Why We Need to Read the Literature of Incarceration

September 25, 2019 | 8 min read

1.
At my university, I once attended a dinner to help support first-generation students. This was a varied, singular group of students, undergraduates and grad students, who had overcome all sorts of challenges in order to land, and thrive, at Columbia.

The next day, I attended a ceremony celebrating a graduating senior in the Directly Impacted Group, a university-wide organization comprised of students who have been incarcerated or who are impacted by incarceration via family members. Many of the bright, shiny, brilliant students I’d met the day before were in this group as well.

My own family has been affected by incarceration, and none of this actually should come as a surprise considering that fact that the United States incarcerates more people than any other country in the world, including China and Russia. According to the Vera Institute of Justice, the U.S. holds five percent of the world’s population yet nearly 25 percent of incarcerated people.

Put another way, if the population of people in prison and jail were a city, it would be a city somewhere in size between Phoenix and Houston. If you added people on probation, the number rises to 7.3 million—somewhere in size between Los Angeles and New York City.

Tandem to the rise of “Supermax” prisons that are often for-profit and constructed solely of solitary confinement cells, is the rise of using local jails and private prisons to confine migrants and asylum seekers. New documents have revealed the widespread use of solitary confinement, often with no reason, in Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detention centers. Given the numbers of people being incarcerated, the outward radiating effects in the community, and that our tax dollars are paying for it (including private prisons, which often merely take the state budgets and rejigger them for profit), the prison problem should be a concern of every American.

2.
Incarceration exists from the very beginning of America’s history. In 1675, just after the start of King Phillip’s war, 500 Native Americans were imprisoned on a barren strip of land off of Boston Harbor called Deer Island. Half died over the winter, the same Native Americans who welcomed the English to America’s shores in 1621. In the 1880s the site became a concentration camp for Irish fleeing the famine, then it became an actual prison, and is now a sewage treatment plant.

The early 19th century saw the rise of more codified systems, specifically the penitentiary system, also known as the Pennsylvania system, which was rooted in an optimistic idea of social rehabilitation (the “penitence” in penitentiary) versus the “Auburn” system that emphasized prisoners laboring together in silence and physical punishment. The Philadelphia penitentiary system in particular relied almost exclusively on solitary confinement, which resulted in catastrophic mental damage to inmates, causing the system to be abandoned.

The U.S. leads the world in its use of prolonged incarceration and solitary confinement despite bleak statistics that show the ineffectiveness of such a system: a Bureau of Justice study showed that five of six state prisoners were rearrested within nine years, a rate of 83 percent.

coverThe 2019 memoir Solitary, by Albert Woodfox, addresses the prison industrial complex and dangerous overuse of solitary confinement—and has just been longlisted for the National Book Award. Woodfox was held in solitary confinement in a six-by-nine foot cell for more than 40 years—longer than any American. He’d entered the prison system as a teen accused of various crimes, culminating in his arrest for robbery. He escaped from jail, and fled to New York, where he became acquainted with the Black Panther Party and their ideas of organizing and education. He was arrested and extradited to the Orleans Parish Prison where he helped organize a strike that eventually forced the prison to improve its conditions. As punishment, he was sent to the notorious Louisiana State Penitentiary known as Angola, named after the slave plantation that formerly occupied its ground (the plantation itself was named for the African country that was the origin of many slaves brought to Louisiana).

In 1972, when a prison guard was found stabbed to death, Woodfox, despite no evidence linking him to the crime (the guard’s widow would eventually testify that she believed he was innocent), was framed for the murder. He was placed in solitary (also euphemistically rebranded as “closed cell restricted,” CCR) for 44 years and 10 months. In his book he describes it:

We were locked down 23 hours a day. There was no outside exercise yard for CCR prisoners. There were prisoners in CCR who hadn’t been outside in years. We couldn’t make or receive phone calls. We weren’t allowed books, magazines, newspapers, or radios. There were no fans on the tier; there was no access to ice, no hot water in the sinks in our cells. There was no hot plate to heat water on the tier. Needless to say, we were not allowed educational, social, vocational, or religious programs; we weren’t allowed to do hobby crafts (leatherwork, painting, woodwork). Rats came up the shower drain at the end of the hall and would run down the tier. We threw things at them to keep them from coming into our cells. Mice came out at night. When the red ants invaded they were everywhere all at once, in clothes, sheets, mail, toiletries, food.

