As many of us spend time at home for the holidays, we remember that millions of people in the US and at the border remain incarcerated, separated from the people and places that ground them. Jacob Davis, in this emotionally and intellectually-gripping personal essay, reflects on imprisonment, homesickness, and hope. This essay was first published in print in Issue 12.
“I wonder what the city will look like when you get out,” Jeannie says. She sits in her car at a downtown intersection in Nashville on her way to protest the CCA stockholders’ meeting. I sit 45 minutes away at Turney Center Industrial Prison.
“There’s so much construction,” she says.
“I think more about what the house will look like than the city,” I say.
Our front yard garden in Old Hickory Village is beginning to thrive this spring. An artful chaos of vegetables, herbs, and flowers is a jungle in embryo. The cyprus vines begin to climb the front porch where we have a rustic table, two old chairs, and an Indian rug. Conversations between friends and family play out here daily over glasses of wine, conversations I only join over the telephone. One of the chairs is mine, but I have never touched it. Recent photographs arrive for me in the mail, and I download them into my head, rendering the scene in my imagination as realistically as I can for now. Despite my absence, I have helped to form the place with care. It bears my touch lightly; it haunts the initiated.
“I’m glad you think of the house more,” she says. “It’s just strange, sometimes. This city is such a part of me now. I have so many memories that you’re a part of, but you don’t really know the city.”
She is right. I don’t know Nashville very well. Before prison I lived in rural Tennessee outside a small town named Fayetteville, and I rarely visited the capitol. When I did, I was a tourist. I visited Opryland as a child and went to a few concerts as a teenager. Darker memories surface of a love affair that would eventually land me in prison, a triangle that ended in murder when I was 18 years old.
Now more than 19 years have passed and I know the city through the eyes of others, especially through Jeannie’s eyes. Prisoners from Nashville (mostly from north Nashville) assume I know the city because we have a house in Old Hickory. In such conversations, the names of places fly right through my headspace because I have no direct memories to reference. Although I spent time as a staff helper at Riverbend prison, Nashville is mostly a theoretical place to me. I have a lot of virtual filler, the necessary replacement for experienced knowledge of a place. Some of that filler is rich and detailed, but some of it looks like generic scenery in an old video game. The best stuff comes from Jeannie. The rest comes from television, the papers, and a thousand expatriate stories I have heard in prison.
A phrase hangs in my head as I talk to Jeannie this morning: virtual expatriate. As opposed to the real expatriates who came here from Nashville.
“I could do a better job at that,” Jeannie offers. “I could take more pictures as I go places in the city and help you get to know the layout and the texture of it. You would love Nolensville Road. Ideally I could send you a map, but ugh you can’t have one, of course.”
As a virtual expatriate, this seems like a beautiful proposition. I need to know Nashville better because I love people there. We desire a shared context which the system tries to deny us in order to satisfy those who want prisoners to die a social death, to disappear and to stay disappeared. So Jeannie and I resist through reform advocacy and through smaller devotionals, like photos and letters.
Jeannie’s offer humbles me, but only later can I articulate the reason. My absence from the people that love me and their absence from me unnecessarily tortures our bodies and threatens our souls. But I should take care not to attribute more power to the prison than it actually has. The boundaries that we set for the physical and the conscious self are to some degree artificial. A sense of place arises from being part of that place and letting that place be a part of you. Although I have never been there, our home in Old Hickory is a part of me that tingles like a phantom limb. I may be physically separate from the context, but I still feel it through my connection to the people I love. When she offers to send me pictures and write me letters about the city, she tends a severed appendage. Such tender grace humbles and inspires me, but I cannot wrap words around it in the moment. So in response to her proposition I say simply, “I would like that.”
Most people have never heard of the place from which I was torn as a teenager. Swan Creek, a tributary of the Elk River in southern middle Tennessee, defines the contours of a fertile valley about 20 miles outside of Fayetteville. Swan Creek Road, where my parents and sister still live, follows the course of the creek north to south between Highway 64 and Highway 273. Judging from the sheer volume of artifacts found in washouts, in fields, and in the creek itself, the native inhabitants of that country once found it a good place to be as well.
