Vera B. Williams Reads from It Only Happens To Other People
When morning comes and they escort you to the maximum security prison, your last hope of release evaporates, and you are resigned to the completion of the process: sudden arrest, “questioning,” and imprisonment “until further notice.”
The effects of prolonged solitary confinement can be known only after a prisoner’s release. In my case I was held in total solitary confinement for five months. This means that your five-and-a-half by seven-foot cell is the circumference of your world for twenty-three hours a day in the first week, gradually relaxed to twenty-two hours after a few weeks. Exercise is confined to a high-walled compound the size of a badminton court. You are not allowed to speak either to your warders or to the convicted prisoners who bring food to your cell. You may not even wave to the other detainees on the rare occasions that you see them on your way to the clinic. For a while, books were allowed from home; then the “privilege” was withdrawn from all because of one detainee’s alleged infraction. The method of censoring books was always curious. Solzhenitsyn’s “The First Circle” was allowed, but I was not permitted Mailer’s obviously dangerous Armies of the Night. Your world and your life is your bookless cell. You may not write, and, in case you have hidden a pencil-stub, there are surprise searches on your person every few days. To distinguish you from the convicted prisoners, who wore an immaculate white, you are issued an ill-fitting gray uniform ….
The political detainee’s isolation from the world, even if he is not in solitary, is total and awesome. Even the men on the moon, as they took their first steps on another planet, were in continuous communication with the earth—an intimacy the detainee is not allowed with his own family. His singular loneliness accentuates an awareness of the use of oppressive power around the world. Imprisonment politicizes everyone. Arbitrary arrests and imprisonment without trial provide a new pattern and insight for him into the true nature—and the insecurities—of the governments that use them. To the detainee, the reasons for Eldridge Cleaver’s having to leave the U.S. are not so different from the imprisonment of Soviet or Czech writers or arrests in Pakistan or Rhodesia. And the invisible bond that grows between him and other detainees creates a new internationalism that is real and unshakable.
The political prisoner’s greatest fear is of being forgotten. His gratitude to any body or organization that keeps him alive in the outside world is humble and boundless. When Amnesty International in Britain declared me a “prisoner of conscience,” our underground grapevine was seething with excitement. It meant Uganda’s detention laws had been brought to world attention; for detainees who have been incarcerated for over three years, it was like breathing new air.
Uganda has used the pretext of an “emergency” to systematically remove democratic opposition for the last three years; more recently, it has been used to intimidate intellectuals. Uganda did not even lift the “emergency” when the Pope visited the country last month to dedicate a shrine to Africa’s first Christian martyrs, tortured and killed in 1885.
Today, the real martyrs in the country and on the continent may be the few men and women who remain silently behind bars, waiting for justice.