems as if The Rock is not getting any smaller. And then, I think about the many documented attempted escapes from Alcatraz, and particularly about Frank Morris, John Anglin, and Clarence Anglin, who in 1961 plotted (with Allen West, who could not join them due to technical difficulties) the most daring, and likely successful, escape through the ventilation ducts, ingeniously using dummies and a raft.

More than fifty years after the escape, the file remains open, and among the thousands of athletes who attempt Alcatraz crossings there are many, like yours truly, who are convinced that Morris and the Anglin brothers made it safely to shore. I like to think of them, now very old men, sitting in a suit and a beret or a fedora at a cafe in North Beach, sipping a strong espresso, reading the Chronicle and chuckling quietly to themselves.

To them, the frustration of looking back and seeing The Rock looming dark and threatening must have been fraught with terrible fear and apprehension, compounded by the serious concerns about their welfare once they got to shore. Would they suffer hypothermia? Who would help and shelter them on the outside? Where would they get money, and how could they avoid being recaptured?

Time has been kind to Morris and the Anglin brothers. Millions around the world admire and respect their courage, ingenuity and bravery. But they were not saints. Morris' record included daring robberies, and the Anglin brothers robbed a bank (with a toy gun.) They received lengthy sentences and perhaps, to the average citizen in the early 1960s, would appear unsympathetic, dangerous, and undeserving of respect. Just as some people may be thinking about today's hunger strikers and their struggle.

But crime and criminality do not negate the value of the human spirit, or its ability to soar in courage and conviction. Last week many of us saw Fruitvale Station in the theaters and enjoyed Michael Jordan's humanizing rendition of Oscar Grant, a man who did not live a grand life of achievement, but rather a life of fatherhood, flawed partnership, and teetering between drug dealing and an honest day's work. And we cried for him, and we appreciated the ember of humanity within his soul, because it is also in ours, and we wept when that ember was extinguished by a gunshot. Billy Sell's death teaches us a related, and perhaps more important, lesson. It's not just that each and every life is precious and imbued with intrinsic value. It's also that the human spirit does not die if someone has broken the law. Indomitable courage, initiative, creativity, commitment to one's values, perseverance, and the yearning for personal freedom, are as admirable in prison as they are on a freedom ride or at a protest in the park, and perhaps more so because of the risk of retaliation and mistreatment, not to mention death. There are courage and bravery and principled positions behind walls. There is much there that we can find inspiring and respectable, even as there is plenty there (as on the outside) that we would find petty and deplorable.

May Billy "Guero" Sell's memory not be in vain, and as generations of athletes are inspired by Frank Morris and the Anglin brothers, may generations of activists and advocates within walls and on the outside honor his sacrifice with an undying struggle for dignity.

Props to Jonathan Simon, whose conversations with me last year inspired this post, to Caitlin Henry, whose work on behalf of the strikers inspires me daily, and to Chad Goerzen and Rhett Aultman for talking to me yesterday about Alcatraz and the power of myth.

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