We think of prisoners as violent offenders, exploiting or flouting the law. But what happens when laws intentionally distort life into a mutilating world of oppression and violence?
Joanie and I arrived in Dharamsala, India yesterday morning after a 13-hour overnight bus ride from Delhi. Home to the Dalai Lama, the Tibetan government in exile and around 80,000 Tibetan refugees, Dharamsala is a tranquil mountain town carved into the Himalayan foothills.
After exploring the city and the Kalachakra Temple, where the Dalai Lama resides, we spent a few hours practicing English with former Tibetan political prisoners who escaped China-controlled Tibet.
Jigme ("Like the American name, Jimmy," he said) is a 42-year old monk and below is his story:
His troubles began with a notebook.
It is illegal in China (which includes Tibet) to talk or write about the Dalai Lama, their spiritual leader who fled to India in 1959 under a cloud of Chinese violence.
Since then, China has systematically worked to destroy Tibetan identity through "reeducation" programs, forcing the use of the Chinese language, subjugating Tibetan Buddhism, economic warfare, and many other restrictions on the Tibetan way of life.
Jigme had written an essay in his notebook about the Dalai Lama, and somehow - he does not know who turned him in - the police found out.
They came to his monastery and after convincing them to search only the room he shared with a fellow monk and his library of sacred Tibetan texts (and not the rooms of the 4 young monks he taught) the police found the offending notebook.
He had lent it to a friend who was arrested and sent to prison.
Two months later, the police returned and arrested Jigme for writing about the Dalai Lama. (He assumes his friend, while being tortured, told them Jigme was the notebook's rightful owner).
He was sentenced to a year in prison in deplorable conditions: sharing a drearily small cell with 3 other prisoners (at one point they included a murderer and thief) that had no running water and only a bucket for toilet. They weren't given blankets and struggled to keep warm through Tibet's frigid winter. They were only allowed to leave the cell for 30 minutes - once a month.
They were fed - twice a day - rice soup (he put out his hand and drew a circle with his finger on his palm, illustrating the soup's pittance of rice) and 2 pieces of rice cake. Hardly enough food to keep a man full, let alone keep warm during the winter.
Luckily his family lived nearby and brought him food. But more often than not it was confiscated by the prison guards. Sometimes the guards let him keep the food and Jigme divided what he received evenly with his cell mates.
The prisoners with whom he shared his cell changed every 3 months but all turned to Jigme for advice and council, he said. They respected him since monks are revered in Tibetan culture. At one point, one of his cell mates was a weak Chinese man and Jigme fought another Tibetan prisoner to defend the man from abuse.
After one year and the sentence complete, he returned to his former life. But the police continued to harass him, ordering him to the police station 3-4 times a month to find out what he was doing and ask about other Tibetans.
Unable to endure such treatment, Jigme decided to leave. Leave his family, friends, monastery, homeland, for the chance of a life free of persecution.
But first, he had to get from Tibet to Nepal, the first stop for fleeing Tibetan refugees.
After taking a taxi to the border, he paid 6000 RMB (around $1000) to be smuggled across the mountainous frontier.
For two days the guide shepherded him over snowy mountain passes, avoiding the guard posts of China (whose soldiers are notorious for killing fleeing Tibetans; the arm of a refugee we met was healing from a China's border guard's bullet) and Nepal (who return escaping refugees to China, guaranteeing them a prison sentence; the 8-year old son of the refugee Joanie spoke to was caught and sent to a Chinese prison for 6 months and is now afraid to risk joining his father here).
The Tibetan government maintains a refugee center in Katmandu where fleeing Tibetans (once they arrive) receive paperwork for their next destination: India and Dharamsala.
Jigme arrived here in April 2011 and was fortunate enough to meet and have his photo taken with the Dalai Lama. Bestowed with such an honor, Jigme sent a copy of the photo to his Mother and 6 siblings in Tibet who must keep it hidden.
If the Chinese authorities were to find the photo, it would be confiscated and his family possibly arrested.
Yet despite their freedom here, Tibetans do not feel liberated.
Last weekend was the Tibetan New Year. Unlike their normal new year celebrations, this year's observance was a muted, mournful event. A lamentation of the many deaths at the hands of the Chinese authorities (more one million since 1949) and the recent self immolations many Tibetans are turning to in protest.
It's sad when an notebook's essay can land someone in prison and even sadder when the essay's subject, a revered spiritual leader preaches peace and compassion.
Below are a few links Jigme asked me to share with friends and family to learn more about the plight of Tibetan and the Tibetan people: