Life in Prison
by Luca Rossi
Copyright 2013 Luca Rossi
I'm innocent. That's what a lot of people will tell you in this god-forsaken place. I, however, truly am innocent. I want to scream it into the void in front of me, but my voice would get lost among thousands of others.
I'm in a cave hollowed out of a rock mass. In front of me, the enormous chasm swallows screams, cries and moans. The prison is in an immense hole that sinks dozens of miles into the ground. The cells are carved into its walls. We're tucked inside of them.
There are hundreds of robots that constantly move about, like bees in a hive. They distribute food in pill-format, take prisoners away, bring in new ones. The unlucky ones are transported on platforms, small flying disks just a few dozen inches in diameter. Keeping your balance and not falling is the first test of survival. When someone gets lost in the void, nobody knows what happens to them.
There are no common areas or outside recreation time. Cells, bars, robots, voices in the shadow, that's it. Well, I also have my cellmate.
His name is Narios. He sleeps and lives in the bunk below mine. Each of us has a little cabinet, a table and a stool. There's a holoprojector in the upper right corner of the room, next to the bars. On the other side there's a single dim light to fight against the darkness of the cell. Beyond a little door there's a sink and a toilet. This is our everyday reality.
When I came in on the flying platform, carried by two robots on either side, Narios was sleeping.
I had no idea how a prison worked and had never meet a prisoner before in my life. The robots left me on the cell floor. I heard the spooky metallic sound of the bars closing behind me. I tried to make out what was in front of me. The beds were on the left wall and the other prisoner slept on one bunk with his head towards the entrance. He snorted and turned over, annoyed by the noise.
My only ideas about this world had come from watching holomovies, when the criminals massacred each other in massive brawls.
He got up and came towards me.
He was bigger, taller and fatter than me, with thinning hair and a week's worth of stubble. He was wearing a frayed, dark blue prison uniform full of patches.
“Hi, I'm Narios.”
“Hi, my name is Germil.”
“First time here?”
What did that mean? Of course this was my first time here! I had never done anything wrong in my life, I never even stole candy as a kid.
“Yes, of course,” I responded.
“So what are you in for?”
I had no idea how to answer. I still hadn't been told why they had brought me here. “I was at home, in the evening. I was putting the kids to bed.” I stopped. Thinking about them made me feel a sharp pain in my heart. I went on: “My wife was washing the dishes. I had helped the kids brush their teeth, put their pajamas on and was starting to tell them a story. I heard the doorbell ring and I asked my wife to answer it. I heard her talking to some men, then I heard the footsteps of several people entering my house. I kissed the kids goodnight and went into the living room. I saw two guys sitting and waiting for me, another five standing up. My wife had turned pale and was looking at me, worried. One of the two on the couch showed me a badge from the national security service and told me that I had to follow him, without giving me any other explanations. I reassured my wife, telling her that this must have been some kind of misunderstanding and that I'd come back soon. I had no idea what they wanted from me. They took me to their space shuttle. Once I got in they told me that, for reasons of security, they would have to put me to sleep. When I woke up, they were unloading me on this planet. They told me that due to the crimes committed, I would be kept here while waiting for trail. Then two robots had me get on the platform and brought me here.”
My voice was shaking as I finished my story. I still didn't understand what was happening to me.
Narios listened without interrupting. “Were you up to some kind of trick?” he asked in a neutral tone of voice.
What trick? I lived a simple and innocuous life. Every day I went to work in the solar energy plant. When I finished my shift, I went home to my family. I spent my weekends with them on the boat at the lake, watching the birds, swimming and playing on the islands.
“No, I'm an engineer. I don't do anything but work and spend time with my family.”
The cell started to spin around me. I had to support myself using one of the bars of the bed.
“Hey, sit down.”
Narios brought me one of the two stools. “Maybe you pissed someone off?”
“Well...I don't think I have any enemies. At most there are a few coworkers I don't always get along with, but there have never been any problems.”
“I understand. Listen, there are a few things you need to know.”
Narios started to explain the simple rules of prison life.
You never get out for any reason, except when you're summoned for trial hearings. You wash yourself with the water in the sink. When they wash your clothes, you wait naked. Food is distributed in pills. Prisoners clean their own cells. You can chat, look at the holobooks, write, do exercises such as push-ups, squats and sit-ups, think and sleep.
If you can't take it any more, it's not too hard to force the cell bars open and take the big jump into the void to end it all down there.
The prison is called Varcoria and is located on Plezis III. It's as simple as it is perfect. Escape is impossible. There's nothing but the cell or death, life or suicide.
