Growing up as a preacher’s kid on the prairie, I knew nothing of the criminal justice system. I lived with my family in small farming towns, where life revolved around church and school, people knew their neighbors, and serious crime was a non-issue. Though I recall vague references among my peers to “being sent to Red Wing” (where there was a juvenile reformatory), anything to do with jails or prisons was not even on my radar. In the summer of 1977, however, in between my junior and senior years of high school, I decided to read Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago. The KGB’s arrest of the dissident Anatoly Sharansky was attracting considerable press coverage, and The Gulag Archipelago, Volume I was selling well enough to be available in paperback in a small, independent bookstore in Owatonna, Minnesota.
Over thirty years later, the shocking scenes of incarceration recounted by Solzhenitsyn remain indelible. The stark image of a bare cell, with only a bucket for excrement, a moldy, bug-ridden bedroll on the floor, perhaps an equally moldy crust of bread or thin, bug-ridden gruel, and a cell mate who may very well be an informer. Sleep deprivation, dragging down the spirits. Even more horrific was the slow-motion description of a jackboot, poised to press down on a prisoner’s testicles – on “that which made you a man.” A little less than five years later, when I reread Volume I for a college history course, the jackboot image tended to become conflated in my mind with Jack London’s “iron heel.” And yet conflated or not, the image of torture and abuse remains, calling out for a response.
In my prairie Eden, “I sang in my chains like the sea” (Dylan Thomas). Reading Solzhenitsyn opened my eyes to the gulags that can lie in wait after the garden is gone.