Old Man in the Cafeteria

4 01 2017

An old man just dropped his papers.  The young black woman in the absurd fur hat had just told him “No.”  In his nervousness, he spilled all that he was carrying.  She wouldn’t help him pick up his papers any more than she would grant his request.  She stands, shoulders straight, face forward, and watches him, her eyes cast downward – impassive and uncaring.

What was his request?  Something minor.  For someone who has been here as long as he has – since the Reagan administration – it had to be something minor.  He knows better than to ask for anything that will require much more than a nod of her head.

The old man stoops to pick up his papers.  He’s shaking, but I don’t know if it’s from age or the confrontation of the moment.  His legal papers, a jumble of typewritten pages, handwritten notes, and official envelopes, contain his proof – proof of how he has been wronged – proof of how the system has failed him.  I know this because I have a pile of papers just like his with its official court seals and signatures of attorneys who can afford me no more of their time.

He carries his jumbled pile to a nearby table where he takes pains to straighten it and remove the filth from the cafeteria floor.  He returns the papers to a folder crafted from a box which once held a dozen cans of grape soda – trash pressed into service to contain and protect his most cherished possession:  his hope.

A judge destroyed his life one day.  A judge took away his future and condemned him to age behind walls, to die slowly outside the view of his friends and relatives.

This is nothing new.  Every prisoner here knows this.  Every man here has been through the process.  Plead guilty to a crime you may not have committed, or exercise your “Right to a trial,” lose to an opponent with unlimited resources, and be punished four or five times worse for having the audacity to say, “I didn’t do that!”

This is justice in America:

  • Prosecutors who wield more power than judges and use the threat of extreme sentences to force the innocent to confession;
  • Judges who follow guidelines set by a congress eager not to appear “soft on crime;”
  • Defense attorneys who are as cowed by the system as the defendants and can only help by showing you where to sign your confession;
  • Corporations who profit from our policy of mass incarceration by supplying goods to the prisons, or even the prisons themselves;
  • Guards who supply drugs, cigarettes, and favors to inmates with the resources to make it happen, or who use their authority to express their hatred or racism.

The old man will try again.  He’ll approach someone else when another month of his dwindling reserve of life has passed and the sting of the disinterested woman is gone.

Thirty, forty years eventually passes and then the old man will be cast onto the street, his family gone, friends disbursed.  He’ll have no money and may even owe a huge fine.  Too frail and elderly to work, he’ll find a bridge to keep the rain from his blankets.

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