Winners Behind the Wall

Doing Timeby Edited by Bell Gale ChevignyArcade Publishing. 384p $27.95; $15.95 (paper, forthcoming)

Doing Time: 25 Years of Prison Writing is an anthology of short stories, essays and poems written by incarcerated women and men over a 25-year period. They were all prize winners in the yearly competition sponsored by the prison writing program of PEN (Poets, Playwrights, Essayists, Editors and Novelists), an international association of writers. The selections serve as an astonishing reminder of the multifaceted talents that lie buried behind the walls of prisons around the countrynow in the present, ever more punitive approach to criminal justice, for longer and longer periods.

A few of the contributors to the anthology began their sentences as people with significant educational backgrounds. But most had at best only an average level of education, and some went behind the walls with virtually no education at all. Among the latter was Jimmy Santiago Boca, who was illiterate at the time of his arrest. In his first-person account of how he taught himself to read and writeinitially using a literature textbook stolen from a guard at a local lockuphe describes the gradually emerging sense of freedom as he laboriously spelled out words like "pond." Then, using a pencil stub sharpened with his teeth, he made his first efforts to write. "When at last I wrote my first word on a page, I felt an island rising beneath my feet.... I had a place to stand for the first time in my life.... Through language I was free." One is reminded of the similar experience of another prisoner, Malcolm X. As described in his autobiography, he moved from functional illiteracy to literacyand inner freedomby studying the contents of an ordinary dictionary in his cell.


Not surprisingly, most of this volume’s selections deal with life on the inside and the struggle to survive. Victor Hassine provides a grippingly detailed description of his first place of incarceration, the Graterford State Prison in Pennsylvania. It was the noise that particularly overwhelmed him upon his arrival. "Since concrete and steel do not absorb sound, the clamor and voices...bounced around, crashing into each other to create a hollow, booming echo that never ended. It sounded as if someone had put a microphone inside a crowded locker room with the volume pumped up to broadcast the noise." Besides the noise, he witnessed a reversal of commonly accepted values: "Being kind was a weakness. Viciousness and recklessness were to be respected and admired." His new and alien world became one of constant fear.

In various forms, the concept of fear pervades the book. Barbara Saunders’ poem, "After Lights Out," deals with sexual predators who "come silently in the night," while those who realize what is happening "pretend not to know/ pretend not to see." The theme of sexuality and "pretending not to know" recurs in a story about sexual misconduct between a male guard and a female prisoner. (Although fiction, the story points to real events that received attention early in 1999 through a report by Amnesty International USA on the abuse of female prisoners by correctional officers.) The cell of the narrator of "Lee’s Time" is next to the cell in which the encounters take place. She hears them, but out of fear of possible repercussions, tries to close her mind to the meaning of the sounds: "You learn to show nothing and hear nothing. After eight years," she adds, "I can shut out almost anything." So horrific is prison life for many, that survival may depend on this ability to anesthetize themselves from an environment saturated with threat and violence.

For some, despair becomes the dominant feeling. In "Suicide!" the narrator is a prisoner who serves as a suicide prevention aid at a jail in one of New York City’s boroughs. As he makes his regular check on each cell, he discovers in one a young man who has fallen to the floor after a failed attempt to hang himself. Again, the story points to a reality, namely that the rate of suicide in incarcerational settings is far higher than in the general population, especially in detention facilities. For other inmates, despair takes the form of a spirit-sapping awareness that, given their long sentences, they may die from age-related illnesses before completing their sentences. Larry Bratt, in his autobiographical "Giving Me a Second Chance," notes that by the time he becomes eligible for his first parole hearing in 2006, he will be 64 years old. With new parole restrictions, moreover, he knows that he is not likely to be granted it then or even later.

For all the grimness of prison life, however, glimpses of humanity appear here and there in accounts of supportive friendships and acts of kindnessincluding some by guards. In one story a guard escorts a prisoner to the funeral of a deeply loved grandmother. Realizing that the chains cause the inmate to feel too ashamed to sit with family members at the church, the guard releases him from the "belly chain" and handcuffs as they enter. "You shouldn’t have to go in there like this," he says simply. In another story, two very different inmates, one straight and one gay, forge a fragile bond of mutual respect. "Not everyone in prison is a Neanderthal," the straight character observes. But at the end he sees his gay friend lying dead from knife wounds inflicted by a jealous lover.

What is particularly remarkable about Doing Time is the fact that many of these gifted women and men learned their craft behind barsand that they might never have learned it otherwise. In the brief biographies at the end of the book, for instance, the editor says of one of them, Robert Kelsey: "Only in prison, with the encouragement of a community college teacher, did he take writing seriously." While imprisoned, Mr. Kelsey has published pieces in distinguished periodicals like The Virginia Quarterly. Other biographies tell of similar transformations; the prison experience became for them a dark grace through which hidden talents began to emerge.

Sadly, the availability in prison of college teachers like the one who encouraged Robert Kelsey has become increasingly rare. Despite studies showing that education has proven to be one of the most effective means for reducing recidivism, Congress in 1994 ended the use of Pell grants (named after Senator Claiborne Pell) for higher education for prisoners. One who benefited from a grant just in time was Jon Marc Taylor. He wrote about their importance in an essay that won the Nation/I. F. Stone and Robert F. Kennedy Student Journalism awards. When his sentence was reduced to time served in one case, the judge said that Mr. Taylor’s was among the most remarkable examples of rehabilitation he had ever seen. Included here, the piece on Pell grants is one of several outstanding essays in the anthology. Congress’s shortsighted decision to stop inmates from pursuing higher education through these grants is an example of the way in which legislatorsfederal and state alikehave allowed themselves to be coopted by the vote-getting appeal of an unreasoningly severe tough-on-crime approach toward offenders.

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