Friday, May 13, 2011

Prison Time and Liturgical Time

Review of Avi Steinberg, Running the Books: The Adventures of an Accidental Prison Librarian (New York: Nan A. Talese / Doubleday, 2010)

As our friend Shubbar sits in his sixth week of arbitrary detention, I've just finished reading Running the Books: The Adventures of an Accidental Prison Librarian, by Avi Steinberg. Steinberg's and Shubbar's stories raise two common questions: What does it mean to be deprived of one's freedom? And how does one experience time in captivity?

Steinberg grew up in an Orthodox Jewish family in Cleveland and Boston. After graduating from Harvard a few years back, he was adrift from the community of his youth and adrift in his career ambitions (like so many young college graduates these days). But when he applied, and got hired, for a job as a prison librarian in a Boston jail, he found his voice and his story. He tells that story with self-deprecating humor, bittersweet pathos, street smarts, and quiet literary elegance. This is a coming-of-age story with unusual depth and richness.

As a blogger and author concerned with how liturgical time can transform our engagement with the world, I found the most eloquent passage in the book in a meditation on the experience of holiday times in jail.
Time has its own peculiar meaning in prison . . . . Although a person in prison always has countless hours, he has no access to time's attendant meanings. When it comes to time, most inmates are like the tragic mariner: water, water everywhere, nor any drop to drink. There's endless time but not the nourishing kind, no seasons, no holiday cycles. At least, nothing that can be shared with others.
When snow collects in the yard--it is winter. When your cellmate smells particularly rank--it is summer. But these things don't imply anything beyond themselves. Snow doesn't mean sledding with your children, or skiing, or playing football or going to concerts for Christmas. It means snow.
The closest approximations of seasons in prison are the gambling seasons. When the Super Bowl gambling crunch hits, it is winter; when the NCAA basketball tourney happens, it is spring. These are the Christmas and Easter of prison. Aside from these sad interludes, prison time is neither marked nor shared by a community. It is personal and moves toward one holiday: the end of one's sentence. Each individual follows his own private eschatological calendar, which has only one holiday, the Last Day, the End of Days.
This is a very practical matter for those who work in prison. When you leave before a holiday, a well-meaning caseworker instructed me, you don't say "Merry Christmas" to the inmates. It doesn't make sense and, as she added, "It's kind of a slap in the face." In prison, seasons are best left unmarked and unremarked upon (pp. 375-76).
Imprisonment, then, expresses both literally and figuratively what it means to live flat, secular time. There are no seasons and only one holiday: escape. One lives in a private, solitary world, sharing no common times. It's truly hell.

In the meantime, living out of liturgical time, I am praying for an end to Shubbar's current ordeal: for his return to the many festivals and celebrations of the Shiite calendar among the bosom of his family. In this Easter season, surely we can hope in the One who broke down the gates of hell and liberated the first prisoners.

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