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“In the year 2024….” read the headline of an editor’s message in a 1970 issue of The Presidio, a publication out of the Iowa State Penitentiary. Even for people in prison, whose primary currency is time itself, the date felt far-fetched. Something so distant, it was more the setting of a science fiction novel than of a real-life possibility. Al Ware, the paper’s incarcerated editor, had just experienced the solar eclipse of the century, though Iowa was outside the range of the total eclipse. He whimsically mused on whether he’d be around for the next one—if he meant alive or still in prison is up for interpretation.

From The Presidio, March-April 1970 via JSTOR

Elsewhere in prison, the Florida Correctional Institution in the town of Lowell, in Northern Florida, advertised the eclipse in their newspaper, FCI Reflector. Lowell would have been just outside the total eclipse zone as well, allowing the people incarcerated there to witness the astronomical wonder of a partial eclipse. People travel for hundreds and thousands of miles to view total eclipses and consistently have difficulty describing the experience fully with just words. But even a partial eclipse can be a stunning spectacle. For those in prison, whose lives are often drudgery punctuated by fleeting moments of fear, being able to experience something collectively with people beyond the walls is the type of reprieve that buoys the psyche for quite some time.

From F.C.I. Reflector, March 1, 1970 via JSTOR

I sat in prison for the partial eclipse of 2017. A far cry from how Florida prisons handled a total eclipse in 1970, the Federal Bureau of Prisons decided a dusk-like darkening of the sky was a security threat that warranted a total lock-down. Never mind that for half the year the sun set at dinner time, and we were allowed to continue going about our business, jogging on the rec yard, grabbing a book from the library, and just generally moving about the compound. Perhaps some nefarious actors would use the few minutes of diminished daylight in the middle of the day to orchestrate a prison break, or perhaps the reverse, introduce contraband.

It felt like my life came to a screeching halt the moment I was arrested. No longer did I feel like I was living, an active verb, I was merely existing. If I vanished off the face of the Earth, not a single thing would change in the world, so minimal was my presence, so isolated was my life. Headlines flashed across the television screens, one of my only tethers to the outside world. Floods in Houston, fires in California, a mass shooting in Miami. It was as if these events were happening in some other world, one to which I only had the narrowest window.

But the eclipse shook me out of this cognitive dissonance. I was going to be able to experience something just as everyone in its path would. The events happening out there were in the same reality as those in here, despite institutional attempts to sever those worlds. Through collective, simultaneous experience, I would once again feel like part of society, feel alive.

That is, if I could even experience the eclipse. Days in advance, the prison advised us we would be going on a total lock-down, Defcon Five, confined to our cells. To think I would be on the wrong side of an eight-inch cinder-block wall from an event of a lifetime filled me with rage, an emotion I used as fuel to concoct a plan to thwart their attempts at yet again fracturing our ties to the wider world.

I volunteered as a GED tutor, and eclipse aside, Monday was a school day. Staff could never outwardly admit to doing us a favor, but once you’ve mastered double speak, your life in prison becomes easier. Rather than having to return to my cell for the lock-down, I made sure that I was one of the few people on the “out count,” meaning when they came to count us like cattle, my body wouldn’t be expected in my cell but rather at my job site. Tucked away in the GED classrooms and away from the majority of the guards, I at least had a chance of escaping outside for a few brief moments.

I lacked the time, materials, and know-how to make even the most rudimentary device to protect my eyes. Instead, I stole a colander from the kitchen. (That’s no easy feat.) For the first half of the day, everything went along normally. I was antsy, and nervous that for all my hard work, I would end up locked down in the GED basement, with the stench of mold and hum of dehumidifiers, without so much as a window. At least my friends back in their cells could peek outside. But I risked the certainty of witness for the chance at experience.

When the calls for lock-down came, everyone shuffled back to their cells or job sites. I looked at my watch, made a mental map of where all the guards were. On the main door leading outside, I stuffed paper inside the door so the handle wouldn’t latch, providing me with a means of five-minute escape to the outdoors. That is a cardinal sin in prison; I was risking months in solitary confinement.

I counted down the minutes on my Casio watch, sitting at a desk in a “classroom.” The head GED teacher, which is to say a correctional officer who was “promoted” to GED teacher but who was not, in fact, a teacher, sat in her office shuffling papers. What if I walked toward the bathroom and then ducked outside when she wasn’t looking? Instead, much to my surprise, she stood up from her desk and announced to the four conniving GED tutors, “just one minute. Seriously, just one minute.”

And with that, she led us outside. She didn’t ask where the colander had come from, and I did not tell. Its round holes somehow cast crescent shadows, illuminating the laws of physics. The sky darkened but nothing like dusk, a bizarre energy filling the air—or perhaps it was the abject fear that I was risking time in the hole to watch odd-shaped shadows dance on the ground, unable to even look at the eclipse directly.

I’m not sure how long she let us stay outside. She, too, was risking her job. We giggled and ah-ed, though we kept our heads on a swivel, looking out for any other guards who would seize the opportunity to arrest us for experiencing joy. Simultaneously, and well before it was over, we realized it had been long enough. We had sufficiently pushed the limit and filed back inside.

For days to come, we tried to explain to our friends what it felt like, what those colander hole shadows looked like. It was simply too difficult to describe.

Whether Al Ware is still around to see this eclipse—he would be eighty-two—is unknown. What is known is that at least a few hundred people that experienced the total solar eclipse from prison in the United States in 1970 are still in prison. The next total solar eclipse that can be seen from the contiguous US won’t be until 2044—and unless that’s your release date, I’m sure it feels just as abstract as 2024 felt to the men at the Iowa State Penitentiary back in 1970.

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The Presidio, (March–April 1970), p. 4
Iowa State Penitentiary
F.C.I. Reflector, (March 1, 1970), p. 7
Florida State Correctional Institution
Scientific American, Vol. 317, No. 2 (AUGUST 2017), pp. 62–65
Scientific American, a division of Nature America, Inc.