The days pass, each one the same as the last. I'm caught up into an endless routine: eat, sleep, wash, read, chat.
Narios tells me about his life.
“I got caught with a couple kilos of narcotics. I used and I sold. When I get out of here, I can't wait to go and do some pure plezis.” It seems like he really misses the stuff.
“How long have you been here?” I ask him.
“What? Are you kidding? How can you spend twenty years in this place? You'd go crazy after just a few days.”
“The hardest part,” he explains, “is when you finish half of your sentence. I don't know why, but that's when you break down psychologically. Maybe it's because you think of everything that's already happened here and you know there's still more to come.
You live hanging on to every little detail. Your arrival, for example, is an event, you know? Did you notice that, when you got here, everyone in the cells around ours asked if things were alright? I told them yes and for days everyone's been asking about who you are and why you're here. They think back to when they saw you passing by on the platform in front of their cells, how you looked, the expression on your face. It seems like something insignificant, but here it's what life is made of.”
I listen to his words, incredulously. Narios is like an animal in a cage. He moves with a self-assurance and naturalness that makes me uncomfortable. He seems to belong here, like he's at home. I'm frightened to see him so adjusted to this reality. I realize that after twenty years, there's really no other way.
“Once in a while one of us goes nuts,” he tells me, “and we try to help him. Generally, cellmates try to do everything they can to keep morale high. Neighbors will give advice. But sometimes you close in on yourself and don't come out again. Everything loses its meaning. You can't see the point anymore and jumping into the void seems like a liberation. When one of us goes, we don't talk about anything else for weeks.”
Talking is the only thing these people have. The voices from one cell to the other create an incessant buzz.
There's a holoprojector in the cell that transmits tens of thousands of channels. I'd like to catch a movie or the news every once in a while but, whenever we start watching something, Narios always wants to talk. He doesn't seem able to focus on anything for very long. Maybe he's just excited by the novelty of my company.
“Is this what you thought prison life would be like?” he asks me one day.
“Well, I only knew what I saw in the holomovies – lots of scenes of violence and oppression and dramatic prison breaks.”
“Every once in a while a few cellmates go at it, but for the most part people here try to stay positive. As for prison breaks, it's impossible to climb over the walls. There are hundreds of robots rolling up and down all the time. If someone is crazy enough to try, they'll only get a few yards up before they're caught.”
I tell him about my life and my work. I try not to say too much or give precise information on where I live or which solar plant I work in. From the holomovies, I learned that you never give very detailed information about yourself when you're in prison.
“You're not a criminal. I know people like me. Everyone here says they're more or less innocent, but we know who really is. You're not like us. You don't belong here. You'll see, they'll make you suffer while waiting for the trail, but then, when you go to the hearing, you'll explain who you are and, after a few days, they'll let you out.
Sometimes they just want to be sure that, if you know something, you won't waste their time and when they ask you'll spill the beans immediately. If they take someone like you and shut him up in here, I'm sure that after a few days of hell, you'd be ready to blurt it all out.”
He speaks confidently. After twenty years of this life he seems to understand how the legal system works. I hope he's right.
I try not to think about my family. When they're on my mind, my heart feels like it's going to explode. It's probably even more difficult for them than it is for me. At least I know that I'm alive, that I'm okay and that I can hang in there. I wonder what Sofia, my wife, knows and how she's holding up. What did she tell our children? She probably said that I was on a business trip. Sometimes the company organizes training courses in other places. Those are the only times I'm ever away from them.
I'm dying to hug them again!
I think constantly about what I'll say during the hearing. I want to explain my job at the plant precisely, trying to be as clear and as exhaustive as possible with every detail. The judge should understand that I've never done anything bad.
I tell Narios about it, and he reassures me. “I believe you. Whenever something happens, they lock up a ton of people. When they find out who it was, they let the others out.” He pauses. “There's no way in hell you belong in prison. When they figure it all out, they'll let you out of here.”
It seems like a perverse mechanism, but now I'm ready to accept any condition just to go home. However, a thousand doubts come over me: what if the reason why I'm here has to do with something that happened at the plant? And what if someone had unjustly accused me to cover up what they did themselves? And what if, without even knowing it, I had really done something wrong?
If you throw an innocent man in prison, he'll start to doubt that he's indeed innocent.
I remember when I was in elementary school, a classmate drew all over the walls with crayons. When the teacher grilled him, he accused me of doing it. The teacher punished me before I knew what I was being accused of. And after a while I even started to wonder if I was really guilty.
After a few days, a robot comes to the cell and calls for me. I get up and go to the bars, my heart racing. I'm terrorized by the idea of getting bad news.
“Your hearing before Judge Artis Majioris will take place in two days, on October twenty-seventh two thousand one hundred twenty-seven,” the robot tells me in a neutral tone of voice.
For hours, all I can do is think about the drudge's twenty words.
I repeat over and over what I want to say at the hearing.
The day finally comes. I carefully groom myself in the bathroom. There's a small, slightly cracked mirror. I rinse the standard issue comb under the water in the sink and adjust my blond hair until my hairdo is perfect. I shave. My blue eyes examine my sharp jawline: a perfect shave, too bad the judge isn't a lady. Under normal circumstances, you could call me somewhat charming.
Sitting on a stool, I wait for the robot to arrive. To distract me, Narios tells me about his job, his official job. He was a cook – a really good cook, according to him. I can't concentrate much on his words, but I like the feeling of having him at my side.
Two robots, carrying an empty platform between them, fly up and stop in front of the cell bars, which open automatically. I get up and walk towards them. I feel their hands latch on to my arms, to keep me from falling. Silently, we begin to rise.
I look at the faces of the prisoners whose voices I've been listening to for days. Their eyes are all glued on me. They know that my life will be decided in the next few hours.
The other robots continue moving in front of the cells. They carry along little boxes that contain food and medicine. A few accompany other prisoners whose eyes have the same incredulous and frightened gaze that I imagine I have, too. The sequence of cells goes on infinitely, both upwards and downwards.
After a few minutes, a perfectly smooth frame about 150 yards long per side appears on the wall. There's an opening in the middle of it, a short corridor and a metallic door. We're heading there. Once we go through the door, we walk down a long corridor with metal walls, floor and ceiling. We walk in through a second door and enter a circular room about twenty yards in diameter. The walls, ceiling and floor are white. There's a chair in the middle.
“Have a seat. The hearing will begin within three minutes,” one of the two robots informs me. They leave me alone. The artificial intelligence programmers working on these androids certainly gave them the gift of brevity, I think with a bitter smile.
I walk to the middle of the room. I sit down and wait.
The walls and floor disappear. I'm in the middle of a courtroom. I know this technology: it's a type of virtual reality where the scene is a projection and the objects are holograms. It's indistinguishable from a real place, as long as you don't try to touch the objects.
The room is empty. The judge enters after a few moments. He's young, with short, dark hair parted on the right. He looks at a holobook. “Good morning,” he tells me, without lifting his eyes. In his courtroom, I think, I must appear as a hologram.
“I'm Artemio Geracis. I'm here to record your deposition. Ready to proceed?” Artemio Geracis? Who is he? Where's Judge Artis Majioris? I study the individual in front of me, he looks like a paper-pusher.
I make an effort. “Good morning, your honor. I was informed that the hearing would be held in the presence of Judge Artis Majioris.”
Error! I'm sure I annoyed him with my statement. And he makes me understand that. He lifts his eyes up. “The Judge can't be present at this hearing because of other commitments. Your deposition will be sent to him telematically. Please proceed.”
“Pardon me, during my detention I was not informed of the reason why I was detained. Would it be possible to have more information on the reasons why I was incarcerated?” Now I seem to have a formal and proper attitude. My request is more than obvious. In theory there's no reason why he'd be irritated.
“Listen, it's not my job to provide you with any information. I'm here to take your deposition. If you don't want to proceed, I'll report that you preferred to abstain.”
I'm terrified. The situation has become even more absurd and surreal. Is this a dream or a joke? Meanwhile the paper-pusher has raised his head and is staring at me, impatient.
“Judge, can I appoint an attorney to assist me?”
“Your legal assistance will be provided by a staff attorney, and your family will be notified of the appointment. In any case, you are not allowed to communicate with your legal counsel for reasons of security.”
Security? What kind of mess did I get mixed up in? I don't know what I've been accused of, or who my attorney is, and I have to make a deposition on I don't know what.
I feel like I'm losing but I make an effort to describe who I am and what I do, what my tasks are at work, who I hang out with. I show that there are no grey areas in my life. I try to give a complete picture. I try to understand from his expression if I'm convincing.
“Are you through?” he asks me, without showing any emotion.
“Yes,” I nod.
The courtroom disappears. The circular room is once again white. The door behind me opens. I turn my head. The silent robots appear beside me. Thinking about the cell I'm probably returning to makes me want to vomit.
