Recently my wife, Peggy, and I listened with rapt attention to a CD recording of the John Grisham novel, The Racketeer. The 2012 Doubleday publication was a page turner from the very start. It caused us to miss a turn on the highway on our way to our Michigan lake house.
The Racketeer is the story of an African-American attorney, Malcolm Bannister, unjustly disbarred and jailed for an alleged and complicated money laundering scheme. It’s about his escape from a federal prison near Frostburg Maryland by means of an equally complicated and fascinating scheme of his own.
Such an interesting novel deserves a separate review. My point here however is different. It’s autobiographical and theological. It’s about the reflections on my own life and on God that The Racketeer stimulated.
You see, Malcolm Bannister’s life in his prison reminded me of my own time served in a similar institution under an infinitely worse warden. It caused me to remember my own escape and the way I finally told the warden off.
From the age of 14 to 27, my life featured the same restrictions as Bannister’s. There was the same dull prison food, interactions with a self-absorbed overseer and redeeming friendships with fellow prisoners. Only, since I was so young, life in prison meant minimal contact with women – nothing at all romantic, much less sexual. The warden had this weird attitude towards sex. He didn’t care for it at all, and didn’t want us to either.
Like my own, Malcolm Bannister’s prison was minimum security. It had no walls or razor wire. There were no gun towers or barred prison cells. Inmates lived large dormitories or in single rooms with a cot, desk, chair and window. Everyone wore the same uniform. But prisoners were free to roam about the paths winding across the institution’s wooded acres. Escape would be easy, but few “walked off,” because capture would bring reassignment to a real hell-hole. That was my experience too.
The similarities between Bannister’s warden, Robert Earl Wade, and my own were uncanny. As mentioned, both were self-absorbed. But mine was far crueller – the most sadistic person I’ve ever met.
Offending the warden in my prison wouldn’t merely bring reprimands, punitive labor assignments or restrictions on free time. Ultimately, it would result in real torture that was almost unspeakable. We quaked in the warden’s presence. And, no more than children ourselves (at least at the beginning), we had to mouth his praises unceasingly. He was to be our first thought on waking in the morning, and the last before retiring at night.
The warden thought he was God; and so did we. He had ways of knowing everything. We were convinced he could read our minds. And just in case he couldn’t, we were forced to declare forbidden thoughts and deeds to him once a week. (That’s where the warden’s sexual hang-ups played a central part. Yes, we were required to fess up to entertaining sexual thoughts.) As a result, we prisoners were entirely self-regulated in an extremely repressive way.
Almost nothing we did (apart from the prison’s compulsory athletic events) displayed the freedom and spontaneity of the children we were and the young men we became. For those not athletically inclined, even the requisite “play” was torturous, I’m sure.
As for me (apart from the sports), what saved it all were friendships with fellow internees. That was Bannister’s experience in Frostburg as well. The inmates I lived with were uniformly smart and unusually witty. As a result, they lightened the sameness of our daily life with unrelenting humor – mostly of the inside gallows variety.
Finally, I had enough. I did the forbidden thing. I just walked off. But before leaving, I told the warden what I thought of him. Who did he think he was . . . God? “You’re not God,” I told him. “You have nothing to do with God. You’re just a projection of a system of absolute control that keeps young people from growing up. It keeps us all children! And once those you have ‘schooled’ in your prison are released, they inflict your hang-ups on others. That’s a big reason our world is in such a mess.”
Of course, the system I’ve been describing is the one that trained priests for the Roman Catholic Church. It’s the seminary I experienced from my early teens till ordination at the age of 27. And its warden (the one we thought was God) is a fraud. Unfortunately, he’s still at work in the world – still torturing people.
No, I don’t regret the time I spent in the seminary. Moreover, I’m sure others would see life on the inside much more positively than I’m expressing here. Sometimes I do too. After all, life there gave me discipline and some valuable academic training – absolutely free through my doctoral studies. Without those gifts, my subsequent life as a professor of Peace and Social Justice Studies would have been impossible. For all of that, I’m eternally grateful. Who wouldn’t be?
And I haven’t lost faith. It’s just that my idea of God has changed radically. No more Prison Warden. Only the Supreme Self in whom we live and move and have our being. Only the God of love. Only the God embodied in his prophet, Yeshua. Yeshua’s God breaks down separation walls of all types. That’s the one who liberated me from prison.
