Short Story #82: The Inmate of the Dungeon by W. C. Morrow
Title: The Inmate of the Dungeon
Author: W. C. Morrow
SummaryAt a parole hearing, one of the judges calls forward inmate No-14,208, much to the chagrin of the warden of that prison. The prisoner comes into the course with ball and chain and clearly in rough shape. The judge asks the man to explain why he has not asked to be paroled given that he is over due for it. The man hesitates and the judge asks further about his experience. The judge assures the prisoner that he is ok and further inquires into the man's history. The man explains that he committed murder which there is no question about. However, once in the prison, he aimed to do right and work hard, which he did for nearly ten years, doing all the work that was required and regularly doing extra. As a large and strong man, he took advantage of extra jobs and the extra pay it afforded him. One day while on a job, he got in line to get his pay and the warden scoff him off saying that he already was paid. The prisoner was angered by this because he certainly wasn't. He refuses to get out of line and step down from being called a liar. In protest, he refuses to work any more. The warden responds by putting him in the dungeon (essentially solitary confinement) and feeds him only bread and water. A few other attempts are made for him to redeem himself and then the warden whips the man to break him. None of this works and the man stays in the dungeon for another ten years. The prisoner is asked why he didn't just lie and the inmate explains that he refused to become what they wanted him to be. Upon further inquiry, the prisoner also explains that at this point if he is in with the other prisoners, he will try to kill the warden for the crimes committed against him.The judge sends the man to the hospital. The Warden shows up to the hospital and shares a note that when the prisoner's story was published, a former inmate contacted the warden to let him know that he was the one who posed as the prisoner for the extra payment. The warden hands a gun to the prisoner and says that it is his right to kill him. The inmate cannot and says that it is only now that his spirit is broken and with that, passes away.
ReflectionI might have only read 1-2 other Murrow stories but now I'm curious to read more. I found this story well composed and with some rather insightful considerations about prisoners and crime for a story over 120 years old. The first consideration I found interesting and always useful (though challenging) is that the prisoner gets caught in the dilemma of association. Because he has committed one crime, he is then suspect of all crimes. While I understand why this happens, I think this is also a damning element of our criminal justice system as a whole. Many of us jump to the conclusion that someone guilty of one crime must be guilty of others when the question arises. If someone stole, then they must be capable of other crimes. Murrow teases this out in a most profound way as he shows us a character who has committed murder but refuses to steal or lie to settle the issue. Murrow also shows us that the system itself conspires with him to make him a liar. The warden's punishments all but demand it and even the judge asks him why didn't he lie. So having once already been criminalized, the system further pushes him into his crimes. But the finally element of this story that I found fascinating is the enacting of civil disobedience by the inmate. His attempt to right a wrong, not by violence but by passive resistance
Short Story #82 out of 365
Rating: 5 (out of 5 stars)
Date Read: 3/20/2014
Source: I bought the ebook for free on Amazon Kindle. The story can also be found on Project Gutenberg.
For a full listing of all the short stories in this series, check out the category 365 Short Stories a year.
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