“Everything okay, bro?”
Narios' eyes are sweet and paternal. He started calling me 'bro', who knows why. I want to say yes. I tell him what happened. I'm a little down.
“Come on, don't worry,” he says to cheer me up. I can't be consoled.
“Hey, Germil, what's with the sad face? You said everything you had to say. You explained who you are and what you know. As soon as the Judge hears your deposition, he'll realize there's been a mistake and you'll get out of here. So you'll find out whose ass you need to kick for getting you caught up in this mess for two weeks.”
Narios is kind. I hug him.
The days pass and every time a robot comes near our cell, a wave of terror washes over me. Why am I so convinced that bad news is on its way?
I hear from the legal system a few days later.
The robot stops in front of the bars. My heart leaps out of my chest. Narios puts a hand on my shoulder, shakes my hand and smiles.
“Hey, bro, it's over.”
“Thanks, Narios, whatever happens, I'm really grateful for everything you've done.”
“Germil Isiek, you've been sentenced to seven earth years and two earth months to be served in the Varcoria prison on Plezis III. Do you wish to appeal? Any legal expenses will be paid by your family, subject to their approval.”
The smile on Narios' face disappears.
“Yes, yes,” I babble. “I want to appeal.”
The robot silently moves away from the cell.
I stretch out on the cot. I thought I'd feel bad, but I actually don't feel anything.
Narios leaves me alone.
I'm calm. I'm not overcome by sorrow. Seven years and two months. I don't feel rage or discomfort. Now I know what I'm in for. I feel like a soldier who, when wounded in battle, doesn't feel real pain until he's sure that he's safe in the trench.
I lie on the cot for hours. Irrelevant, tiny, scattered thoughts cross my mind. I force myself to not think about my family.
New day, same routine. I thought that I would be overcome by pain, but still nothing. It's as if I was anesthetized. Actually I don't know what I feel.
Two robots stop in front of the bars. I go out as I am. This time, unshaven and with messy hair. What do they want from me?
We fly up and pass the opening that leads to the hearing room. We go up further. How high is this place? The walls are now smooth, we've left the lower cells. There are fewer robots up here. I see above me the large cupola that separates the chasm of the prison from the planet's toxic atmosphere. Just twenty yards below the top, we go through an opening, similar to the first one. Even the corridor we walk down is identical to the one that led to the courtroom. The robots stop in front of a door. I understand that I need to go forward and enter a rectangular space, with metallic walls and white furniture, ceiling and floor. The design is sparse and minimalistic.
On the left, two armchairs and a little sofa form a sitting room. At the back of the room there's a desk with a pair of two office chairs in front of it. I see a woman with long, smooth, dark hair down to her shoulders absorbed in reading. She's dressed in a slightly dated grey, simple suit with a white shirt and black low-heeled shoes. Her face is slightly rotund, and she's not wearing much makeup, if any at all. She's pretty.
“Germil Isiek, I presume.”
I observe her silently.
“Please, have a seat.”
I sit down.
“Among thousands of prisoners, we don't have many engineers at your level. As a matter of fact, I think you're the only one.” A smile slips across her face.
Who is this woman? And why is she smiling at me like that? She seems like the kind of woman who has a lot to hide.
“You're in luck,” I respond. “Now if you have a problem with your solar panels, there's someone here who can take a look at it.”
I don't laugh at my joke, because it wasn't funny. She, however, lets out a shrill peal.
“I think the robots take care of the maintenance around here, actually, I've never worried about it.”
I start to really feel irritated and fear that my eyes betray my disgust.
“I'm the Director of Varcoria, Ally Bristis,” she says. She noticed my glaring expression and wants to make our respective positions clear, but immediately resumes her little smile.
In return, I pretend that this is a normal conversation.
“It's a pleasure to meet you, Ms. Bristis.” I respond, in a formal tone of voice.
“Six years and two months,” she says, thoughtfully. “Your appeal should come through in eight weeks.”
“Well, in the end, it's not too bad around here,” I say, ironically.
Is she really a fool or is she only pretending to be one? Maybe it's just prison policy to torture each detainee with her stupidity.
“Alright, we'll have an opportunity to talk more later, but now I have a few things to take care of. Have a nice day.”
Now she's really being a jerk. Does she realize that I have to go back to a cell?
As we go back down, I wonder if it's worse to spend part of my life in a cell, or an entire life as stupid as Ally Bristis. After all, one day I'll get out of here. She'll probably work in this prison all her life.
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