I have been corresponding with Michael X. Smith, an African American male, who was convicted of capital murder by an all-white jury and is currently serving the fourteenth year of his life-sentence in a Texas prison. Michael claims that he did not commit this crime and has attempted for over a decade to gain a re-trial to prove his innocence. In my correspondence with Michael, we discuss numerous topics including his case, his family memories, his experiences in prison, his faith, and his reflections upon Frederick Douglass’s first autobiography, Narrative of the Life. In a recent exchange, I asked him if he would be willing to share his thoughts on his experience of time and space in prison and to reflect on a specific passage from Douglass’s text. Michael not only agreed to this but also gave me his permission to share his reflections publicly. The passage serving as our improvisatory point of departure is one of Douglass’s most eloquent soliloquies expressing his longing for freedom as he watched sailboats—unfettered, white, and unconstrained—glide across the Chesapeake Bay. Douglass’s “sailboat” passage comes only a few paragraphs after another well known passage, in which he describes how his master, Mr. Covey, through inhumane physical and psychological torture had succeeded in “breaking” him and had left him in a state of despair. “My natural elasticity was crushed, my intellect languished, the disposition to read departed, the cheerful spark that lingered about my eye died; […] and behold a man transformed into a brute!”
As Douglass explains, Sundays were the only days that he had for leisure and reflection. However, given his brutal work regime and the physical and psychological abuse he suffered as a slave, once Sunday finally arrived Douglass had little mental or emotional energy to give to his own projects. Most often Sundays were spent catching up on needed sleep. When he was able to rouse himself in a “flash of energetic freedom” coupled with “a faint beam of hope,” the reality of his life as a slave quickly extinguished those momentary, flickering rays and thoughts of taking his own life, as well as Covey’s flooded his mind.
Douglass’s malaise sets the stage for his reflections on the paradoxical character of sailboats from a slave’s point of view.
Those beautiful vessels, robed in purest white, so delightful to the eye of freemen, were to me so many shrouded ghosts, to terrify and torment me with thoughts of my wretched condition. I have often, in the deep stillness of a summer’s Sabbath, stood all alone upon the lofty banks of that noble bay, and traced, with saddened heart and tearful eye, the countless number of sails moving off to the mighty ocean. The sight of these always affected me powerfully. My thoughts would compel utterance; and there, with no audience but the Almighty, I would pour out my soul’s complaint.
To those unfettered by the bonds of slavery, these majestic sailboats symbolized open horizons and the ability to pursue uncharted paths in order to make one’s mark on the world. To those like Douglass, constrained and stigmatized, the very same sailboats were reminders of the vessels used to transport thousands of men, women, and children to a strange land where their humanity was stripped from them and their value was now measured by their labor-producing capacities. Haunted by the reality these ships signified, Douglass addresses the ships with an apostrophe, unleashing his frustration and longings.
You are loosed from your moorings, and are free; I am fast in my chains, and am a slave! You move merrily before the gentle gale, and I sadly before the bloody whip! You are freedom’s swift-winged angels, that fly round the world; I am confined in bands of iron! O that I were free! O, that I were on one of your gallant decks, and under your protecting wing! Alas! Betwixt me and you, the turbid waters roll. Go on, go on. O that I could also go! Could I but swim! If I could fly! O, why was I born a man, of whom to make a brute! The glad ship is gone; she hides in the dim distance. I am left in the hottest hell of unending slavery. O God, save me! God, deliver me! Let me be free! Is there any God? Why am I a slave?
Douglass continues his monologue and ultimately resolves that he will attempt to escape his bonds, as he would rather die trying to secure his freedom than live as a slave. Inner dialogues of this sort in which Douglass reveals his existential angst as he struggles to keep his sanity and to avoid fall headlong into an abysmal state of hopeless and despair allow us to catch a glimpse of the mental and emotional energy required of the slave simply to survive.
Incarcerated persons experience similar sentiments, as they try to find ways to cope with their oppressive, hopeless environment—an environment in which time is often “lived through” as wasted, lost, and spent. In addition to the sense of lost time, prisoners experience time as an eternal now—a fixed point having no reference outside of itself; thus, temporality transmutes into spatiality. What in the outside world was experienced (at least to some degree) as possibility and movement grinds to a screeching halt and becomes a kind of immobility and closure. From an existential perspective, frozen time and spatial constraint form more of a continuum than two separate categories. What was the past is now no more, and the future, especially for those serving life-sentences without parole, is simply more of the same.
