When the jury foreman stiffly pronounced him guilty, the 33-year-old defendant went to his knees, grimacing as he shifted his weight from one knee to the other to lessen the pangs from the marble court floor.
The judge frowned. “Stay standing!” Then, “The defendant shall remain standing.”
The convict shut his eyes, dropped his chin to his chest, and stayed on his knees. A court counselor bent down and spoke softly at the convicted man’s ear.
The convict didn’t budge.
Was he pleading for clemency?
“Stand up like a man!” someone shouted from the gallery.
“Order!” said the judge, furrowing his brows. “No outbursts.” He had raised his gavel and now put it back to its place. He nodded to the bailiffs.
Two large court bailiffs stood on either side of the convict. They cuffed his hands in front of him. The convict clasped his hands tightly. Each bailiff took an arm and lifted the man off his knees by those two handles. They struggled to carry him. Like that, he was delivered to a police van, driven to a prison, and carried to an empty cell.
Prison officials and inmates stood and gawked at the oddity. It was entertainment to witness the unusual comportment of the new inmate, where prisoners and staff alike follow proscribed routines. Was the new inmate cowardly or brave? The bystanders tossed those concepts around in their heads. Was he on his knees to pray for forgiveness? Was the odd display to show he was turning a new leaf? Was the man born with intractable knees?
An hour later, the warden approached the new inmate’s cell. The convict was kneeling, facing his cot, elbows resting on a thin mattress. He ignored questions. He continued to kneel.
A prison chaplain was hopeful but couldn’t get The Kneeler to talk. A prison counselor was summoned. Was The Kneeler suicidal? Two guards removed razors and eating utensils from the inmate’s cell. The prison consulted a psychiatrist. The convict was not suicidal. The kneeling behavior was self-inflicted bodily harm. Not religiosity. It was for this prisoner a sort of hunger strike, the psychiatrist concluded. Guards returned the inmate’s razor and eating utensils.
When a meal was delivered from a noisy pushcart, the convict waddled slowly on his knees to take a tray through an opening in the door. Baked pasta with beans, warm on the surface, cold in the center. Salad with red dressing. Half cup of milk. A bread roll. The convict twinged as he shuffled back to his cot. One knee ahead of the other, hands gripping the food tray. At his cot, he sat on his heels and placed his tray on the mattress. He consumed his meal, moved the tray to the floor, knelt up straight again, bent over his cot, and rested his elbows on the thin mattress.
In the days that followed, the self-possessed convict ordered books from the prison library and opened the books on his cot. He rested his elbows on the thin mattress of his cot and occasionally put his weight on his elbows to relieve his knees.
Before the first week was up, holes opened at the knees of his prison uniform. Swollen red knees peeked through the knee holes. A prison medic closed the holes with iron-on patches and bandaged the convict’s knees. The Kneeler moved his mattress to the floor and knelt on it for more protection. That didn’t last long. The mattress provided very minimal relief, and moving it back and forth from the cot to the floor to the cot irritated his knees.
A week into his sentence, shower time. The convict made his way to the shower room, leaning deeply to the left and then to the right on his slow and painful way down the prison corridor. Entering the shower room naked and on his knees and he started a mini-riot. Bars of soap flew past him.
“Hey, man. Get outta here.”
“You ain’t come’n’ in here while we here.”
“Get your own shower room.”
“Come in here when you and me is alone, man. Ha-ha-ha.”
Two weeks on, the inmate had shredded the knees of his prison uniform again. Kneeling at his cot, he shifted to the left and to the right on his knees to relieve the ache. His knees were red, and a discharge was collecting on one of them. At night, sleep was fitful. Nobody imagined he would take his odd behavior this far. A guard brought The Kneeler a pair of kneepads from the prison gardening shed, as well as a cellmate for The Kneeler. The cellmate was incredulous at first. Then he laughed at The Kneeler like he was a joke.
The next day, the cellmate refused his meals and demanded to be moved, and he took The Kneeler’s kneepads with him. He was reassigned a cell with an ordinary, surly inmate whom he told what he said he had learned about The Kneeler, and stories got around in the prison yard. The Kneeler had shot a cop with the cop’s gun. No, he’d tried to get a cop’s gun. No, he’d gone to his place of employment and shot his boss. The truth was The Kneeler had been disrespected by a cop, and he punched him out for it—not killed him. But he’d had his hands around the cop’s neck when he was pulled off of him.
The Kneeler had testified in court that the cop had abused him. Abused him verbally. The cop had called to him when The Kneeler emerged from a convenience store. The cop shouted from the window of a patrol car.
“Hey, come over here,” the cop said and put his hand outside the patrol car window palm up, curled his fingers, and motioned to The Kneeler with his forefinger. “Come here!”
