The Abyss

Anthony M. Platt is the author of "The Child Savers: The Invention of Deliquency," among other works. He teaches at Cal State Sacramento and is on the editorial board of Social Justice. He is currently a Mayers fellow at The Huntington Library

Criminal justice used to be a public spectacle with ritualized executions in town centers and criminals on display in stocks. By the 19th century, when the first penitentiaries were built in the United States, punishment still had an important physical presence, and the lives of the free and unfree were intertwined on a daily basis. But as industrialization took hold and convict labor lost its value, American prisons increasingly became a world apart.

This changed, briefly, in the 1970s when, inspired by the civil rights and antiwar movements, serious books about prison life were popular bestsellers. Works by George Jackson, Eldridge Cleaver, Piri Thomas, Bobby Seale and Angela Davis, for example, reached millions of readers with their revolutionary critiques of life inside the walls. Their exposes fueled a penal reform movement that united community and prison activists with convicted criminals and political prisoners to bring a human face to anonymous convicts; to reveal prison's racial dynamics; and to pressure the federal courts to mandate minimum rights for prisoners.

Today in the late 1990s, it is hard to even remember that there was a prison reform movement and that much of the media and some politicians had some sympathy for people inside. During the last 20 years, radical and liberal views about justice have largely disappeared from public discourse. More people are incarcerated than ever before in this country's history--about 2 million, including those in reformatories and military stockades--and between 1985 and 1997 the rate of imprisonment more than doubled. Prisoners are doing longer and harder time, with state legislatures in a frenzy to criminalize and punish, endorsed by legal policies of malign neglect. Except for occasional scandals, the media ignore life behind bars. Crime and punishment remain one of the most discussed topics, yet most people have no idea of the realities of prison life. Three recent, very different books--a literary anthology, an academic monograph and a first-person investigation--try to pierce the concrete veil.

Anthologies are a dime a dozen, but really good ones are rare. An editor needs to know how to whittle without mercy; how to intervene when necessary, without upstaging the contributors; and how to present old material in new ways. H. Bruce Franklin, professor of English and American studies at Rutgers University, does all this and much more in "Prison Writing in 20th-Century America." Building upon his innovative "Prison Literature in America" (1978), Franklin's encyclopedic knowledge of both modern American literature and penology enables him to update, expand and bring together a fine collection that is extraordinarily diverse in its authors, literary genres and points of view.

What unifies this book is that the writers have served time and that they express what it is like to experience, in Jack Henry Abbott's phrase, the "atmospheric pressure" of the American prison in this century. Contrary to demonic images of convicts as a lesser breed, life inside and outside the walls has its continuities.

It was in jail that Jack London, arrested as a teenage hobo in 1894, got his first insight into "the awful abysses of human degradation." Socialists, such as Agnes Smedley and Kate Richards O'Hare, honed their political beliefs in prison after World War I; and petty hustlers such as Malcolm X and George Jackson transformed themselves into revolutionaries in the 1960s. It was writing in prison, recalls award-winning poet Etheridge Knight, that "brought me back to life." Franklin's book helps us understand that there is no typical convict or monolithic prison culture, and that the line between us and them is blurred indeed. "We are only a few steps removed from society," writes Abbott. "After us, comes you."

To Franklin, the writings of prisoners and ex-prisoners are not simply an expression of life in the margins. These convict writers and artists, he persuasively argues, are also innovative creators who have had a deep influence on the mainstream of cultural production. The prison experience bequeathed us the blues of Leadbelly, Lightnin' Hopkins and Billie Holiday; Hollywood scripts, such as the popular 1932 film based on Robert Burns' "I Am a Fugitive from a Georgia Chain Gang"; the short stories of Jim Tully and Ernest Booth (who made important literary contributions to H.L. Mencken's American Mercury magazine between 1924 and 1934) and of Chester Himes, who, as a prisoner in Ohio in the early 1930s, was published alongside Hemingway and Faulkner in Esquire. Other widely read authors who learned their craft in prison include Iceberg Slim and Piri Thomas, whose autobiographical prose in "Pimp: The Story of My Life" and "Down These Mean Streets," respectively, brought the cadences of colloquial street talk to millions of new readers. Franklin's anthology also includes the writing of Dannie Martin and Mumia Abu-Jamal. Their work in radio and print media not only reached millions outside prison but also has been at the forefront of political struggles to defend prisoners' right to the 1st Amendment and the right of free journalists to have access to prisoners.