The creek’s banks are steep, slicing through the rich soil in some places as much as 12 feet down to the surface of the water. Good fishing and swimming come around in the summer, a secret coveted by a few people among whom I can no longer count myself. Tobacco once grew in the fields along the creek and hung drying in the barns in late summer. Every year when fall approaches, I recall the smell of curing tobacco mingled with that of the cows gathered at the Hamiltons’ milk barn. For now, no tobacco is grown and no cows are milked, but the Hamiltons still own most of the choice land along Swan Creek. I am satisfied that Will Hamilton, a man my age who was a childhood playmate, still looks after his father’s and grandfather’s portions. His father Buddy died of a heart attack in the fields when we were children.
My family still owns a stamp of land behind a field that keeps horses. My mother and father held jobs in nearby cities when my siblings and I were growing up, but we supplemented our needs through gardening, canning, hunting, and fishing. Our garden gained a reputation for its health and production. For years I swore the only secret was child labor. Weeding and watering duties conflicted with my fishing time. Now I have only gratitude for the experience. Our dependence on the stores in town dwindled the more we relied on the land, but we gained more than can be measured with money. The solitude and slow excitement of wade-fishing in the creek, for instance, shaped my character as a man. I later became a Hemingway devotee based almost solely on the fact that he captured something of the mystery of solitary angling in “Big Two-Hearted River” and other stories.
Almost two decades’ absence from my rural upbringing has only sharpened my appreciation for the life we led. In prison, one lives as much sometimes through the memory of the past as one does in the present. The feel of fish taking the bait, the curving yank of the rod, the brackish smell of the slow-moving water that first betrayed the fish’s presence—these impressions are enshrined in my soul. Likewise, the smush of cool, fine-tilled garden soil under bare feet and the copper scent of butchered deer meat on a cold day remain instantly accessible to me. A full basket of vegetables in the summer and a freezer full of meat in the winter: these ideas convey a sense of security and satisfaction to me even now. Without these, we would have been forced to live in town and give up the peace and pleasure of living close to nature. Although mom and dad worked in town and we spent plenty in the stores, our consumerism was a means and not an end for us. Could we have maintained a sufficient standard of living only through our activities there, we might never have had much reason to go to town.
I was not conscious as a child of how this philosophy of life was working its way into my bones, but now that some reality shows are focusing on just this sort of life, I joke with my dad now that he was ahead of his time. In the 1970s when he finished a second enlistment in the army, he lived as far off the grid as anyone could at that time. In the ‘80s and ‘90s when I was growing up, we slipped between both worlds. I asked him why he had chosen that path after his military service and he replied, “Well, I didn’t want to work!” The truth, of course, is that he left a broken home at 17 and worked hard his whole life until his health began to fail, and so did my mother. It took me coming to prison and living in this quintessential concrete rat race to fully understand by comparison the essential value of nature, open spaces, and privacy. Now I have profound respect for my parents’ choice to sacrifice consumer convenience and economic mobility for the sake of the life we led.
Living in a city is not exactly like being in prison, but it is definitely closer to it than living in the country.
While urban decay was ravaging the cities, I attended tiny Boonshill Elementary School, a place so old and full of character that part of the structure reputedly dated to the antebellum era. The cemetery abutting the school property housed graves from that period, and the big oak under which the buses parked in the afternoon saw the digging of those graves. As an adult I mourn the books lost from the decrepit library when the community demolished everything but the gymnasium, a structure filled with polished hardwood.
During my time there, about 100 children attended grades K through 8, all of whom played together at least an hour a day on the sprawling property. Some of the older kids carried boomboxes and snuck away from the teachers to listen to rap music. Only white kids went to the school, and those whose family income placed them above the poverty line achieved the status of ‘rich’ kids. Nikes and Reeboks were as rare as updated textbooks.
After my sixth grade year, the school closed, replaced by a newly built school that served two formerly separate districts. On the last day, we tagged our names everywhere we could, told stories with exaggerated nostalgia, and had an all-day water fight. The whole school participated, even the teachers, all cohesive in a way I never saw before or since. Later it occurred to me that I had witnessed the end of something I did not begin to understand at the time, a tradition in education that probably stretched back to the arrival of Europeans in the Tennessee Valley. From then on, the school classified us and divided our time according to a more disciplined pattern.
