My Stories

When My Racial Hatred Collapsed in Solitary Confinement

I have every reason to be angry with White America. Many boast that the U.S. masters the value of freedom, yet this country leads the world in the mass incarceration of over 2,266,800 people, 60% being non-violent offenders (U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics) and 60% people of color (American Progress). Many claim that this country stands on the ground that all people are created equal, yet in the name of national security, this country has deported over 350,000 people, mostly Latino/a who have no history or connection to “terrorists” (ICE). Some brag about the U.S.’s progress and economic pre-eminence compared to other nations, yet  it is estimated that nearly 50 million Americans, over 16% of the population, were struggling to survive financially in 2012 (Census Bureau). The harsh reality is that this percentage is made up of ethnic minorities: people like me and my family. Beyond facts and statistics, I have every right to be angry because I watched my father get deported when I was eight and watched my mother live in fear thereafter while she worked two jobs to make ends meet. The destruction of our lives and dreams left me interested in nothing else but the street life. I have every right to be angry with White America, and the social ignorance that many White people have, but sometimes God saves us from our hate.

I was in psolitaryconfinementcellauschwitz_1rison and the time came for me to be transferred to another prison. After a strange series of events, I ended up in the hole (officers didn’t believe that I was a Christian and that I stopped identifying with a gang, so they put me in the hole until an investigation was complete).

So here I was in the big, bad hole. No blankets, no pillow, no socks, and absolutely no property. Only an old, worn out underwear and a t-shirt that was probably used by thousands of inmates. And my cell: an 8-by-6 concrete room I had to call home for a month. This cell had one strip for a window, but it was covered from the outside with some type of dark tape in order to block the light. It was a lonely, dark, cold cell. It was an evil space that left me feeling abandoned and relegated to the worst punishment possible– absolute separation from community.

Anxiety got the best of me. I began to pace back and forth in my cell, panicking, wondering if my loved ones would die while I was lost in isolation, or if the police would finally discover the unresolved crimes I had committed in my youth. “Remember?” I would think, and then my mind would shift into self-condemnation: “You deserve to be in this horrible place! In fact, you should be forgotten here.” And on and on my mind would spin until I caught myself in conversations and arguments with myself, having forgot time, location, and consciousness.

I became an animal: unshaven and stinky. When food would be served through the little slot on the door, I would hunch and wait for the slot to open so I could immediately grab my food. I had learned from a previous time that I only had two seconds to grab it before the officers pulled my food away. As a Christian, I asked myself if God was still with me? I found it hard to believe it but I knew that I had to be faithful. With a piece of led that I found, I wrote “God is with you” on the wall in an effort to hope against hopelessness.

Then, there was a thump on the wall. Someone was making noise in the neighboring cell. I wanted to call out to him so bad, but I was a Christian, and a Latino. I had to be careful. Who knows what gang or ethnic group my neighbor belonged to. What if he was black, what if he was a Bulldog, or what if he was white? The prison rules do not allow for cross-cultural interaction. But who said we couldn’t communicate by knocking on walls? So I pounded back and waited for a second…

The pound was returned! I jumped. I got a response! This was amazing! It was so extraordinary to hear another human being intentionally respond to my pound on the wall, so I pounded again, this time sounding a commonly known melody but without completing it. I waited… and what do you know, my neighbor completed the known  remaining sounds!

“Hello! Hello?” I cried, “are you there?” In a muffled voice my neighbor responded, “Yes! I’m here. Have you lost your mind yet, neighbor?”

“I am getting there.” I replied.

“You want something to read?” he asked.

Something to read? I am dying inside my brain and you’re asking me if I want something to read? “Yeah, that would be cool,” I answered, trying to hide my excitement.

A few minutes went by and he shot his “fishline,” lead by a bar of soap, underneath my cell door. A fishline is usually made by pulling a string from the underwear and manually manufacturing thin rope out of it, then it is tied to a small piece of a bar of soap which operates as a hook. I grabbed the soap and wheeled into my cell a couple of work out magazines, and yes, I read them all. Sometimes we would play chess: we would both draw a chessboard on the floor with pieces of led, marking each square with a code (ex: A1 or B4) that we would loudly call out loud before moving chess pieces that were made from wet toilet paper. I could never beat my neighbor, no matter how hard I tried. But I was happy. God gave me a friend, even though I never saw his face.

Then shower day came. Two officers came to my cell and cuffed me through the door slot. Then after opening my cell door, I was escorted toward two phonebooth-like cages that had shower heads in it, and they put me in one. Then I heard another cell door shut and the sound of keys drew near. From the corner I saw the two officers escorting a tall and strong-looking guy. He was white with a shaved head, probably in his mid 30’s and his body was covered in tattoos, namely swastikas, thunderbolts, confederate flags, and “white pride” slogans.

“You must be Paz-02,” he said, having probably heard my name from the officers’ calls.  “I’m Matt, your neighbor.”

I looked at him. My neighbor’s name was Matt and he was personally talking to me.

“Yes, I’m Paz. Nice to meet you, Matt.” I responded. He inserted two fingers through the small cage holes as if to shake my hand. I hesitantly put forth my two fingers and shook his.

I was astounded. Here we were, two men in the middle of the cellblock, in a place where racism reigns and the rules of the game are “no cross-race/ethnic/cultural/gang interaction.” I don’t know Matt’s story but what I do know is that both he and I were taken from an environment of concentrated racism and were relocated to a place of utter abandonment, of complete marginalization, of total isolation, where human interaction was not just something desired but something absolutely needed. Something that one would probably trade everything for. And here, in this desperately dark, cold, and lonely place, none of that mattered anymore. What mattered to me was that I had a companion of sorts–a friend who, though perhaps would have been at enmity with me in general population (ordinary facilities), relinquished hate and embraced friendship because he, as well as I, discovered that friendship was more valuable than the politics of people. In a way, God visited me through Matt: through a racist skinhead–a prisoner who stood as a symbol of racism–God dismantled my prejudices, by making him my neighbor and my friend in a dark place, a place of incomprehensible loneliness.

I have every reason to be angry at White America. And I am. But this experience in solitary confinement changed my relational trajectory. While I am committed to fighting against social and institutional racism, I am just as committed to seek the salvation from prejudice for my White American brothers and sisters. I have tasted the need to be one with others and I have experienced the beauty of human community in the place of abandonment, even with people who are supposed to be my enemies. What I learned was that as justifiable as hate can be, love is so much better. Love wins. But in order for love to win, we have to be willing to encounter human community with the “other.”


One thought on “When My Racial Hatred Collapsed in Solitary Confinement

  1. Gerre Brenneman says:

    Thank you Ivan. Your message is needed, your voice is appreciated, and your tone is full of possibility – an invitation to community and reconciliation. I pray that your mission field is to white people and others who are willing to stand with you but unaware of what to do. God has created you to be many things including a leader. I know he will show you first the “whom” to lead and then the “how.”


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