In a recent exchange with Michael, I asked him to comment upon Douglass “sailboat” passage. Here are a few excerpts from his letter.
Douglass is in bondage as a slave for life, identified to others by his black skin color, [which] is no fault of his own. I too am in bondage (prison) for life—not for anything I have done wrong, but for others looking upon my black skin and seeing me as a criminal (Michael X. Smith, Oct. 8, 2012).
Michael continues, comparing his confinement to Douglass’s enslavement and highlighting the loss that both experience.
We have nothing. Everything is taken away from you—all your family members, loved ones, friends. Even the people you are used to seeing around you—all are gone. You are isolated […] You only have your feelings and thoughts. You are helpless, confused, sad, lonely, powerless. You feel sorrowful, trapped, weighed down, crushed, unwanted, unloved and the list goes on. Then you see the officers go home every day. You see inmates, whose time is up and who have been in this place for many, many years, go home. I walk out on the rec yard looking on the other side of the razor-wire fence. I see the officers’ and employees’ parked cars. I look for any car to leave. Move car! Move on! You are free. Leave! O how I wish I could be free. (Michael X. Smith, Oct. 8, 2012).
As Michael implies in the above excerpt, the inmate likewise experiences time as that which the prison authorities control. In other words, your time is confined time—time parceled out and determined by the legal system and the prison authorities. Just as his fellow inmate’s time was “up,” Michael’s time is both frozen and, when allowed to “flow,” predetermined and managed by guards, officers, wardens, and other prison officials. In the passage below, Michael describes what it is like to live according to managed prison-time.
You are on their [the prison’s] schedule. [When it comes to] work, they give you the job, tell you your work hours, your days off, what you are to do, and when you come back to your cell. [They tell you] when you can go in or out of your cell, when you can get clean clothes, shower, and eat. [They tell you] what you are to eat, when you can go to eat, where to sit, when you can go to rec [recreation] or to the day room to watch T.V. […] Anything can change at any time: a lock down, a gang fight or some other type of fight, a shakedown of the unit (Michael X. Smith, Oct. 8, 2012).
With this last statement—“anything can change at any time”—we see that although time is highly structured for the prisoner, it is also unstable. Moreover, the inmates are cognizant of this instability, as they are all-too-familiar with the procedures, consequences, upheavals, and potential dangers that arise when a unit goes through a lockdown or a shakedown, or when a gang fight breaks out.
Just as time is experienced in multiple ways—as frozen, managed, lost, spent, wasted, and unstable—so too is space experienced. On the one hand, spatial confinement fixes one’s space to a 9’ by 6’ cell. On the other hand, personal space is illusory. That is, the inmate has no personal space, as his cell is always subject to invasion and intrusion. Addressing the latter, Michael writes:
There is nothing free and nothing that belongs to you. At any moment, your name and cell number can come up on the shakedown list. [If it does] you have to get out [of your cell] and the officers go through your stuff. If you get a write-up, they can take everything you have, except for legal materials. And do not make an officer mad at you. There is no telling what he’ll do to your stuff or with your stuff. And even in prison you can get locked up in a more restricted place […] There is no such thing as “my space” (Michael X. Smith, Oct. 8, 2012).
Since the inmate has no space to call his own, his possessions also become fluid, ungrounded, and discarded at a moment’s notice. Pictures of one’s family members, books, personal letters—all of which have emotional and deeply human significance—can be stripped from an inmate at any time. Again, paradoxically, the prisoner’s environment is simultaneously over-structured and structure-less. Given this atmosphere of instability and anxiety, an inmate seeking to find a positive way to deal with his stress must overcome extraordinary barriers—internal and external—in order to redeem his time. As Michael explains,
For you to get some rest in between all that is going on, you must be at peace with yourself and create your own time and place to rest. You do this by going to school, to the library, or to church. You choose who your friends are, and you do not let them choose you (Michael X. Smith, Oct. 8, 2012).
 If you want to learn more about Michael’s case, I have created a petition for him at the following website: http://www.thepetitionsite.com/393/petition-for-a-retrial-for-prisoner-michael-x-smith/.
 Frederick Douglass. Frederick Douglass: Autobiographies: Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave / My Bondage and My Freedom / Life and Times of Frederick Douglass. Edited by Henry Louis Gates Jr. New York: Library of America, 1994, p. 58
 Ibid., p. 59.
 This statement is taken from a letter Michael X. Smith wrote on October 8, 2012. As noted above, Michael granted me permission to publish his comments. I have modified his statements only in those instances where grammatical or syntactical ambiguities interfere with his content.