the inside of Alcatraz

Free and Uneasy

by Mary Johnson-Butterworth

When I visited the Equal Justice Initiative Legacy Museum, I sat down at a booth where I was separated by plexiglass from a video of a prisoner who picked up a phone as I picked up my receiver.  This prisoner told me of his 12 years in solitary confinement and his struggles to survive, and then he shared his beautiful poem with me.  Given my recent passion for poetry, I felt that I had just had a karmic experience, and it affected me deeply.  I dedicate this poem to Mr. Ian Manuel, a brilliant writer, who is now free and currently resides in Florida.

the inside of Alcatraz
Outside this empty shell. Source: Derek Finch, Creative Commons

I am humbled to meet you

In a place defining legacy as atrocity.

Here in a cubicle with the glass between us,

I learn your stare before I sit;

Your stagnant gaze stings like lashes.

Lashes–but what do I know of lashes?


In terror, I reach for the receiver

While you do the same.

You introduce yourself to all who call

With a show of strength in sepia

As you share yourself on video.

Terror—but what do I know of terror?


You tell me of your bleak and solitary plight,

Of the fight with your tortured soul,

Of your twelve years in a cell alone

With no human breathing near you.

I have suffered my own confinements.

Solitary—but what do I know of solitary?


You speak of an exploration within–

Within your hourless term,

A timelost search for your voice

Within the breadth of your mind,

A mind that ever evades capture.

Capture—but what do I know of capture?


You proclaim the poem of your truth,

Well-versed in human pain,

Words meting out the inner you.

I listen with my newfound poet’s ear

To the meaning of your life.

Pain—but what do I know of pain?


Shocked by our common shred,

I return the receiver to the still shot

Of your shackled silence.

What reverberates for me now

Is of words you set aloft and free.

Poetry—for we two know of poetry.