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Excerpt from Lives Less Valuable

Boo (p. 117)

From chapter "Part Three"

Boo hasn’t seen the stars since he came to prison. Nor has he seen the moon at night. It’s been years since he saw a sunrise or sunset.

For eighteen months in [the Secure Housing Unit] he didn’t talk to anyone who didn’t wear a uniform. During that time he stopped wearing clothes. He stopped bathing until he was forcibly carried to the shower by a white-suited extraction team. He refused haircuts, but was held down and shaved. His original sentence in SHU was six months, but these refusals cost him time, and time again.

He lost his sense of taste, but ate because his body demanded. He slept away the days until one day he forgot how to sleep, and lost track of the difference between sleeping and waking. Since that time he has never been sure which is which.

In a rage, or maybe in a dream, he destroyed the television in his cell. The radio, too, he broke. He broke them because they were burrowing into his brain.

So he sat, and he thought, and he dreamed, and he couldn’t tell the difference. He thought that he screamed, and thought he heard the screams of others far away. But those could have been dreams.

He read books. He was allowed one at a time. He would read it, then read it last chapter to first, then read it again. Then he would get another book. He began, naked and dreaming, to plan the revolution that would turn over everything around him, that would bring, as he called it in whispered conversations with himself, the great healing….He began long conversations with others who were sane through short scrawled notes secreted in the volumes of the law library—to which they could not legally be denied access—and learned that some of these men had been in solitary for more than two decades.


Though Boo no longer knew the difference between waking and dreaming, he knew from these conversations that he wasn’t crazy. He knew that the problems lay not with him….

His room was precisely seven by eight feet, with a concrete bed, a concrete sink, and a concrete toilet. For hours he walked two and a quarter paces one direction and two and a quarter paces back. He was walking home, counting the steps and calculating how much farther he had to walk…

As he walked he dreamed about prison, but his dreams weren’t about concrete and metal and electrified fences, dog runs and mace and stun guns, wooden bullets and pepper spray. He dreamt of many things. He often remembered a little girl he saw years ago. She was eating an ice cream cone. Boo saw her from the back of a cop car, and though she never saw him, he would never forget her, because he knew he might never in his life see another little girl eat another ice cream cone. He saw his little sister before she got sick. He saw Dujuan in the rooftop garden. Boo saw the first time he spiked one of his own veins, and he saw the last. The prison that Boo dreamed of wasn’t about Plexiglas, steel, panopticon designs, flailing batons, hidden shivs, smelling your own farts, masturbating while the surveillance camera records every movement. Those were just the final stages of the dream. The dream started much earlier, with where you were born, when you were born, why you were born, and most especially who you were born. This was the first part of the dream, the first part of the prison. He knew that. This was the dream—and the prison—that determined all of the others. Yet he knew also that the second and even more important part of the dream, which is to say the prison’s second wall, the lethal electric fence, is erected the moment you believe that the first part of the dream is true. To turn off the electric fence—click—you have to disbelieve in the power of the first dream. You have to understand that the walls of that first prison are no more natural than the concrete walls and electric fences of the second. You have to understand that someone fabricates these walls, and that someone benefits from them, and that someone else will have to tear them down.

Boo knew all of this because he dreamed it, and if he dreamed it, it must be true. This is what Boo carried with him, concealed deep within, where not even cavity searches could reach, when finally he returned from the SHU.