Speak, O Prison

Review Photography


Prison Writing in 20th Century America

edited by H. Bruce Franklin

Penguin, 1998, 368 pp.



"What have we to do with these degraded creatures? What are they to us" you ask… You have this to do with them: They are human beings, they are a part of society, they are what society has made them. They are flesh of our flesh, bone of our bone, soul of our soul! We cannot separate ourselves from them.

- Kate Richards O'Hare



We treat the prison as a margin, as a shadow to be ignored, as a place to be actively forgotten. Indeed, the prison is designed to be a dark place (at least in relation to society proper), not only architecturally—razor wire, thick walls—but geographically: prisons are primarily located in rural areas off some forgotten highway, blending inconspicuously with the landscape or the (eerily similar) strip malls and gated communities nearby.


But the prison is no mere margin, and we ignore it at our own peril. Rather, the prison is the primary invisible ground upon which the visible "personality" of society is made possible at all. That is to say, using the language of psychoanalysis, the prison is society's unconscious. It is that place where fears are suppressed, traumas are repressed, and perversions and neuroses incubate. It is that place that we cover and flee precisely because allowing it to be uncovered, allowing it to speak, would mean that we would have to face the unsettling truths of our own identity, warts and all. Ultimately, our attitude and awareness of that unconscious, the ways in which we silence it or allow it to speak, how we deal with the inevitable sublimations—all of this determines the "health" of the whole psyche of society.


H. Bruce Franklin's wonderfully unsettling collection Prison Writing in 20th Century America allows that unconscious to speak;  we stop our ears to its voice at our own peril. Voices of the voiceless—vagabonds, immigrants, political activists, thieves, pimps, murderers in the style of the poem, the essay, the vignette, the diatribe—the collection is a cornucopia of pain, joy, hope, despair, violence, friendship, loss, redemption: the stuff of life. Though we warehouse these criminals in dark spaces so that they may whither sunless and die forgotten, their words are a visceral revolt against this active effort to repress and ignore, a demand to inscribe the memory of their existence into the world. In the spirit of Plato's periagoge, these prison writings are a call for society to turn its whole being (not just its intellect or psyche) toward the caves and shadows from which they cry out, shadows which are mirrors, reflections that call society to take the necessary first step to begin the "rough ascent" toward a just and democratic (to Plato's chagrin) society. Somehow, these voices cultivate in the cold and dark, bearing flowers and potent fruits, despite being nourished inside concrete soil and fed with baton blows, bare knuckles, harsh bread, pepper spray, solitude, and the thousand assaults against human dignity that attack from every angle every day.


Prison Writingis no mere hodgepodge, but a carefully selected collection that can be read piece by piece or as an integrated whole. Obviously, there is the common theme of the experience of incarceration; but these voices are universal, and they resonate with the non-prisoner in different but no less important ways. The excerpts are the unveiled accounts of the tragicomedy that is the lived life—fodder for Aeschylus and Steinbeck—all the more relevant because similar stories occur anew each day, both inside and outside the prison walls. Though the random opening of the pages can be a provocative and satisfying method of exploring this collection, I urge the reader to follow the editor's chronological lead and work through the text from cover to cover—the voice of the prison is very much tied to the development of the institution over time and to the development of the particular society of which each incarcerated moment was a part. From the labor songs of the chain gangs of the early century, to the socialist and feminist "criminals" of the interwar period, to the politically conscious radicals of the Sixties, to the more recent personal reflections that read as aphorisms of a religious ascetic (or, if you like, a narcissistic mad person), Franklin presents us with a shadow history that tracks the development of the United States just as much as any famous speech, cult of personality, political document, or artistic manifesto ever could. History is not just a collection of dead facts, but a living memory whose tendrils feed us at this particular moment, informing us of our possibilities underneath tomorrow's sun. Thus, these voices are just as integral to the formation of our identity as "Americans"1 as is a Jefferson, Whitman, MLK, or Lady Ga Ga. The shadow illumines the subject.


It is, however, certainly not a book that one can tear through casually. Most vignettes are excerpted from larger works, but each piece stands alone, a bitterly seductive fruit with a stone pit at its center. Caution:if chewed too fast, broken teeth, danger of choking. But perhaps cracked enamel exposing nerve, or the momentary panic while experiencing a blocked esophagus, is precisely the point. A taste: Carolyn Baxter masturbating underneath her cot on the cold concrete so that it would not creak, exposing her to the punishment of the puritanical night watchwoman ("So I lay naked on floor, along with cold/tile, I feel like a private under the bunk,/hiding from the enemy."); Jack London's battle with bedbugs using the ammunition of regurgitated bread ("I shudder to think of the tragedies of starvation and cannibalism that must have ensued behind those bread-plastered ramparts."); Iceberg Slim's fantastic slang, infectious idiom, pimp psychoanalysis ("The phony glamour and cruelty of the pimp fill these needs and are the magnets that attract and hold the whore to the pimp."); Malcolm's discovery and development of dignity through his autodidactism, copying every word from the dictionary by meticulous motivated hand ("I'd never realize so many words existed! I didn't know which word I needed to learn. Finally, just to start some kind of action, I began copying."); the ubiquitous imagery of train whistles, blue skies unblocked because brick and razor only go so high, birds that roost on the walls at night, fly away to feed and mate during the day, and return at dusk to perch so casually over the inmates' dreaming heads. Some of the experiences are playful and funny, the human heart and mind responding to the inhumane scene by accepting absurdity and laughing in the face of it all. Piri Thomas (six years for armed robbery, author of Down These Mean Streets, acclaimed by The New York Times to be one of "The 10 Best Books About New York") writes:


Man, I even thought of learning yoga and copping some kind of mystical power whereby I could slow my heart down to nothing, play dead, and get my corpse shipped home C.O.D., whereupon I would bring myself back to life, free as a bird, even if it meant scaring the living crap out of whoever opened the coffin. Silly fantasies, eh? But I wasn’t' the only one thinking about freedom.