I just wouldn’t want to experience that jail time again. It was the dullest, most restrictive and spiritually wounding period of my life – formative years that (apart from the goodness of my fellow inmates) were little different from Malcolm Bannister’s prison camp. (The picture at the top of this post shows the high school seminary I attended in Silver Creek, New York from 1954 through 1958.)
Those dark years [and (ironically) the academic legacy they gave me] have always stimulated my resolve to help others escape from the confines erected by the false idea of God-as-prison-warden.
That’s been the thrust of my life as a college teacher. It’s what I’m attempting to do on this blog site.
7 thoughts on “My Secret Thirteen Years in Prison”
“What doesn’t kill us makes us stronger”….well…your post is this saying on steroids, Mike. I’m the “Former Offender” (FO) specialist here at my state employment office. The majority of 20-30 year old FO job seekers expound enthusiastically about how being forced to live in prison for a year or two saved their lives (wake up call!). That’s not what you are describing, though. Your former seminary sentence sounds like the worst of 15th century jails. Irony, indeed, that you escaped with a Dalai Lama’s heart full of the shekinah, bodhisattva, tzadik groove. The 30-40 year old FO job seekers who cleaned up after their incarceration are just frustrated that it still keeps them from the better jobs, almost taking their transformation for granted, not for the miracle it actually was. The 40-50 FO crowd seem to be those who learned to like it there through many revolving doors. You know, it’s familiar, they know the rules, etc., although “Orange is the New Black” doesn’t cut it. Prison seems more like Sartre’s “No Exit”!. Yet there are always those for whom the warden (metaphorical or living person) changed them for the better, one of the prison counselors, perhaps, or their drug rehab leaders, or their newly discovered faith. Like squeezing icing through the paper cylinder, but coming out with a work of sweet art. Teacher, leader, prophet, you always led and revealed through your demeanor the knowledge of God as the embodiment of love. Thank God you came out alive. I sure thank God for you!
I really admire the work you’re doing. Something similar may be opening for me with Berea College. It’s been invited by the Bard Prison Initiative to institute a college credit series of courses at the medium security prison in nearby Danville. I hope to be part of that program. In any case, there’s going to be a exploratory meeting about a pilot program on the 29th of this month. Work with former offenders like you’re doing is such a service. Congratulations.
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You will so love that program, Mike. Have you ever worked in a prison? Quite interesting, and really fun in some ways. Working (even for a little while) on the “inside” makes all the difference when you work with the former offenders in your office later. I always find a way to let them know I’ve been there, and their ears perk way up for whatever else I have to say. Rock on, and thank you!
Thanks for this interesting blog posting, Mike. Amazing how many good people emerged from this prison/seminary. And I’m sure that many were wounded or ruined by that experience. I’ve known a number of war resisters who were in minimal security prison. They would always tell me that–it was still prison–pretty miserable.
Your blog is a generous gift to the world, Mike.
Thanks, Bob. Perhaps I’ve overstated the case. As I said I benefitted to much for those years in the seminary. It represented a passage through one stage of my spiritual development, which I bought into with all my heart. But when I think back on my life, it’s the only period I’d rather not go through again. For me, it seemed long and endless. I was always counting days and years — like, I’m told, people do in prison.
HI Mike and All
I wonder if you have experienced the NVC course by Marshall Rosenberg and if you have any one-liner views?
My Son will travel to Albuquerque this July to take the course for his work.
BTW Mike I really enjoyed my years both in Milton Mass (with you) and 4 years in Dalgan Ireland.
We did not have minor sems in Ireland.
The Boys in Rome where my boogymen…in steroids!
And still are – I am happy to report!
I’m sorry, Jim, I don’t have any information on Rosenberg, though (having looked him up on the web) I probably should. I too enjoyed those years at Milton. My remarks were more about the minor seminary. However, I have to say that my main point (about God as warden) applied across the board. I’ve come to see that the portrayal of God as judgmental, condemning, jealous, and punitive was extremely harmful. And then as priests we were to inflict that understanding of God on our poor unsuspecting parishioners. (I recall going through long bouts of scruples that were literally torturous. But I suppose that was partly some character flaw on my part.)