Limbo Is Real

It used to be believed by Catholics that a place existed where souls who were destined for heaven but were prevented from the beatific vision remained, awaiting Christ’s Ascension, or in the case of those guilty only of original sin,  for some sort of divine indulgence (presumed).  Like so many other traditions of the Catholic Church this belief has been abandoned by laity and cleric alike.  But limbo IS real.  I live in limbo right now.

It is a component of the criminal “justice” system that when a convict is finished with the imposed sentence he will remain in a period of limbo for a period of time, in my case, three years.  The convict is no longer incarcerated, but is still subject to the full weight of the federal government.  Not that every living person isn’t already, but in a more particular way.  It is a quirk of the system that although I have retained my first amendment rights, and thus, I may write this post, and for the time being, practice my faith publicly, I have lost my 2nd, 4th, 5th, 6th, 8th and 14th amendment rights.  For the 99% of you unfamiliar with the Bill of Rights and other constitutional amendments, here’s a link.

In brief, because of my conviction for mail and securities fraud, I may not posses a firearm (or even be in close proximity to one, lest I be deemed to have potential control over it), I may not refuse any search, reasonable or not, of my being, property, or the space I may occupy in private or public, I may not move about as I wish or need, I may not seek the best possible employment, I lack the freedom to remain silent, I do not have the right to a speedy trial or to confront my accusers, I may suffer, as I have already, cruel and unusual punishments or unreasonable bail requirements, and I do not benefit from the Due Process and Equal Protection laws of the 14th amendment.  The central government refers to this condition as ‘Probation’.  Probation infers a time of testing or trial, but since this period seems to me to include also a punitive condition-the denial of certain benefits accorded to others, albeit not perfect union with God, I think limbo is more appropriate.

I am told I will remain in this state for three years.  There is nothing I can do to help myself.  There is nothing that anyone else can do to help me.  I am not truly suffering in limbo, at least, not at the moment, and if I were, I suppose that would prove purgatory rather than limbo.  It is possible that at the end of three years, my time in limbo could be extended, even indefinitely, if the court is not pleased with me.  It is very likely that if the court looked hard enough, it would definitely NOT be pleased with me, because I hold many thoughts in my mind which would likely to be offensive to God and any number of people, modernists, yankees, communists, et al, and because most of us commit a felony every day anyway.  Sometimes more than one.  So it’s merely a matter of choosing to get you, not whether they can.

Don’t get me wrong, I have no plans to commit a crime.  I do not wish to leave limbo and return to purgatory.  It is just that I am both aware of the reality of my vulnerability-unlike, probably, you-and, perhaps more importantly, I no longer live in fear.  I am not indifferent to the future or to suffering, but somewhat more accepting of realities which I cannot change, and which, while unpleasant, and perhaps even unavoidable, may actually work for my good.  You don’t need to be a Catholic, or even a Christian to believe these things, although being one for many does not lead to this truth.  You need not even be a Buddhist, who practice a form of detachment which to me seems detached also from virtue.  I’m not that fond of virtue myself, vice always being more enjoyable, but I do hold virtue in my mind as something good and desirable.  It is inescapable, however, that suffering can be good for you.

It is ironic, to me, and I do love irony even when it is the hammer and I the anvil, that I retained this most potent civil protection of the 1st Amendment.  Is it because my expression of thought and faith are not dangerous, and thus the courts have found no cause to restrict them?  That surely cannot be, because I admit freely that both my thoughts and faith are dangerous to the status quo.  (Clarification, it is not ‘my’ thoughts but rather those beliefs which I adhere to which are dangerous to tyrants and modernists and their way of life, so before you report me to the thought police, reflect carefully, please).

Is it then, that I retain these first amendment rights because the courts have recognized that, however dangerous my expressions may be to society and the government, they are so fundamental to a free society that even for me, the lowest and most dangerous of society’s members, they must remain unimpeded?  Odd, isn’t it?  The pen is mightier than the sword, and there has never been a time when this adage was more true.  Surely the war of ideas is bringing about greater consequences now than in any previous generation.

Or is it that the most helpless members of a society are always the first to suffer as rights dissolve generally, and this should be seen by the rest of you as a warning about the erosion of rights? As a convict, I am certainly in that class of the helpless, stripped of the most basic forms of self defense, for even my conscience is not safe from examination and I lack the protections seen by the founders as being most important for the promotion of individual liberty.  Does the way in which we treat the untouchables and the unwanted in a society act as prediction of the future of of our culture?

Read Animal Farm, if you haven’t lately, and then write me about your thoughts.

