On Place: Rachel Cupelo

Prison.  Jail.  The Pen.  Behind Bars.  The Big House.  Lockup.  The Clink.

Correctional Facilities, all, by many names.

No matter how you refer to them, their goals are the same – to deny freedom of movement, to punish, and to deter.  They are the places humanity languishes worst – or best, depending on your perspective.

Correctional Facility – it’s always the word “correction” that stops me.  My experience and education have taught me that there is nothing particularly correctional about these places.  In a system that claims to provide correction and rehabilitation, you often find nothing of the kind.  Instead, you find abuse – physical, sexual, and psychological.  You find those living with poorly-treated mental illness and HIV.  You find functional illiteracy, addiction, and corruption.  You find despair.

In truth, prison is a place where the inhumane flourishes, where malice and brutality are rule, rather than exception.  Love and kindness are revolutions nearly everywhere, but no place more so than prison.

There are many features about correctional facilities that are similar: the slightly stale-yet-antiseptic smell; the neutral-colored, chipping paint on the walls; and the oppressive, closed-in expanse of it all, the feeling that you are also trapped, also subject to the whims of those in charge.

Few places produce more evocative memory than the correctional facilities I’ve visited.  One of these was the Baltimore City Detention Center, closed in 2015.  Located in downtown Baltimore, and more commonly known as the Baltimore City Jail, it was one of the oldest correctional facilities in the United States before its closure.  Even after the 1959-1960 reconstruction, some of the original 1859 structure remained, and the outer walls brought to mind a much less sophisticated Azkaban.  I’ll spare you the mundane notice of tiny cells, and bone-chilling cold, even in the heat of summer.  What captured my attention was the Death House.

I abhor capital punishment, finding government-sponsored murder to be one of the most heinous facets of our justice system.  So the Baltimore death house was a place of dread.  I shook, breaking into a cold sweat as I viewed the cells where the inmates spent their final nights on earth.  The room, in which those inmates were laid out to have poison injected into ready veins, was sterile and chilled.  The bleachers in yet another room, where victims’ families and the media looked on to witness death, felt appallingly macabre.

And then there was the gas chamber.  Maryland is one of just a few U.S. states to have ever had cyanide gas on hand as an option.  Even then, only four inmates were executed this way in the late 1950s/early 1960s, though the procedure was an alternative well into the early 90s.

The chamber was tiny, built into the wall, with a heavy door and several windows.  The individual who ran our tour of the jail urged us to sit in it.  I refused at first, repulsed.  But then my friends did, one by one, so finally, I did too.  We laughed nervously.  We joked.  And then we walked away, still giddy.  In all, it took us less than 2 minutes to become completely desensitized to the violence of that room, and to degrade the memory of anyone who had ever walked through it.  Though a phenomenon well-documented in academic circles from criminal justice to psychology, it was precisely as I had feared: that I, too, was capable of forgetting their humanity, and of relinquishing my own.

It was a moment of clarity that comes to me again and again in my writing: how assuredly prison dehumanizes you, how rapidly a place can become far more than a windowless, concrete box.  When writing about prison, I try to capture the emotions first, in all their variety.  So entirely suggestive is that emotion, that the description of place, never just aesthetics, naturally follows, until a concrete box becomes Hell itself.

In my stories, “It Didn’t Matter At All,” “There But For the Grace of God Go I,” and “Breaking All The Rules,” I try to capture the devastation, and incredibly, the hope, in such systematic cruelty.   The first two stories represent particular features of the corrections system as pieces of a larger plot – visits, and drugs behind bars (“It Didn’t Matter”) – as well as racism, religion, and stepping out from behind the wall (“There But For”).  “Breaking All The Rules” presents a more complete view of institutionalization and daily prison life.

With these stories, I sought to embody the reality of our corrections system, and how place, in this instance, signifies so much more than location.  I write about prison not only to thrill and fascinate, but to educate and foster discussion.  Despite the fact that 2 million people reside behind bars in America, few Americans know the realities of prison life, the inequalities in our justice system brought about by racism and poverty, or how former inmates successfully re-enter society.  The communal imperative in writing these stories, whether they are fact or fiction, and thereby forcing a cultural change, is enormous.  Without that cultural shift, we are doomed to repeat the same mistakes.

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BioPicRachel C. Cupelo is an immigration paralegal for a private firm in the Washington, DC area.  She graduated from American University with a B.A. in Justice (2008), and a M.S. in Justice, Law, & Society: Public Policy (2009).  Cupelo is a longtime fiction writer, proud to be published with BleakHouse Publishing in their literary magazines, Tacenda Literary Magazine and BleakHouse Review, as well as their short story collection, Lethal Rejection: Stories on Crime and Punishment.  She has won the Tacenda Literary Award for Best Poem (2008) and Best Short Story (2011), and is honored to be a BleakHouse Publishing Consulting Editor as of Spring 2015.  Cupelo is currently completing her first independent novel.

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About the “On Place” Series

In honor of my first poetry collection–I Have Conversations with You in My Dreams, in which most of the poems engage with place in some way–I have asked other writers, authors, and poets to compose blog posts about the effects of place on their own work. To enter a contest for a free copy of the book, please leave a comment on any of the blog posts in the series. One winner will be selected at the end of February and one at the end of March. If the winner already has the book, he or she may select a different book from my collection.

For the schedule of blog posts, please see this page.

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