Jailhouse Journal V

“I share a cell with another guy. It’s more like a bathroom. There’s a sink and a toilet, and where a bathtub would normally be is our bed. It’s horrible,” one of the inmates says.

“Gosh” I say, eyes wide, trying to imagine living in such a small space.

Big things come in small packages.

A person’s a person, no matter how small.

From a small seed a mighty trunk may grow.


This week we open class with a video about a British artist who sculpts miniscule figurines. He constructs them through a magnifying class, balances their grain of salt-sized body parts on an eyelash or in the eye of a needle. He re-creates all sorts of characters from the Incredible Hulk to the Last Supper scene to the Wizard of Oz cast. I can’t fathom the hand-eye coordination needed to build these figurines, the patience, the self-discipline. The artist’s name is Wigan, and his inspiration comes from a discouraging childhood of dyslexia when teachers told him he would never amount to anything big. And he agreed, in a way. He listened to their words, to their put-downs, and decided to build something bigger. He discovered good in a world of minutia.

Wigan has become internationally renowned. He holds exhibits and sells his miniature sculptures for tens of thousands of dollars. He’s been highly profiled for his skill and has been awarded an MBE (Member of the British Empire) for his services in art.

As I watch the video, I contemplate these microscopic creations, and I can’t help but think about how many of these inmates might have had similar discouragements growing up. The more and more I come to the jail, the less I can ignore the socio-economic and racial implications around me. Those in these walls are predominately of ethnicities other than white and most likely come from a lower income bracket. It’s a social discussion I don’t want to or feel I can tackle right now, but one that’s constantly got me thinking about most of these inmates’ past and current circumstances.

Towards the end of class, a tour of kids walks by the classroom. The jail calls it “Scared Straight,” a program that’s meant to show children what can happen if they break the law. A few of the inmates mention how the officers bring the kids right through their cell blocks, and the discussion veers back to the cells.“They’re awful. And small,” the one guy says to me. “You know the size of that bathroom down the hall that you’ve been in. Like that,” he says. “So small.”

Small, I think. Small. How are they going to find inspiration inside that tiny block? How are they going to write themselves out of a life and a world that lies on the bottom rung of our societal hierarchy? A cell. A jail. Incarcerated. Constrained.

And then I think of Wigan. Of how he’s learned to slow his heartbeat in order to prevent his hot fingertips from pulsing too much while sculpting. Like learning to beat an addiction, like pulling a finger away from the trigger of a gun, he focuses on what makes him live: finding good in the small and unnoticed.


Filed under: Prose