Tue, Dec 31, 2019 - Page 13 News List

Seventy-two days in a Taiwanese jail

In the first of two articles, the ‘Taipei Times’ talks to a recently-incarcerated American about his experiences behind bars in southern Taiwan

By Steven Crook  /  Contributing reporter

The Taiwan Pingtung Detention Center was where Dane Harris called home for 72 days. He was released early this month.

Photo: Lee Li-fa, Taipei Times

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.

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.”

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