It’s been almost a month since Dane Harris was released from jail, but the US national is still getting used to taking full steps.
“There was so little space in the cell that you didn’t move around, because you didn’t want to bump into other people. After two months there, my whole body felt different,” says the 50-year-old.
Harris was arrested in Pingtung County’s Manzhou Township (滿州鄉) on Sept. 22. Two days earlier, he’d set fire to part of a campground where he’d been staying for several weeks, because the manager had told him to leave. He was held overnight in a police station in Hengchun (恆春), then transferred to Pingtung Detention Center.
Photo: Lee Li-fa, Taipei Times
In the hours following his arrival, Harris wasn’t overcome by trepidation or confusion. Instead, he was engulfed by physical agony. Seeing his obvious discomfort, the guards moved him almost immediately from the four-man cell he’d been put in initially to a larger cell. But, through no fault of their own — Harris doesn’t speak Mandarin, and none of the guards present spoke more than a few words of English — the staff were misreading the situation.
“The distress didn’t come from the environment I was in,” Harris recalls.
For the first time in years, he’d gone two consecutive days without alcohol, and withdrawal syndrome had kicked in.
“The second day is when you’re in the greatest physical danger. That’s when some alcoholics die of seizures,” explains the Floridian, who says he began drinking heavily when he could no longer obtain the benzodiazepines on which he’d depended for several years to treat his sleeping disorder.
“My whole body felt like it was constricting around my heart. I was bent double. The staff thought I was doing this because I didn’t like the [first or second] cell, so they moved me yet again, into a room where I could have the top bunk and lie down whenever I wanted to.”
That didn’t do anything, he says, to alleviate the feeling that he was “about to curl up and die like a cockroach sprayed with insecticide… but just knowing I had that tiny bit of space [was psychologically helpful].”
The guards put an inmate who spoke some English in Harris’s cell. However, the two didn’t get along.
“He failed to make me feel any more comfortable, mostly because he wasn’t a big bottle of whiskey,” he said.
Harris found the bed hard and narrow, but it came with a pillow. As soon as his parents wired some money into his commissary account, he bought himself a foam pad.
Harris spent the next 72 days and nights in that cell, but not always with the same people.
“There was some turnover,” he says. “There were never fewer than three people, so there was always someone sleeping on the floor.”
Almost all of the people Harris encountered had already been convicted and sentenced. He was happy to see the backs of certain inmates, but dismayed when an Indonesian prisoner was transferred out.
“They took away my chess buddy!” says Harris, who’d improvised a set using paper and cardboard. To prevent gambling, the commissary didn’t stock playing cards or checkerboard games, and visitors weren’t allowed to gift games to inmates.
FIVE MINUTES OUTDOORS
Compounding the tedium, and exacerbating his mental fragility, Harris says he and his cellmates were allowed outdoors for just 20 minutes per week.
“We were given five minutes of sunshine every day except Wednesday, Saturday, and Sunday,” he recalls. “When the [American Institute in Taiwan] visited me, I mentioned the lack of exercise, and they immediately sent someone out of the room to talk to the warden about this. The warden’s idea of more exercise was, instead of five minutes, giving me seven or eight minutes. Nobody asked me what might be a reasonable amount of exercise. If they had, I would’ve pointed out that in the US, maximum-security prisoners get an hour per day.”
“It seems so obvious to me that, to maintain mental health, you need the endorphins you get when exercising. You also need sunshine to get vitamin D. But it doesn’t seem to be part of the mindset of the people in charge,” continues Harris, who taught English in Tainan for many years.
According to the Ministry of Justice’s Agency of Corrections, after Harris complained, his outdoor exercise time was prolonged from “around 10 minutes to 15 minutes.”
“Taiwan’s prison law stipulates that each inmate should have 30 to 60 minutes outside their cell every day, but because of overcrowding, limited space and equipment, and a shortage of guards, many inmates get just 30 to 60 minutes outside weekly. Prisons should increase the time outside cells in accordance with the law. This is the right of inmates, not a favor. In addition, we should give well-behaved inmates more freedom, to reach the goal of self-regulation, which is the final stage of a progressive system, and encourage them to qualify for parole earlier,” says Edward Y.L. Lai (賴擁連), a professor in the Department of Crime Prevention and Corrections, Central Police University.
Prisoners spent their exercise sessions walking in circles. “I jogged, but I never saw anyone else jogging,” says Harris.
Most days, Harris awoke hours before dawn. Unable to go back to sleep, he resorted to doing push-ups on his bunk. “That bunk bed, thank god, was so securely screwed into the wall that it didn’t shake or squeak.” During his time in the prison, he saw just one other inmate exercising in a cell, he adds.
Despite these workouts, he has yet to recover from the lack of physical activity.
“My hips still don’t feel right when I take full strides. When I extend my arms or legs, my body feels like it’s supposed to be cramped up. In the cell, you don’t extend your arms fully because you don’t want to invade someone else’s space,” he says.
Having the top bunk, Harris could at least lie flat whenever he wanted to.
“The people [assigned to sleep] on the floor couldn’t do that. For their sake, I didn’t hang out on the floor. I stayed on my bunk,” he said.
Harris stresses that such behavior — which was near-universal among inmates — seemed to be motivated by consideration, not fear. He was never afraid that a cellmate might hit him; he never saw or heard inmates fighting, or guards beating inmates. The only time he felt any threat or challenge was on his very first day in the second cell, where “the guys were all tattooed gangster types, and it seemed important to not show fear.”
At lunchtime, the guards passed a pot of rice and a pot of stew through a slot in the door.
“I was the newest arrival, so I was the last person in the line. There was more than enough food for everyone,” says Harris. “I put some rice in my bowl, but the guy before me took all the pork and cabbage out of the stew, leaving only liquid for me. Some of his cellmates called him on this, but he shrugged it off. He then ate the food that should have been mine, all the while staring hard at me. I had no fight left in me, because I was going through withdrawal. I was on the edge of dissociating.”
“Looking back, what’s notable is how exceptional that was. Nothing like that happened again after the first day. For the most part, the prisoners worked with each other. The guards were definitely considerate. The assumption wasn’t ‘it’s us against them,’ but ‘we’re all in this situation together.’”
“It wasn’t just ‘let’s be nice to the white guy.’ If you bought something from the commissary, or if visitors brought you some food, those things were automatically shared. Some guys had no money for commissary, and no one outside giving them support. When one of the people who had nothing was sent to another cell, we’d all grab something we had, and give it to him to take to his new cell.”
Harris agrees that he had it easier than many people in the same institution, but insists: “That’s no reason for people to be treated this way.”
As he waits to be tried in mid-2020 on a charge of arson, he views the prospect of spending three years or even longer in similar conditions with an amalgam of despondency and terror.
In part two, tomorrow’s Taipei Times looks into Harris’s struggle to stay sane and healthy while in detention, and how the authorities are trying to reduce prison overcrowding.
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