At the young age of 15, Paula Cooper found herself as the youngest death row inmate to hit the prison scene. As a convicted murderer she was looking at spending the rest of her life behind bars. In 1988, to Cooper’s surprise, the death sentenced was converted in her favor to a 60-year sentence. Cooper was later released to a world she had never known only to be found dead by apparent suicide.
While serving time in prison, she triumphantly earned a bachelor’s degree and had her prison sentence reduced for good behavior. After spending 28 years “in a cave” Cooper was released on parole June 17, 2013. Nearly two years later, unable to adjust to a life of “supposed” freedom, Cooper allegedly shot herself outside of a residential building in Indianapolis.
In his allegorical presentation of The Cave, Greek philosopher Plato described a group of individuals who had been imprisoned in a cave their whole lives, with their faces against the wall. During this time they had only viewed life from the vantage of shadows casted onto the wall. Plato explained the metaphor as follows:
Anyone who has common sense will remember that the bewilderment of the eyes are of two kinds, and arise from two causes, either from coming out of the light or from going into the light.
These shadows are as close as these folks have ever been to reality. So naturally, this is where they acquire their perspective of what the world is like.
Plato goes on to explain that the philosopher is like a prisoner who is freed from the cave and comes to understand that the shadows on the wall do not make up reality at all; he perceived the true form of reality rather than the mere shadows seen by the prisoners. Through this allegory, Plato implies that one’s perception of the world around them is merely “to the habitation in prison, the firelight there to the sunlight here.” Simply stated, people view their current reality mostly from the shadowy images reflected from dimly lit vantage points.
In Plato’s Socratic dialogue, The Republic, he continues the metaphor of people who have been bound and chained within a cave. This cave had become home to these slaves, restricting both their hearing and vision. Forced to see life through the reflection of a fire, these slaves are left to associate images of others as well as their own, just as they have seen from the shadows. From the only vantage they know, these shadowy images are perceived as reality causing every idea to originate from this information.
The common element between the caves which Plato describes and Cooper’s extended prison stay is, in order for a significant shift in perception to be realized, one must learn to see things in their true form, as opposed to shadows from a cave. Every challenge presented to Cooper was, more likely than not, met from the reality that life looked just like “the shadows on the wall” causing her perception to be greatly impaired. A person’s perspective is the defining quality of life; life in itself is neither good nor bad, but how the owner has determined to see it.
In 1986 when Cooper went to jail things were certainly different from today. The United States had recently bombed Libya, the average household income was $22,000 yearly and Tandy had just released the first portable computer. While well over six million celebrated unity with the Hands Across America campaign, Cooper was being prosecuted by the state of Indiana and sentenced as its first female death row inmate.
Much like Plato’s examples in the cave, her perception of reality had been greatly skewed by decades of viewing life via the shadows of her prison walls. Arrested and convicted at 15 years old, Cooper’s mindset was still that of a child. So in essence, it was Indiana’s penal system that assumed the responsibility of raising her into adulthood.
After spending nearly 28 years in prison, Indiana’s youngest death row inmate was release from the cave she had come to know as home. Fast forward to May 2015, Cooper is found dead from apparent suicide. Perhaps, the shadows from the lengthy prison sentence were too much for Cooper to adjust to the reality of the light she had been given. Paula Cooper was physically released from prison in 2013, but found herself still chained mentally.
Opinion by Cherese Jackson (Virginia)
USA Today: Woman survives death row but apparently kills self
Spark Notes: The Republic
Top Image Courtesy of Lake County Police Dept/The Indianapolis Star
Inside Image Courtesy of Christopher – Flickr License
Inside Image Courtesy of Allan – Flickr License