When I came to prison, I thought that all the childish “Reindeer Games” played on the outside would become more brutal on the inside, heated up with aggression, insults and even violence, making my practice of joining the exiled much harder. But no one sits alone in prison.
I have always believed that no one should ever have to sit alone.
When I was in first grade, students left “Gwen,” a red-headed girl with a prosthetic tibia, to sit by herself in the cafeteria, on the bus, at the assembly.
I asked my mother why no one sat with the girl with the “pink leg.” After she realized what I was talking about, my mother tried to explain as best she could to a 6-yea- old, that there was nothing wrong with Gwen, that she had lost her leg to cancer as a baby. Other children avoided Gwen, she explained, because people fear anything that they do not understand. None of us knew what it was like to live without a leg.
“Don’t worry Mommy, I’ll sit with her,” I assured my mother like she was the child and I was the adult. And I did sit with Gwen wherever she was until I went to another school. I hated that circumstance forced me to abandon her, possibly leaving no one to sit with her in my stead.
After Gwen, I sat with anyone sitting alone or cajoled (sometimes commanded) the person seated alone to join me or my friends. Through my teens and young adulthood, I abided in a profound sense of isolation, being misunderstood, despite always being seen sitting with others. My sentiments were probably no different than what everyone else felt, but I was never humble enough to understand that the human condition includes me, it’s not about me. Still, that feeling of isolation sensitized me so much to a person sitting alone that I cannot stand even to witness it, much less let her continue to sit by herself. I will plop down next to anyone.
In the correctional facility here, I have found that I’m not alone.
Seats in the dining hall fill by the next comer regardless of whom that inmate wants to sit with. Inmates in line for meals fill every table in succession even though they may be separated from their friends or face rival gang members across the table. Without the option of exclusion, people get along at each table and use better manners because often they dine with inmates they do not know. Rather than creating the expected resistance and chaos, prison seating arrangements establish a peace in the facility that is hard to find elsewhere. Each inmate is one of society’s outcasts; innately we understand that it makes sense that we should sit together.
No one expects harmony to hum in prison cafeteria seating. I do expect that if everyone outside the prison asked “Is someone sitting here?” to someone sitting alone or scooched over, making room to include another person, the world would be a more peaceful place.
Chandra Bozelko is an inmate at York Correctional Institution in Niantic. Readers can write to her at:
York Correctional Institution
201 West Main Street
Niantic, CT 06357
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