Anyone interested in the more specialized history of the penal press should consult James McGrath Morris' "Jailhouse Journalism," which provides a comprehensive overview of newspapers and magazines managed and published by prisoners in the United States during the last 150 years. Morris, a high school teacher, has tracked down and compiled prison publications that range from in-house gossip sheets to serious newspapers, such as Louisiana's Angolite. By the 1980s, there were some 100 prison publications, but a decade later most of them had stopped publishing. As Morris observes, of the top 10 publications in 1963, only one still publishes today. He attributes the demise of prison journalism to "the overcrowding and the mounting violence [that] have put many of the nation's prisons into virtually perpetual lockdown, preventing any inmate-journalists from doing their work."

Occasionally, journalists from the free world enter the prison gates and try to capture life inside. This is a risky venture: Sensationalism and sentimentality beckon their siren songs from every cell; the personal confession, both of writer and subject, can quickly sag into preachiness; and prison authorities have learned well since Attica--as did the Pentagon after Vietnam--how to manage inquiring minds. Very few writers have avoided these traps.

Daniel Bergner, who spent a year inside Louisiana's Angola prison researching "God of the Rodeo," should have paid closer attention to the books of those who did: Jessica Mitford's "Kind and Unusual Punishment," from 1974, a muckraking investigation of prison industries; Tom Wicker's "A Time to Die," a post-mortem of the Attica revolt; and Norman Mailer's "The Executioner's Song," a complex meditation on capital punishment.

Angola is one of America's notorious prisons. Of its 5,000 mostly African American prisoners, 80% are lifers, doing time for crimes of violence. Those who are not locked down work for 4 cents an hour in the fields of the former slave plantation. The prison was so brutal that in 1975, federal courts mandated reforms. By the 1990s, under a new warden, most of the killing among prisoners and by guards had stopped. Bergner wanted to know why conditions had seemingly improved. At first, the warden, who had been the subject of glowing profiles on television, struck Bergner as "balanced, sensitive, deeply thoughtful, a hero to anyone who still believed in the basic humanity of violent criminals." The book's narrative thread, however, charts the author's growing disillusionment.

It started after several months of reporting when the warden tried to hustle him for a kickback in return for continuing access to the prison, he claims. Bergner presents himself as the kind of character that Jack Lemmon played in themovie "Missing"--a trusting, earnest journalist who believes in the law (Bergner is married to a federal prosecutor) and gradually discovers that Angola was not the "soothing parable" he had hoped to find. It's hard to believe, but maybe Bergner was as gullible and naive as he says he was.

The prison rodeo was the author's introduction to Angola. This 32-year-old tradition, held every October, is very popular with the local, overwhelmingly white public who comes by the thousands to watch untrained, mostly black prisoners, dressed in striped uniforms, get their bodies broken and punctured by 2,000-pound bulls. The justification for this gladiatorial bloodbath is that it raises money for the Inmate Welfare Fund and that all the participants are "volunteers." Bergner draws an insightful portrait of the rodeo, illustrating how it is designed to reduce "the minimal aspect of skill within the spectacle" and increase "the chance of injury."

If the author had limited himself to this memorable cameo--which appeared in Harper's last year--all would be well. But instead he wades into the prison in search of redemption by tracking the lives of several prisoners and by asking, "What life, what striving, what humanity, was possible there?" He reports on their prayer meetings, club activities and efforts to hustle some meager advantage in the hierarchy of prison jobs. But he discovers that prisoners don't achieve salvation in places like Angola; they just try to survive. And if they are lucky to get out, then they'll be even luckier to get jobs cleaning out poisonous sludge from gas pipes, as did one of Bergner's confidants. With little but misery to report, the author turns himself and his readers into voyeurs.

Bergner's opportunity for redemption comes after the alleged bribery attempt when he realizes at long last that Warden Burl Cain is not the heroic figure portrayed on the Discovery Channel. You would think that this would fire up his muckraking instinct to follow the money trail. Instead he summarizes the work of other journalists who long ago had reported on Cain's alleged involvement in shady business operations. "I pursued the background research I should have done months before," he admits. But rather than investigate these allegations, Bergner provides a self-serving account of how he fought to maintain his access to the prison after Cain threw him out. With a court order, he gets back in to finish his book. As Cain rides out the scandal and keeps his job, Bergner returns to New York, neither reflecting on his own complicity in Angola's regime nor having any suggestions, other than platitudes, for changing the lives of prisoners in Angola: "We owe them something more than a perverse rodeo as a vehicle for self-improvement and a way to make themselves known."

Bergner's book is a fast, entertaining read, but it pales beside Franklin's anthology, which captures firsthand the "hard memories of humans among stone" that belong to Charles Culhane, the "eyes empty like knot holes in a fence" that Etheridge Knight saw, and the efforts of those inside who, in Jimmy Santiago Baca's mind, are "still working in the dark to create for my people our own unique light."

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