“You will never be free until you free yourself from the prison of your own false thoughts.”
- Philip Arnold
May 15, 2010 - Rikers Island, the Bronx, NY City.
Dark, empty, cold. The room stood silently at the end of the corridor. The fluorescent lights
flickered as the walls screamed out in pain. The lifeless shadowed figures curled up in the
corners of their cells, whispering their demented secrets. He dragged his feet across the smooth
floor, the cross around his neck swaying with his gait. His new orange uniform hung from his
scrawny figure. The guards removed his handcuffs and his fingers clutched the cell bars, a futile
attempt to resist entering his new life. He howled, rattling the bars, throwing himself around,
shouting about the conspiracy. They tackled him to the ground; restrained him and threw him
into the SHU, slamming the iron door.
* * *
I keep imagining the same thing over and over again, a fortress being disassembled at its own
will. Bricks being removed exposing its weak foundations. A paradise being ripped apart piece
by piece. What is this place you ask? It’s my mind. It’s my entire conscience being torn out of
place. Tortured until it bleeds out and gives up. I can feel the support getting weaker and I’m
scared that it’s going to collapse. At this point, I’m not sure if I’m dead or alive. In this state of
purgatory, days pass slowly and I can feel the connection between my brain and my emotions
slowly deteriorating. These grey walls are a constant reminder that I am past the point of
repentance. I feel as though I am in the seventh circle of Dante’s Inferno and my form is already
changing. I look down at my cold metallic bed, poisonous thoughts of depression and anger
plague my mind. I rip up the tattered sheets and begin tying a continuous line of cloth. I wrap the
creation around my skinny neck and feed the tail through the light fixture. I know the Lord will
punish me for this. I begin to pull as hard as I can.
June 27, 2015 - Manhattan, New York
As the Iron door slowly opened, light flooded into the room. His eyes pierced with pain as they
tried to adjust. The warden stood outside the cell and offered his hand. He took the man into his
office, his place of power. The office was painted a dull green, and it had only one window,
which faced directly into the prison courtyard. On the desk sat a folder full of paperwork marked
with the name Samson Edwards. After a brief discussion, the warden walked him to the gate of
the prison and released his handcuffs, revealing scars and blood around his wrists.
Today Mr Samson Edwards was released from Rikers Island Jail due to new evidence found,
proving him innocent. He had served five years for armed robbery. Sam had lost 20 pounds. He
managed to survive two suicide attempts and developed a new tic - tightly closing his eyes as if
blinking back bad thoughts. But the biggest change, his mother said, was in his face. It had
hardened. A deep crease ran along the bridge of his nose.
* * *
His new house was undesirable. A grey box that sat on the corner of Hone Avenue, waiting to be
judged by the passing crowds. It wasn’t much more than a glorified shed. The roof sagged as
though a giant had sat on it. The windows were gaping holes for the wind to fly through. The
door hung by one hinge, trying its best to stand tall. It was a rotting heap, bowing down,
subservient to the elements. But it was Sam’s home and he had nowhere else. He climbed into
his tinny bed and hugged his knees close, clutching his wooden cross securely. He lay there in
his ball of protection, closing his eyes. As his consciousness ebbed, his mind went into free fall,
swirling with the beautiful chaos of a new dream.
* * *
The black canvas above was spoiled by the soft glow of the street lights. He had underestimated
the cold tonight, the icy breeze blew right through his shirt. There was something solemn
swimming in his eyes. Their deep brown held a truth that his face can not hide. What should be
joy still showed grief. As he dragged his worn sneakers along the sidewalk he felt like the tall
grey buildings were following him. Pangs of hunger forced his stomach to contract.
When he arrived at the soup kitchen he felt sick. The familiar look of worn faces and big muscles
scared him. He timidly grabbed a tray and joined the queue. He recognized it. How could he not?
The same tray that was slid underneath his door for two years was in his hand. It was all too
much. His brain and his stomach argued until he reached the front of the line. The kitchen lady
served him some kind of stew, a foul aroma arose from his tray. He entered the dining hall,
groups of people sat at metal tables. It felt like a drill was penetrating his temple, horrifying
images flashed through his mind, recounting his time in exile. His stew dropped to the floor and
he started sprinting. His legs flew through the air, feet kissing the pavement. He ran the fastest he
had ever run all the way home.
These physical scars do not compare to the marks left on my mind. I draped the windows hoping
to keep all light out, for only darkness comforts me. My head still hurts, a deep throb pounding
inside. Sanity knocking on the door of my mind, trying to let itself back in. For years I thought
that prison was a place but I was wrong. It is more of a mental state, a way of punishing those
that have done wrong. But what have I done wrong? Only God knows the answer. I rip off my
necklace and throw it into the darkest corner of the room. As my mind beats itself I find one
moment of clarity. I look over at the bedsheet and begin tying knots. Everything goes grey.
* SHU is the acronym for Security Housing Unit, solitary confinement.
My goal in writing Seventh Circle was to explore how a traumatic experience paired with a
disconnection from society can lead to alienation and psychological torment. The protagonist’s
name, Samson, is significant as he is a character in the bible that is famous for taking his own
life. This name suggests he comes from a religious family and also foreshadows his future of
suicide. The inspiration for my narrative was the true story of Kalief Browder. He was a man that
was falsely accused of theft and ended up committing suicide due to the result of mental,
physical and sexual abuse sustained in prison. The piece was consciously structured into two
distinct sections being the cause and effect. This allowed me to experiment with the sequencing
of time and place. The inclusion of a conceptual frame offers a philosophical overview of keys
ideas in the narrative.
Following research into the creative potential of first and third person narrative perspective, I
decided to alternate viewpoints. When Samson expressed a high level of emotion I would change
to a first-person perspective to confront the reader with a sense of emotional intimacy.
Third-person perspective was used to show an omnipotent view of Samson’s journey and to keep
the piece flowing and cognitive. A key motif in Seventh Circle is light. This light is used to
represent god and his presence. This idea came from John 8:12 When Jesus said, “I am the light
of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.”
Another motif is the cross that hangs around Sampson’s neck. It represents his faith in God, in
the last scene he “rips off his necklace and throws it into the darkest corner of the room.” This
symbolizes that he has given up on God and accepted his death.
My descriptions were influenced by the need to be evocative and to show, not tell. I illustrated
many things as grey as it connotes dull and depressing emotions. One ambition I had was to
explore an evocative setting. The narrative starts on Rikers Island, this prison was specifically
chosen as it is known to be one of the worst prisons in the world and is commonly referred to as
“hell on earth.” In trying to show the conflicted internal landscape of my character I included
extended paragraphs of Samson’s thoughts. An intertextual reference to Dante’s Inferno
concretes the religious theme of the story. Samson references the seventh circle, which is where
those who commit acts of violence to others or oneself are held. The punishment for self-harm is
that they are denied human form. After Samson attempts to suicide he feels as though he is
alienated from society, feeling like he has changed form.
The ideas of trauma and religion both have an immediate and enduring appeal to readers as they
conflict in nature. Religion is supposed to help those that are in dark times but in Samson’s case,
it makes it worse. These two ideas draw a parallel as they both involve a high level of emotion.