Now I Can Speak

On my first day in federal prison, I was offered sex, drugs, alcohol and a cell phone, but it would be months before I had the opportunity to see a Catholic priest.

I had already spent nearly a year in a county jail, waiting to be sentenced and shipped to a federal prison, sharing a 15’x18’ concrete cell with 12 violent, career criminals, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.  During that 11 months, I believe I saw a Catholic priest on three occasions.  It might have been four, but it’s tough to remember those kinds of details when so much of that time was spent in adrenaline fueled survival mode, a bag of batteries in a sock in one hand for defense and a sharpened toothbrush in the other.  The Priest, pastor of the local Catholic church, came after tiring of my mother’s calls begging for him to visit me.  Or perhaps it was her prayers and not calls that were efficacious.

I was glad to see him.  His liturgy was not exactly the Missa Cantata I had frequented with my family prior to my arrest, but he brought with him forgiveness and compassion-as rare in prison as in the world.

Over the course of my 40 months in federal custody, Catholic services were rare.  In contrast, evangelical protestants had frequent-as often as daily-services.  The Jehovah’s Witnesses and the Nation of Islam were also very active, both in their evangelization and their activities.  It was not at all unusual for the Catholics to go months without any services at all, and even when they were scheduled, they were often as not cancelled.  “Security concerns” were usually the reasons offered, although I was in a minimum security camp with no fences or guards, with access to cars, knives, heavy machinery and chain saws, and these same ‘security concerns’ never impeded the protestants from worshiping, studying the bible, or just gathering for fellowship.

The Bureau of Prisons operates more than 119 prisons holding more than 200,000 men and women and is institutionally anti-Catholic.   During my time in the BOP, I experienced constant harassment, discrimination and retaliation for my attempts to practice my faith.  I made no attempt to lead a crusade, become a martyr, or make ‘waves’ within the system, or even to gain the same level of rights the other inmates had to practice their faith; rather, I wanted access to the sacraments on a semi-regular basis.

For respectfully expressing these opinions at the lowest levels of the BOP, and gradually working my way up the chain of command during my time at United States Penitentiary Marion, Satellite Camp, I was threatened, had my locker tossed, given extra duty, forced to work multiple jobs, watched my personal property stolen by staff and was retaliated against in ways small and large.  I was in no way unique, as dozens of Catholic inmates who transited through Marion during my time there shared identical stories of discrimination over the course of their 5, 10, 20 or 30 years in federal custody.

The consequence of this hostile environment towards the practice of the Catholic faith is for many men, despair, depression and abandonment of the faith altogether.  The very men who most need the opportunity to examine their consciences, hear the message of forgiveness and redemption, repent and experience the forgiveness of God and experience the graces which flow to us through the sacraments given us by Christ are denied them.

Worse, the hostile environment created by the BOP is not solely to blame.  The protestants have frequent services because they have the people, whether professional ministers and preachers or volunteer laity.  Their numbers and enthusiasm create an environment within the structure that offers a sort of protection from hostility-if the system offered it, which it does not.  (At USP Marion, the entire staff of chaplains and religious services personnel are protestant).

In my 40 months in custody, I received only three visitors who I was not related to by blood.  One was an ordained Presbyterian minister, the other an agnostic who refers to himself as a heathen, and a Catholic priest.  The Priest came once to hear my confession.  The other two came a few times a year.  They cared about how I was doing, and asked how they could help.  If a man zonq9who was raised in the faith and has been an active member of the Church for his entire lifetime does not get visits from his fellow Catholics while in prison, who is it that does?

In fact, I know that my experience was not unusual.  The more ‘religious’ the family and friends of the imprisoned, the more likely they are to be abandoned, shunned and ignored.  In contrast, for those inmates who are career criminals, their families, friends and associates view incarceration as an unpleasant, but necessary ‘cost of business’.  Incarceration is a badge, a sign of credibility, proof of success and rising importance in the criminal world.  For the white collar christian, it is akin to catching leprosy.  Letters, calls and email are ignored as if they could transmit the contagion.  Often as not, the “good” christian relatives of the incarcerated deny their kinship or disavow them entirely.

Before I went to prison in chains, I visited a few times as part of a Christian ministry.  I wish I had done more then.  I wish I had stayed in contact with the convict I befriended.  I wish I had sought out the families of incarcerated men to help them with hope, friendship and prayers.  I wish I had recruited others from my then-extensive network of Christian friends.  I wish I had given a small part of my life to these untouchables.  Now, I’m one of them and can’t help them, except by telling this story.