Mercedes Cruz and Sandra Ocasio at Riker's
Riker's Island, NYC Dept. of Correction.
Prisoners of war who come
home alive often talk little of the torture they endured and much about
the ingenious means used by fellow prisons to care for one another. You
cannot wall out compassion.
I was not sure what
I'd find at Riker's Island, but I'd been told that several amazing women
were caregivers to the inmates. In a setting where so many women had histories
of abuse and addictions, and high risk behaviors of almost every kind,
it was inevitable that they would come to prison bringing AIDS with them.
Perhaps it was equally inevitable that, once there, they would find caregivers:
chaplains, educators, social workers, even matrons and guards. I was amazed
by the compassion they demonstrated in the least compassionate of all surroundings.
But most of the caregivers
of women with AIDS in prison were other women in prison. There were dozens
of them at Riker's Island. When women stood to hesitantly admit that they,
too, had tested positive for the AIDS virus, the response from their fellow
inmates was potent. In spite of prison-culture toughness, they wept together,
holding one another and rocking back and forth, reassuring each other like
the mothers and grandmothers who held them years before.
Victor Frankl once
said that he and his fellow survivors of the Nazi death camps would always
keep alive the memories of extraordinary heroes who had been imprisoned
with them. The most remarkable, he said, were the men who walked through
the camps giving away their last piece of bread so others could live another
Compassion has limits, but surely
it is not bound by walls.