Getting Used to the Darkness (Part I)

“Darkness, la noirceur. It’s the darkness.”

We are in prison, in a common room for inmates. A kitchenette, a TV fixed to the wall, a few chairs, some couches.

By Colin McGregor

He’s spent 40 years behind bars. Only last week did he get permission to leave the jail for a few hours at a time, on passes: an activity beyond the walls with a few inmates, chaperoned by a citizen.

“You know, here,” he tells me, “everything is always lit up. It’s never dark. I haven’t seen darkness for a long, long time.”

He points out the window at a floodlight: 50 feet tall, a gray metal post crowned with some very bright lights. As we talk, it is daytime. But it is true that there is no night in prison.

When the sun goes down the prison is bathed in a white-orange glow. In Cowansville, parents show their kids the glow from the local prison as a way of warning them what could happen if they misbehave.

He clears his throat, then continues: “I wasn’t really prepared for that. When we stepped out of the van, the street was plunged in darkness. I’d forgotten what that looked like.”

He explains that he was prepared to face any other situation. But not darkness.

It’s commonplace to associate darkness, or the night, with evil. In Britain, one particular politician with a shady past was described as this: “There is something of the night about him.”

And isn’t one of the Devil’s nicknames the Prince of Darkness?

But if you haven’t seen night for many years, heavy, enveloping, you miss it. Its comfort, its regularity. Like clockwork. Like when you miss snow at Christmas if you live abroad.

Prison is constantly flooded with light, like Las Vegas.

In a Vegas casino, there are no clocks on the walls, and the floor is lit the same bright way 24 hours a day. The goal is to disorient the gamblers. Make sure they lose track of time.

The notion of time disappears like the money they bet. Seconds turn into hours; hours, into seconds. The goal of lighting a prison is not to take away your sense of time, but the effect is the same.

Do we lose a bit of our soul when everything is brightly lit? The author and aviator Antoine de Saint-Exupéry was one of the first to fly over North Africa at night as part of France’s postal service.

“At night,” he wrote, “reason and logic sleep, and things simply are.” We don’t try to organize everything we have yet to do; we stop judging the people around us. In the darkness, we simply are.

Seen in Reflet de Société, Vol. 27, no. 3, été (summer) 2019, pages 26 – 27

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