Many of us were waiting in line at an elevator for a tour of a multi-storeyed prison, which included a visit to an area where convicts were said to be held in “deep confinement.” Every few minutes a guard led a small group into the elevator and took them to one level or another, then returned for the next group.
When our turn came we went straight down to the lowest floor, passing several others along the way. As the door opened, the guard pointed at a stone arch and a stairwell leading to a region still further below, and said, “Once you get down those stairs, if you dare . . .” but his voice trailed off, and I felt a surge of fear tinged with curiosity of what we might see if we went there.
I assumed that the prisoners in deep confinement would be the most dangerous, psychopaths kept in cages like Hannibal Lector in Silence of the Lambs. Indeed, the level on which we had stopped was lined with cages all around, but other groups were already touring this area in what seemed a leisurely way, as if they had declined the guard’s challenge to go any deeper.
The elevator closed behind us, and we stepped timidly through the arch and began descending the steps. The stairwell was dimly lit and it took several sharp twists, but finally we reached a sign at the bottom landing: YOU ARE IN DEEP CONFINEMENT.
We had all felt some apprehension, but what met our eyes was a huge gymnasium where a thousand prisoners were sitting quietly — almost eerily — on risers surrounding the room, with some men and women even squatting on the floor beside us or leaning against the stone wall near the staircase. A few others jostled us on their way to look for seats (I instinctively groped for my wallet, afraid they’d steal it). One convict called me by name, and two men on the left looked at me curiously, as if faintly recognizing me, which only heightened my anxiety further. I smiled back bravely, but feared this crowd of inmates could attack us at any instant, or break into some riot of their own.
But the auditorium remained hushed. The whole throng seemed to be waiting for something to happen on the floor. And in another instant four prisoners were led out by an instructor who began putting them through a series of challenging and clearly unfamiliar aerobic exercises. The inmates on the risers watched their every move intently. Occasionally someone began talking aloud, but it took only a Shhh! from an officer to silence them.
One quarrel did break out — only briefly. The “instigator” appeared to be a man with a mental handicap, and another official simply led him away, gently and firmly, as if more of a social worker than a prison guard.
Yet the disquiet stayed with me through the remainder of the tour, and to the end of the dream. As I woke up, I was certain there must be hordes of seething energies down in the so-called “unconscious,” ready to erupt at any time and send my life into hell and bedlam.
I rose and went to the washroom, where suddenly, all unbidden, came this redemptive thought: These are the least of my brothers and sisters. They must be loved, every one of them. There is no other way. Then, as so often happens in waking from a dream, a song began playing in my head: Let there be peace on earth, and let it begin with me.
Later in the day I realized that the energies in deep confinement are petty criminals. They’re almost likeable, yet often enough may become culprits messing up our peace in the quotidian rounds of a life. The deepest things are the most common, and perhaps the trickiest to rehabilitate — these everyday fears and angers, jealousies and guilts, the very things that make us human in the first place.
But see how still that great assembly had learned to sit! How unlike a mob they were, how ready to watch the show and take a turn on the floor when their time came.
Ratzlaff is the author of three books of literary non-fiction published by Thistledown Press: The Crow Who Tampered With Time (2002), Backwater Mystic Blues (2006), and Bindy’s Moon (2015); and editor of Seeing it Through, an anthology of seniors’ writings published by READ Saskatoon. Formerly a minister, counsellor and university instructor, he now makes his living as a writer in Saskatoon.