Welcome at the blog of Dini Commandeur. I've written quite a lot of columns for various magazines. I also write short stories every now and then. These columns and stories are available for everybody at this blog. I'll release new columns and stories periodically.


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« Word and truth | Home | The Tourist »

A dignified life

Monday 17 August 2015 For good fourteen years I am corresponding with people under sentence of death or imprisonment for life in America. Most prisoners I write to have been behind bars for decades already. Those sentenced to death are not allowed to work, and stay in their cell some 23 hours a day, alone or with a cellmate. You can hardly imagine what that can do to a person. When visiting a man who is sentenced to death I walked through a corridor like a cage between two prison buildings, and more than once I heard the screaming of men in solitary confinement. Some of them thumped desperately on the unbreakable windowpanes when they saw us visitors walking. A guard told me that de men in those cells were very dangerous. He said that the guards are not allowed to carry guns or pepper spray, and so they can’t defend themselves when things go wrong. So for everyone’s safety it is best these men are in isolation cells, he explained. I said this was ‘very sad’ for the men. But I didn’t go further into his explanation. He surely would not understand that in my opinion the men would profit by an other treatment. He was thinking like most of his fellow guards do: the prisoners have committed a serious crime and deserve punishment. That’s why they are in prison. And when they do not comply to the rules, are violent or mentally completely confused, then the only solution is to isolate them from the other inmates. Against my better judgment I did ask if these men were given some therapy or medicine like for instance antidepressants, but no...
Someone who is living in isolation for a very long time, can go mad slow and sure. And the indescribable loneliness causes the many suicides in American jails.

Recently the ‘Leeuwarder Courant’ published a column by columnist Jantien de Boer under the heading ‘Mensen’ (Human beings). She wrote about five prisoners, three of which had a life sentence, and the other two had ever been sentenced to long imprisonment. Until recently the men lived in a prison in Veenhuizen, in a section where they cooked their own meals in a separate kitchen. There was a gym with solid fitness machines, for exercise is important. The men enjoyed a fine view, Jantien wrote in her column. And there was a little garden they maintained. There were five hens to take care for. But now their accommodation was let out to the Norwegian government and Norwegian inmates occupied their cells. And the men had been transferred to another prison with cells in a narrow corridor. There was a kitchen, it is true. And the hens had been moved too. But when the men want to feed the birds, it is only allowed when they are accompanied by three guards who virtually never have the time for it. It is to be hoped that these hens do not starve to death by the lack of time of the guards. Poor little creatures. But: poor men, too. Their homelike surroundings, their ‘home’ was gone. Losing your freedom for ever is the highest punishment in our country. There is no prospect of a new living, no hope of a life outside the walls. But the garden, the hens, the atmosphere in Veenhuizen helped them make it through the day, through their life. Now they sat in front of the judge and said that they wanted back what was taken from them, in order to stay mentally healthy.
I hope the judge will listen to them and that they get it all back indeed. Sure, these men have terrible crimes on their conscience; acts that no man may get away with without severe punishment. But like Jantien de Boer wrote in her column: “Anyhow they are human beings.” Humans without any hope of a life outside the prison bars.

Although, you never know. I'm optimistic. Because just as people can change, insights and laws can change too. And maybe in the future one will think of another form of punishment instead of confinement for life. A punishment that will not destroy anyone mentally. It is really a blessing that we do not live in a land like America, where one doesn’t care much for mental suffering of inmates. Where apparently it is found normal that prisoners are held in isolation for years. Where prisoners bruise their fists by desperately banging the window panes of their cells, and scream till their voices are hoarse, to attract the attention of powerless visitors. Because then there might be someone who realizes how inhuman their situation is. Luckily in our country care is taken. Although there is no medicine for loneliness, in case of psychic problems one can get the right medication. And against loneliness visiting volunteers can drop in and pay some attention.
Here prisoners ‘for life’ are allowed, for the sake of their mental wellbeing, to ask the judge to get back their little garden and hens. Plus the homey atmosphere that goes with a decent living. And a decent living, a life with human dignity for men who will never be free again, isn’t that a thing that no judge can refuse?

Translation: Piet Commandeur and Irma Vos

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