At last, the South Wing falls! It burned too many souls

H.B. Johnson

May 13, 1993|By H.B. Johnson

SO THEY are finally razing the Maryland State Penitentiary's notorious South Wing, probably the most hellish place in the Free State. I say hooray! Tear it down, tear it down, tear it down!

At least we know the roof is gone. A crane swooped down from above, opened its mouth and gripped the top of the South Wing in its teeth. It bit and pulled. The roof came away, while I stood in the yard and applauded. Smut and rust flakes burst from the corners of the crane's mouth as it chewed on the South Wing's head.

There was something strange about the dust that settled in the prison yard that day. As I looked at it, I could see them. I could see them as clearly as I now see the letters on this page.

I could see the South Wing's dead: all those who didn't make it: the mental patients; the rebels born to die with their boots on; the collaborators swinging from bars, sheet ropes around their necks. I could see the many eyes: the eyes of the innocent, tortured and wet; the hollow eyes of the guilty; the eyes of the truth-seekers, penetrating, perhaps a bit too open and sincere.

I also thought I heard something. I listened again. Yes, it was there. I heard screams: the rage threatening to choke a nation to death, the cries of those being bludgeoned in the South Wing.

I'm not the only one to have seen and heard these things. Nor am I the only one here who is celebrating tentatively. A roof demolished is only a start. The entire South Wing has to go, and bureaucrats can change their minds.

But as the crane did its wonderful work, I gave it a standing ovation. I was approached by a sad-eyed fellow prisoner about 60 years old who has been in the prison most of his adult life, a man who is a total stranger to freedom. He wanted to know if I was feeling well, and I told him I was indeed. "Then why the hell you standin' up hea clappin' like a fool?" he said. "All they gon' do is build another jail!"

"That may be so," I said, "but at least the destruction of this one shows that there are those who care."

He looked at me and shook his head. "You crazy," he said. "You know that? There should be no goddamn jails at all!"

Now it was my turn to look at him. "I agree," I said. "But there is something we must now consider, and that is this: If our crimes are actual and not magical inventions, we must pay for them. Now I ask you, is it not better to pay for your misdeeds in an environment conducive to healing than to pay in a cruel place like this Maryland Penitentiary and that God-forsaken South Wing?"

The old fellow went his way with a few words I can't repeat here. I returned to my clapping. I didn't give a hoot who thought I was crazy, who thought me wrong for saluting the death of the South Wing.

That place had burned too many souls and crushed too many lives. Once in it, you came out badly damaged -- if you came out at all.

H.B. Johnson Jr. is a poet and playwright doing 35 years in the State Penitentiary.

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