The Kneeler approached the car slowly and cautiously.
“Let’s go! What’s the matter? Your legs don’t work?”
“You got a problem with that?”
In court, The Kneeler served as his own defense—after his negative experience with lawyers at two previous court appearances. “Verbal abuse” was his defense. That’s what his wife had pleaded to get out of her marriage. Verbal abuse should be a defense for aggravated assault as well. That’s what The Kneeler believed.
Late at night a month into his sentence, the inmate directly across the corridor from The Kneeler swore he’d witnessed The Kneeler levitating. That spooked him out. The next day he reported the event and was taken to the warden’s office to be interviewed and allowed to view a blurry and heavily pixilated closed-circuit videotape.
“You see he’s standing,” the warden told him. “Not levitating.”
The inmate refused to believe it. “He doesn’t stand. He can’t stand.”
A guard returned him to his cell, and the inmate spread the word. The Kneeler had levitated. The Kneeler had become thin and pale, and that gave credence to the levitation rumor. Inmates slowed when they walked past his cell to get a better look at him, kneeling at his cot with a book between his elbows, bare knees on the concrete floor.
The Kneeler had avoided the exercise yard, but some time into his confinement, he agreed to participate in wheelchair basketball with two other disabled inmates, who nicknamed him “Legs.” The Kneeler’s two paraplegic wheelchair-mates were empathetic.
“Hey, Legs, you ain’t gonna ever be able to walk again. Why you doin’ this to yourself, man?”
“Legs” liked the convenience of the wheelchair, and one was folded up in his cell, but he did not replace kneeling with sitting. Over time, he could no longer straighten his legs, and his leg muscles began to atrophy. The prison warden and the inmate’s mother and sister encouraged him to immediately change his crazy behavior. The Kneeler could no longer stand—even with the aid of a walker—if he wanted to.
At a prison health exam, a physician recommended that The Kneeler have his knees and legs examined by a specialist. An orthopedic surgeon would know if The Kneeler could revert to a healthy condition and the real use of his legs. The prison warden suggested The Kneeler have his head examined, too.
The Kneeler resisted. The prison physician told him what the alternative was. He’d never walk again. That was not persuasive. The warden made the exam compulsory.
“Get the exam or lose library privileges.”
“This is who I am,” the inmate argued. “Why don’t people accept me for who I am?”
He appealed to a human rights organization, which advised him to submit to the exam. Finally, he relented.
The Kneeler rode in a prison van to a nearby hospital. In a brightly lit exam room, a nurse prepped the inmate’s knees for an orthopedic surgeon. The doctor entered the room and stood and looked down at the inmate’s knees, and glanced at the X-rays. Without touching the inmate or his legs, the doctor faced him and stared at his face for several moments.
“I don’t have good news for you. Sooner or later, I will have to amputate your legs above your knees.”
On the return to the prison, the van driver passed by neighborhood scenes familiar to The Kneeler. People on sitting on ride mowers. Children disembarking from school busses. Elderly walking dogs. Things like that.
The doctor’s report came back to the prison quickly, and the warden urged the inmate’s mother to visit her son and discuss the surgeon’s report with him and the warden. After a long drive across three states, The Kneeler’s mother and sister arrived at the prison for only their second visit since The Kneeler had been incarcerated four months before.
The Kneeler’s mother and sister waited in the prison infirmary. The Kneeler was delivered to the room in a wheelchair, and not too happy about that. The infirmary physician followed him.
The Kneeler had changed, his mother said. She barely recognized her son. He had become gaunt, and his face seemed frozen in a grimacing expression. She leaned toward him and tried to get through to him. The prison had put him on drugs, she insisted.
“It’s not too late to change your life,” she told her son.
“It is,” The Kneeler replied.
“No, it’s not too late. It will be your next challenge. You have always liked challenges. Bring yourself back. Back to good health.”
“I’ve got disciples here. I cannot ignore their views.”
“Young guys who look up to me for what I am doing.”
The Kneeler’s sister looked on. “Look up to you?”
“I just know. They look up to me in a certain way—for certain reasons.”
The Kneeler’s mother pleaded with him.
“I’m sure other inmates are looking forward to getting out of here. You’ll never get out of here. Even if they opened the gates for you today, your legs will keep you incarcerated,” The Kneeler’s mother said.
The infrequent visit from The Kneeler’s family did not resolve anything.
“This is going to be your legacy,” his mother told her son. With that, she turned and left the prison infirmary with her daughter. On the way to the prison visitor’s exit, the two said nothing. When they got into the car, the inmate’s mother turned to her daughter in the driver’s seat and said it again. “This is going to be his legacy.”