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Quite a Life

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It's quite a life, this.

In recent weeks I've been speaking and writing about the injustices being perpetrated in our overcrowded and inhumane prison system and especially condemning the torturous abuse of solitary confinement today being exposed by the hunger strikers in California's Pelican Bay and other so-called "correctional" institutions.

Then, two nights ago I had the opportunity to be in the company of some quite extraordinary men. It was at the initial west-coast screening of Never the Same: The Prisoner of War Experience, a documentary film by Jan Thompson about the horrors suffered by American soldiers who became POWs after the fall of Corregidor and the Philippine Islands to the Japanese in the early days of World War II.

As powerful, as devastating as was the film itself, even more so was meeting the 10 men present, now in their 80s and 90s, who had survived the brutality, the death march, the concentration camps, the torture, the "hell ship," the starvation, the torment and the slave labor imposed on them by their captors for years.

Not only had these heroic men survived excruciating years of conditions so heartbreakingly grotesque as to beggar the imagination, they had somehow maintained, or more likely reestablished through great personal struggle, a sense of dignity that was awe-inspiring.

I thanked them, but I wanted to weep. I wanted to embrace them, but except in a couple of cases was afraid it would be too much of an invasion of their carefully reconstructed personal space. I wanted to bow at their feet, to ask probing questions, but, again, was fearful of going too far too quickly.

But I am grateful for the experience of meeting them, of knowing perhaps only a small part of their story. And I was moved to think of what Laura Hillenbrand wrote in her book, "Unbroken," of others who survived such an experience. She said:

"... on Kwajalein, the guards sought to deprive them of something that had sustained them even as all else had been lost: dignity. This self-respect and sense of self-worth, the innermost armament of the soul, lies at the heart of humanness; to be deprived of it is to be dehumanized, to be cleaved from, and cast below, mankind. Men subjected to dehumanizing treatment experience profound wretchedness and loneliness and find that hope is almost impossible to retain. Without dignity, identity is erased. In its absence, men are defined not by themselves, but by their captors and the circumstances in which they are forced to live."

She quotes one as saying, "I was literally becoming a lesser human being."

Further, she wrote of "a dark truth known to the doomed in Hitler's death camps, the slaves of the American South, and a hundred other generations of betrayed people. Dignity is as essential to human life as water, food and oxygen. The stubborn retention of it, even in the face of extreme physical hardship, can hold a man's soul in his body long past the point at which the body should have surrendered it. The loss of it can carry a man off as surely as thirst, hunger, exposure and asphyxiation, and with a greater cruelty."

Looking into the eyes of these brave former POWs, these heroes, and thinking again of Ms. Hillenbrand's glorious articulation of the power of personal dignity and what the stripping of it, the rape of it, can do to the human soul, I am brought back once again to the men in our prisons: human beings so immiserated by their circumstances that they are willing to risk starvation in order to assert their need to be recognized, to be treated as human beings before their "identity is erased."

Yet today we learn that they will be force-fed like the wretched heaps of once-human beings struggling to survive in Guantanamo Bay.

I suspect the POWs' Japanese captors had somehow convinced themselves that what they were doing was justified, necessary, right, in some perverse way even good. And when I hear the authorities in our own state justify conditions the UN recognizes as torture and dismiss the hunger strike as not the last gasp of the "innermost armament of the soul," but rather as a power play on the part of gang leaders, it, again, makes me want to weep.

It took over 60 years for the Japanese Government to at last acknowledge their "inhuman treatment" and apologize. How many must die before we do the same?