Breathing Places

A story from prison

by Nancy Hastings Sehested

It wasn’t the blood on the stairs that sent me racing back down the hallway, or the repeated cries of “Oh, my god!” that turned me away. It was simply this: I couldn’t breathe. I needed air. Air that was not saturated with pepper spray. With eyes burning, I coughed and sputtered my way back to where I could breathe again. After ten years at the prison, I knew where to go for breathing places.

Two nurses and six officers bolted down the main corridor to the housing unit where the assault happened. No one invited me to go along, of course. They were the first responders, not me. They had retractable batons, pepper spray, and handcuffs; they could stop the flow of blood or patch a gash of flesh. But me? I was useless. “Non-essential staff.”

It was 7:30 on a Sunday morning. I prepared for the morning worship service, oriented our new assistant chaplain, and checked on the forty volunteers who were leading a weekend spiritual retreat for forty-two inmates. As I walked through the lobby, the sergeant in Master Control announced “Code 4. Code 4.” Inmate-to-inmate assault. Then “Code Red. Code Red.” Medical emergency.

Staff materialized from all directions. I raced with them down the central hallway with the urgency of an ambulance driver. But unlike them, I made a quick U-turn at the red-stained stairwell and parked myself against a wall where I could gulp in air and watch from a distance.

An officer came down the hallway, bent over and gasping for breath. He waved for the control room to pop the outside door so he co­uld let in some fresh air. It wasn’t enough. He stepped outside, threw up in the grass, and returned to duty. “I’ve never seen so much blood,” he said. “I don’t know if the guy will make it. Blood was spurting everywhere.”

A nurse accompanied by several officers swiftly pushed the victim in a wheelchair toward the gatehouse and the incoming ambulance. When he passed by me, he was still conscious, pressing bloody towels against his neck. I recognized this large muscular man. I couldn’t imagine anyone messing with him. Who was the Goliath who attacked him, I wondered?

I didn’t know what to do or say. I flung out a prayer. “Luther, God is with you. Mercy to you!”

I heard a faint “Thanks, Chap,” as I watched door after door being opened for him and the emergency crew.

Left: Cross necklace made by inmate using plastic bags.

The lieutenant walked toward me and held out a blade about the size of a box cutter with a small plastic handle melted around it. “Chap, this is what sliced him open around his neck and face. It’s bad. Real bad.”

“Who did it?”

“A guy named Barton. That’s all I know.”

“Barton? There must be more than one Barton. I can’t imagine the Barton I know doing this. He’s one of the pipe-bearers for the Native American circle.”

“You just never know. Anything can set these guys off.”

The prison was immediately put on lock-down. The assistant chaplain, one week on the job, went home with his un-preached sermon tucked under his arm. Our volunteers were allowed to complete the retreat with the inmates. They called it a miracle that Luther was alive and prayed that his life be spared.

One day later I saw Luther through his solitary confinement cell window. He showed me his stitches. Almost 200 trailed down his face and neck. He said he felt lucky to be alive. I agreed that he was truly fortunate and asked him what happened.

“Barton jumped me. That’s all I know.”

That was not all he knew, I was sure of it—and maddening to think I might never know.

I was given permission to see Barton. He was no Goliath, more like an average-sized man in the middle years of his life. He was fully shackled and was led into the conference room by three officers. He slowly eased down into the plastic chair at the far end of the table from me. Chaplain confidentiality permitted me to see an inmate alone, but officers watched closely through the large glass window in the door.

Barton spoke first, sitting up straight in his chair, dignified. He thanked me for coming to see him and apologized for messing up the retreat and the Sunday programs. “I’m truly sorry about that,” he said.

“What? You’re sorry about the retreat and the Sunday programs? What about Luther?”

He didn’t answer. “I couldn’t believe it when I heard you attacked him. What happened?”

Still no answer. I reminded him about his words to his brothers at the pipe ceremonies: “Be careful how you act. What you do reflects back on all of us.”

“I know. Please tell the circle how sorry I am.”

“The circle? That’s it?” I snapped. I pointed out he just earned at least five years in seg [solitary confinement]. And how could he, I asked, be the same man who the week before had carved a beautiful treasure box out of soap, a work of art that must have taken hours to create. “Only a few days later, you almost killed a man. It makes my head spin.”

“I know, Chap. But I just couldn’t let some things go on.”

“So this was about defending your honor, your reputation?”

“I was defending more than that. I was defending my life.” He spoke calmly. “This is my house for the rest of my life. I’ve got to live with these guys side by side, in this prison or the next one or the one after that, shipped all over this state, one year after another. This is my life, Chap. I had no other choice.”

I was a calamity of emotions. No matter what reason Barton gave me, I wouldn’t have found it reasonable. I took a deep breath, placed my folded hands on the table and leaned over the chasm between us.

“Barton, those are some of the saddest words ever spoken, ‘I had no other choice.’” I slammed a hand on the table. “That can’t be true. It just can’t be.” An officer immediately opened the door and asked if I was okay. “Yes, fine,” I said confidently. The door closed as the eyes of the officers remained on us.

We stared down at the table through an uneasy silence. The chain around Barton’s waist and wrists clanged as he shifted his weight in the chair. “I guess there was a choice. I guess there was.”

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Rev. Nancy Hastings Sehested, co-pastor of Circle of Mercy Congregation in Asheville, NC, was for 14 years a prison chaplain, most of that time in a maximum security facility. ©