The year was 1991, the precipice of alternative rock, gangster rap, and the Internet pumped right into my bedroom through the phone line. A neighbor family sent a son to Iraq who returned unable to sleep. I can still see Mark after the war staring feverishly into the fire at 3 a.m. on a camping trip. Bombs exploded in the desert on the television, but Los Angeles soon burned as well, and Dr. Dre came out of what seemed like another world to tell me, “It’s like this.” As I began to understand the tainted legacies that produced war and sustained oppression past Swan Creek’s small horizons, I perceived in direct proportion how that remote context had sheltered me. Mark’s stare would soon prove portentous for my own life.
Now that I have borne witness to my generation’s struggle with war, economic stagnation and incarceration, the life we led on Swan Creek seems to call out with some promise of redemption. There is a powerful purity in the way it nurtured me, shaped me, and inhabited me as I inhabited it. When I tasted the harvest, just like any cow or coyote, the place became a part of me. I still remember the distinctive hint of the soil in everything we ate and drank, from the well water and the sweet corn to the deer and the bluegill.
I have read that every cell in our bodies dies and is replaced after a period of years until we become physically other than what we were. At 19 years old, mere hours after being sentenced to an impossibly long prison sentence, a police cruiser drove me to a classification center in Nashville and left me where not one soul knew anyone from my community nor anything about the land that produced me. Three months later, I was sent to a CCA prison where someone made a lot of money to disconnect the cells of my body from their land, my home, in the name of justice. I have been wrestling to reconstruct my life’s meaning ever since.
I must acknowledge the brutal truth that when a life is taken, nothing can restore it. In the face of this horror, what redemption is possible?
Yet, I once sat at the feet of nature and learned about cycles, about life arising, life converging, life declining, and life arising again to be reborn. When I imagine redemption for myself or for this society with all its sins, I cannot help returning to that schoolmaster. There’s something pleasing in the cycle: land, city, prison, land again.
We are more than our material components. No man-made structure can tell us who and what we are. Wendell Berry suggests we should let our identity be informed and our actions be guided by affection. Who, then, am I? My heart flies to Swan Creek and Old Hickory Village, yet I have now lived in prisons longer than I was free. What land belongs to me? To what land do I belong? How do I answer the call to affection?
If I was still trapped by an eternal lament for my lost little corner of the world, I might have written this essay with one narrow point: that living with a meaningful sense of place is a privileged notion. Many of us must live where we choose not to live. Perhaps we cannot afford to live elsewhere—or anywhere for that matter. Perhaps the state controls our bodies. Perhaps forces greater than our ken snatched us up at a young age and we never overcame the trauma. Or perhaps we have sufficient means, but in getting those means we sacrificed the relationships that make a place more than just a place: relationships with people, creatures, land, and seasons. A relatively wealthy person who lacks affection for and from a living context seems to me no different from those stripped down to bare life by decades in prison. A reflection emerges between the result of a lifetime of service in prison and the result of a lifetime of impersonal, unfulfilling work. Although there are no hard rules, both tend toward alienation from people and place. This is no coincidence.
Yet only with our consent can the corrosion of prison or the pressures of life dominated by the labor market defeat the resilient human spirit. Sometimes it is exactly those forces pushing us toward alienation that, as we resist them, bring us to a deeper appreciation of our connectedness. A sense of the meaning of our lives emerges when we turn our will toward the soil of conflict and suffer to overcome challenges.
My journey began with deep regret for what I have done, a feeling of loss for the place from which I was severed, and alienation from the place I found myself forced to live. Prison in the mass incarceration era is formulated as an anti-context, a collection of concrete cages where bodies are kept on life support but where life itself is supposed to disappear. What could redemption mean under such a scheme? When I first saw all this up close, the sad drama of prison life seemed pointless to me, but as I started responding to the challenges of the context, took responsibility for my own path, and developed friendships with the good people I found, my outlook changed. I gave myself to my surroundings despite the suffering that this choice entailed and the place responded in turn. Home did not disappear—I brought it with me. With much toil and the support of companions, we have harvested meaning in our rebellious season.
