Receiving a Wooden Bowl

Imagine if death was somehow suspended, causing people who are close to their demise or severely injured to exist, in a catatonic state? Portuguese author, Jose Saramago posits this scenario in his novel Death with Interruptions. He considers it as a thought experiment, teasing out its potential political, economic, and social ramifications, often with surprising and unseen consequences which oscillate between the humorous and the macabre.

In Death with Interruptions, families begin to turn to criminal networks facilitated by the government to bring the interminably dying over the nation’s border, where death still exists. Concerned for where such actions could lead the fictional landlocked country, the unnamed narrator tells a forgotten folk tale about a family – father, mother, eight-year-old son, and paternal grandfather – and a wooden bowl.

The grandfather was very old. His hands had a tremor so during meals with the family, food intended for his mouth spilled unto the tablecloth or floor. Following much chastisement and the use of a napkin, the ire of the son led him to purchase a wooden bowl so his father could have his meals on the doorstep, where it was easier to clean. For all meals onwards, the grandfather sat alone on the doorstep, trying his best to eat but little food made it to his mouth. The grandson seemed unmoved by the indignity imposed on his grandfather; he would look at his parents and continue to eat at the dining table.

Then one afternoon, the father returned home from work to see the son whittling away at a piece of wood. Assuming it was a toy car, the father passed little remarks. Later, realising that the toy did not have any wheels, the father asked the son what he was making. The son, maintaining a keen focus on what he was doing, replied, “I’m making a bowl for when you’re old and your hands shake and you’re sent to sit on the front step to eat your meals, like you did with grandpa.”

The words had a powerful effect. As the scales fell from the father’s eyes, he saw the truth and was moved to compassion. Immediately, he sought forgiveness from the grandfather and, when suppertime arrived, he helped his father to take a seat at the table, fed him with a spoon, and tenderly wiped excess food from his chin. Saramago’s narrator was reminding his compatriots that, in a previous time when death was active, treating the old and the sick was one of the essential duties of any civilised society. Though it did take some effort and had a cost, the care the old and the sick needed was never denied to them. Sociologists such as Bauman and Elias have pushed this thinking further by suggesting that the consideration of how we die provides the greatest insight into a society’s politics of life.

What if a terminally-ill 53-year-old man, after spending 33 years in custody, was still in prison the morning of his death? This is not the set-up for another Saramago story. Instead it is an event which happened recently within the Irish criminal justice system and is deserving of our utmost concern and consideration.

Shortly after being transferred to hospital to receive medical attention, following the report of severe pain a day earlier, ‘Mr I’ died. In the subsequent, recently published death in custody investigation of this 2018 case, the Inspector of Prisons warns unequivocally that there must be no repeat of this incident. She recommends a full review of the Compassionate Temporary Release policy so that terminally ill prisoners can be released on license to “avoid the indignity of dying in prison”.

From various perspectives – human rights, medical, and best practice – there is much to be highly critical of in relation to the care of ‘Mr I’: transfer from a low-security open prison to a closed prison to access appropriate healthcare; failure to grant compassionate temporary release; the inexcusable delay of over 24 hours to bring him to the Midlands Hospital, in close proximity to the prison, after complaint of severe pain. The report also noted multiple failings amongst prison staff: failure to take seriously the urgency of situation; poor record-keeping; and “unbecoming” engagement with the investigative process.

There is little need to re-tread the Inspector’s meticulous findings. It is enough to say that the report is worth reading. However, it may be revealing to consider this case through the lens of Saramago’s tale of the wooden bowl. For many of us for whom death and terminal illness may not be so near, this death in custody report is important.

Simply, it tells us the type of society we live in. None of us will likely die of a terminal illness in prison but we may find ourselves within other institutions or dependent on the State in some way. An important aspect of our political life is revealed when, in the case of a terminally ill man, we see a criminal justice system and prison system guided by punishment. Under the “reforming” sheen of our modern institutions, the hunger for revenge and cruelty is not far from the surface. A common thread through each renaming of the department for social welfare has been an increase in the punitive treatment of those in most need.

A sixth of prisoners (male and female) in Irish prisons are now in the older category (over 50-years-old) which is the fastest-growing demographic, up from less than 10% of prison population in 2014. A key cause of this shift is the growing number of men convicted of historic sexual offences, many of whom are imprisoned in old age. With almost half of older Irish prisoners serving sentences longer than 10 years or life sentences, more prisoners will become infirm during their sentences and have increasingly complex health needs. Naturally, the number of possible deaths in prison can be anticipated to rise.

The case of ‘Mr I’ is a further canary in our societal coalmine. With these two social phenomena in place – increasing numbers of older prisoners and a criminal justice system guided by a punitive approach – we should prepare ourselves for more injustice and indignity in death. Action plans will abound. Anger and regret will be expressed. Similar to the response to Covid-19, the criminal justice system must be proactive with a robust Compassionate Temporary Release policy. Complexity will exist in a small number of cases but mercy and compassion must guide decisions to allow people to die and receive health and palliative care away from prison. The Office of the Inspector of Prisons needs all the support that it can be afforded – both through material provision via the Department of Justice, legislation undergirding the ability to publish reports independently, and through backing from civil society groups.

The folk tale does not end with the family around the dinner table. Like many biblical parables, Saramago’s folk tale – keenly aware of human nature – carries a sting in the tail or a decision for the listeners. The son’s carving was interrupted, but nobody threw it away. Maybe they wanted the lesson to be remembered. Or maybe, one day, somebody would finish the job. The narrator reminds us that the latter is possible due to the incredible capacity of the darker side of human nature to endure.

If we are unmoved by the old and the sick receiving a wooden bowl and being removed from the communal table of care and concern, that we should not be surprised in years to receive a wooden bowl ourselves.