At times, the accounts are explicitly surreal. Somewhere between Hieronymus Bosch and Luis Buñuel, Chester Himes writes about the fire that overtook the Ohio State Penitentiary on April 21, 1940, killing 317 inmates:

He noticed the curved backs of several fellows bent over the railing before the Images of the Saints. He caught himself reciting: "I believe in God, The Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth . . ." Then he thought of the prone, gray figures on the cold ground outside; of the smoke and flame and confusion. He felt a sneer form on the bottom side of his lips next to his teeth . . . "I believe in the power of the press, maker of laws, the almighty dollar, political pull, a Colt's .45 . . ."


But these moments of comedy and absurdity always cover a tragedy just below the surface, tragedies that are sometimes almost unreadable. Kate Richards O'Hare—who, beginning in 1919, spent five years in prison for violating the Espionage Act of 1917 (for giving a socialist/feminist speech to a small crowd, saying that the women of the United States turned into "brood sows, to raise children to get into the army and be made into fertilizer")—describes a fellow female inmate:


As Alice stepped out of the bathroom she was one of the most appalling creatures I have ever seen. From her throat to her feet she was one mass of open syphilitic sores dripping with pus. I have seen her clothing so stiff with pus that it rattled when walked and the live maggots working out of the filthy bandages about her throat. Alice had the cell directly under me and the flies that swarmed the cellhouse attracted by the stench from her sores would walk over them, and then come up to my cell and walk over me.


Alice was raped and infected with the disease, which remained untreated. She was in prison for killing the man who violated her, a story, writes O'Hare, that is "both old and common." Call it what you will: American, human, inhumane, tragic, real.


But this collection is not only important negatively, that is, simply because they are voices normally left unheard to which we "ought" listen—such a plea would ultimately be paternalistic and voyeuristic. There is also a positive reason for reading these excerpts: the writing is damn good. Franklin has managed to mine the gems for us. But, in the end, I'm sure he has chosen these particular diamonds from a pile of rubies and emeralds; I am left with the terrible inspiration, nay, the terrible obligation, to seek out each of the works in their entirety, to find those authors that are still living—both imprisoned and free—and say to them, "Wow."


Sadly, Prison Writing is but a preamble to a book that is only just beginning to be written. The twenty-first century begins with more per capita incarcerated worldwide than any other time in human history. Despite having only five percent of the world's population, the United States holds 25 percent of the world's prisoners, 751 per 100,000 people, for a total of 2.3 million. By comparison, China has a population four times the size of the U.S. and only 1.6 million incarcerated. With the increasing privatization of for-profit prisons, the criminalization of immigrants, and the entrenchment of the mechanisms that perpetuate the ghetto-prison feedback loop, the efficient technologies of incarceration are only just now hitting full stride. Interestingly (but not surprisingly) cutbacks on prison population have begun in response to the recent recession, a tacit acknowledgment that these appalling structures of incarceration, outside of moral considerations, have significant economic consequences as well. Must it take a recession to realize the deep injustice that characterizes the enduring symbol of the so-called success of justice, the prison?


Perhaps it is too easy to romanticize the criminal, to rant and rave against the "system." I hardly want to exclude a notion of responsibility: sadism, perversion, and evil do exist; there are bad people that do bad things, and there must be some consistent notion of punishment tied to any viable system of justice. But, contra most all foundations of modern social contract theory (especially Hobbes and Locke) that begin with the unquestioned assumption of the criminal (a pessimism ultimately with Christian roots), many of the "crimes" that we punish anymore do not reflect society being victimized by the criminal, but the criminal being victimized by society. In an excerpt from Soledad Brother, George Jackson writes:


For a real understanding of the failure of prison policies, it is senseless to continue to study the criminal. All of those who can afford to be honest know that the real victim, that poor, uneducated, disorganized man who finds himself a convicted criminal, is simply the end result of a long chain of corruption and mismanagement…


Overwhelmingly, the "criminals" of our times are products of social conditions—poverty, racism, classism, and the legal structures that encourage the prison-ghetto feedback loop and the school-to-prison pipeline. (Paradoxically, despite the appalling statistics and the pervasive "tough on crime" rhetoric, there is a great American tradition—glorified in movies and, more recently, video games—of the outlaw, the vigilante, the various Cowboy Zarathustras that create their own morality in the face of civilized and harmonious social norms.)


The prison is society's moral mirror, an institution that is not a margin or a shadow, but a speculum that opens, reflects, and reveals both blemishes and beauty. The "accountability"—whip, labor, rape, isolation, time—must not fall solely on the shoulders of the criminal. Society, too, must be held accountable, for ultimately it is the judged that must judge, the condemned that must condemn, the voiceless that must voice. One way is to enter into dialogue with the prison, to truly learn from it, to accept and embrace the fact that it is deeply tied to the fate and health of our civilization. And so, let us reformulate Dostoyevsky's famous quote: the degree of civilization in a society can be judged by how it listens to its prisons. "Speak, O prison." Speak.



(detail) and photographs by Sean Duggan, www.seanduggan.com. Used with permission.


1. That is, insofar as there is such a common “American” identity, a fact that, perhaps, is precisely the "problem" of the criminal in the first place.



Anthology, Prison Writing, Prisons