With time I learned that incarceration and its historical antecedents are based upon a false duality that recognizes only home versus exile, outside versus inside, free versus slave. As Viktor Frankl and others have written, our freedom to choose that for which we will suffer and the meaning we derive from that suffering is the essential and last freedom we possess. No matter where we plant our feet on the earth, no matter what conditions we endure, we all have the same choice in the end. Divide up the world as we will by custom or choice, ultimately we are all human beings living on the same earth, and I am profoundly grateful for this chance I have to be part of the whole.
So, rather than argue that living with a meaningful sense of belonging is a privileged notion for some of us, given the dangers we pose to ourselves and the earth, I want to argue that a connection to place is a privileged notion for all of us.
The literature speaks of the prisons and jails of this country as the Fourth City because all our prisoners taken together would constitute the fourth largest city in the United States. I have spoken with affection for Swan Creek and my home in Old Hickory Village. Can I speak with affection about this Fourth City? How can anyone, even those whose livelihoods now depend as much on mass incarceration as any Southerner once depended on slavery, look upon this city of the socially dead with anything but horror?
We design our prisons to suspend human beings within the miserable minimums of life. And yet, there is more, something I have never seen captured in a reality show or a documentary. Anyone who has not lived or worked here will perhaps reject the notion, but here, even here, living through the lens of affection is possible. In my memory, in my imagination, and in my ongoing experience, I associate the prisons that have housed me with those who have shared each unique context, many of whom I love. Friends and fellow travelers they remain to me. I am grateful for the many meaningful relationships and experiences I have had in prison. Life here is not knives-out all the time, and even when it is, tragedy keeps its character no matter the setting. Life is life, no matter where we find it. It remains a choice not to see the humanity overflowing this context.
Since I cannot choose to blind myself to that humanity, and since I cannot accept the false division of beings from the place they inhabit, I have no choice but to express affection for the Fourth City. My experience has taught me that it is impossible for me to affirm life, to embrace humanity, and to feel positive about our presence on this earth if I do not begin with affection for the place I live, no matter the nature of the place. Call it a defiant act of affirmation. Allowing myself to feel devotion to the prison context was, for me at least, a precondition for liberation from a prison of the heart and mind.
One of the tropes of prison literature celebrates birds for their ability to fly over the fences. Animals living here either do not know or do not care that the place is a prison, and prisoners cannot help finding this fact fascinating. At no time is this more evident to me than when Boogle, the golden retriever I have helped to educate as a service companion for a physically challenged recipient, returns from a socializing trip outside the prison, which we jokingly call a furlough. Because he has lived here since he was a puppy, his excitement upon returning is almost uncontrollable. He drags the officers through the front building to get back to the setting, the people, and the other dogs he loves.
My participation in this program has raised ethical questions for me even though we use only bond-based, positive reinforcement techniques to educate dogs about the human world. Yet never have I questioned whether Boogle’s presence here is unjust because it is a prison. I experience his happiness every day. Other than a minor annoyance that allows small animals to escape pursuit, the fences mean nothing to Boogle, and the different uniforms disappear in his eyes. He sees us all as human beings.
Authors like Joe Hutto and Roger Fouts have only reinforced a conviction I gained growing up on Swan Creek that animal consciousness and human consciousness are more alike than we are taught to believe. The slow speed with which humans have recognized animal consciousness seems to be one of the by-products of the myth that we are somehow separate from and above the rest of nature. A brief demonstration of Boogle’s communication skills and abilities is enough to convince anyone that he is a very smart dog, but living with him so closely has taught me that he does not just think, understand, and remember. His mind is more than just a complex neural network cooperating with our own. Although we see it differently, we share a profoundly similar consciousness of the world we together inhabit. A version of the same world I know lives inside of him. This knowledge is so startling upon reflection that it forces me to reconsider how I think about this place. Why should I look down in judgment upon this creature’s point of view? When I remember what a privilege it is to have a place, any place, in the web of existence on this planet, I return with humble gratitude to the awe-inspiring, primal fact of the moment: I am alive, I am part of this place, part of the totality. When Boogle and I sit on the hillside as the sun goes down, I imagine him asking when he looks at me, “Why would you not want to be here with me?”
He is right. Whether the fences are there or not, he is right. This day, this hill, this grass, these trees, this sky. Yes.