Houghton County Jail, Michigan
That afternoon the trustee brings the local newspaper, The Daily Mining Gazette, to our cell and drops it off. The jail provides one paper for the whole jail and it is passed from cell to cell by the trustee. On the top of this paper is a handwritten note from this nut over in the cell across the hall. Before I came to the jail he had threatened an inmate in his cell so they put him in solitary. When the guy he threatened was released they put him back in the cell with the other inmates. There were already six guys in the cell, so he had to sleep on the floor, but said he would rather do that then go back to solitary. Then he found God, which happens to a lot of the people in here.
I’ve always wondered why it’s easier to find God when you’re miserable than it is when you’re feeling good. The note on the top of the paper is questioning our morality over in this cell. I guess he must have forgotten he’s in jail just like the rest of us, and this place isn’t a reward for being good citizens. It’s about punishment, which is what it’s supposed to be about. I might be an idiot, an alcoholic, you can even question my sanity, but I do know why I’m here and I don’t question them putting me here.
And there’s plenty of misery to go around in here: six bunks to a cell with a steel table bolted to the floor in the center of the room, and nothing else, no electricity, no radios, no clocks, no pictures on the wall, nothing. You can’t wear a ring, a bracelet, or a wristwatch, not even time is allowed to exist in here. Through the bars you can watch a TV out in the hallway, but otherwise, there are no activities. There’s no place to go, unless you consider an isolation cell someplace to go. You’re never allowed outdoors, or out of your cell. The exercise program is a half-hour walk down the hallways once a week.
This evening the guard comes by and asks if any of us want to attend an AA meeting here in the jail. A local chapter stops by the jail every Tuesday and holds a meeting for anyone wishing to attend. In space the expansion of the universe exceeds the speed of light. In a jail cell the speed of light slows, time ages, deteriorates slowly to a crawl, the expansion ceases to exist within the confines of this steel and cement manifold. I would do anything: I would scrub toilets to get out of this cell for a while and see someone other than my five cellmates and the guards.
At eight o’clock a guard called Doug comes and I go to the meeting. Doug walks me down the hallway lined with the cells to this small conference room that is just outside the visitation area. There are only four of us attending the meeting out of around five hundred inmates who are almost exclusively here because of getting stoned: me, my cellmate Deaton, who is tall, imposing with his long narrow oriental looking beard, the pill popper with no teeth from the cell across the hallway, and this chubby, pimply faced gay kid around twenty years old who has already tried to kill himself once. There are two guys from the AA group, a long angular man with light brown hair and a younger man, portly, dark and wearing Woody Allen glasses, who looks like he was gassed last night. Both of them are wearing dark suits with black narrow ties. They could pass for the Blues Brothers.
We all sit around in a circle. AA meetings always begin with the Serenity Prayer and the reading of the preamble: How it Works, which has the famous Twelve Steps in it. After the readings everyone gets a chance to speak. You go around the table one at a time, introduce yourself by first name only, and you’re free to talk, about anything; yourself, a question, a belief. Kangas goes first. “I’m Tony and I’m an alcoholic” he says. He then relates to us how he was at the hospital yesterday for a bunch of tests. The doctors found a growth in his brain, and are going to schedule him to go to Marquette to have further tests done, they are going to open up his head and see what’s in it. It was funny when he said it, but he isn’t trying to make us laugh. His voice is quivering, he is frightened; no wonder he’s at the meeting. He will be next to join the violent nut in his cell in finding God.
But the strangest thing at the whole meeting is when Deaton talks. The subject out of How it Works this evening is the second of the Twelve Steps: Came to believe that a power greater than our selves could restore us to sanity. Most people accept this to mean God. I took a good look at Deaton, into his eyes, when he said his dead brother was his “Higher Power.”
His brother had died of cancer at twenty-one, but Deaton said he was the happiest person he had ever met. He had a good attitude right up until the end and never stopped smiling in spite of his pain and facing a young death. And to AA’s credit, though they maintain you have to have a higher power to succeed in their program, the higher power does not have to be God, it can be anyone, or any concept you may have of God. It can be Deaton’s dead brother.