His case (along with two other Black Panthers, collectively known as the Angola Three) attracted the attention of Amnesty International and other activists. Eventually the murder conviction was overturned and Woodfox was released on his birthday in 2016.

I spoke with Mr. Woodfox, now 72, about how he constructed his powerful memoir.

The Millions: Can you tell me how you started writing the book, and also how you got the physical writing materials at all?

Albert Woodfox: I always knew I would tell the story of what happened to me. But when I was in, I didn’t actually write. People smuggled in writing materials to me, just like we got books. There were ways. In my mental space, I had to stay optimistic and not think about what might happen if I stay in here for the rest of my life. In my mind that would be me wondering if I was ever go free. So I didn’t think about things that deeply. I just took notes. I took notes for 27 years and managed to get those notes out to my brother. But then they were stolen out of his car!

But that’s why I am very open that I wrote this book with [journalist] Leslie [George]. She helped me go through my memory and put the things together.

TM: What was the most difficult part of being in solitary?

AW: I couldn’t go to my mother’s funeral. They don’t let people in solitary out even for that. First thing I did when I got out was have my brother drive me to the cemetery, and because of a delay in my processing, it was closed. The next day, we went to a store and bought out all the flowers and I brought them to my mother’s grave.

Many countries have banned solitary confinement as torture, and the work of psychiatrist and former Harvard Medical School faculty member Stuart Grassian suggests that humans are such social beings that being deprived of contact in solitary confinement causes irreversible mental and emotional damage to set in almost immediately.

The Angola Three have filed a civil lawsuit on the grounds that being locked down 23 hours a day violates Eighth Amendment protection against cruel and unusual punishment. Their case is still pending.

3.

coverThe New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander examines how the carceral system rose from the dregs of slavery to control and exploit labor from the black body: A person could be picked up not just for “loitering” but also for “suspected loitering,” and then taken into a prison and put to work via the convict lease system or “chain gang.” Angola prison is literally on a former plantation that named itself for the African country from which its slaves were stolen; one does not need a huge amount of imagination to draw the lines from slavery to the prison system. The “new” Jim Crow aspect of her book shows how the “War on Drugs” has concentrated on the black community, and how—in ways reminiscent of ICE—law enforcement has been able to operate outside the law, often trampling the Fourth Amendment that protects against unreasonable searches and seizures.

The myth of the missing black father is born out of this war. When politicians and cultural figures—not just right wing pundits but also former President Barack Obama and comedian Bill Cosby—lament missing black fathers, none of them note (nor does the media) that many of these father-child separations are due to arrests for minor infractions, for example, marijuana possession or selling loose cigarettes, as was the case with Eric Garner.

coverCity of Inmates: Conquest, Rebellion, and the Rise of Human Caging in Los Angeles, 1771–1965 by Kelly Lytle Hernández is a good complement to The New Jim Crow in its examination of the rise of incarceration in non-slave states. The book looks at how histories of native elimination, immigrant exclusion, and black disappearance are behind the rise of incarceration in Los Angeles, which built one of the largest systems of human caging in the world to remove marginalized groups ranging from itinerant white “tramps and “hobos” to Chinese immigrants, African Americans and Mexican immigrants.

coverIn American Prison, journalist Shane Bauer, who himself was held in solitary confinement in Iran, went undercover as a prison guard at a private prison (also in Louisiana) and wrote a widely praised feature about it for Mother Jones. This book exposes not just the shocking conditions of the prison (for guards and inmates alike) but also charts the rise of the private prison system: At a Republican presidential fundraiser in 1983, an executive of the Magic Stove company daydreamed that privatizing prisons would be “a heck of a venture for a young man to solve the prison problem”—i.e., overcrowding from the flood of new, disproportionately nonwhite inmates via the war on drugs—“and make a lot of money at the same time.” Thus the Corrections Corporation of America was born; its first project: converting a motel into an immigrant detention center in Texas. CCA went public in 1986. Thomas Beasley, one of CCA’s founders, told Inc. “You just sell it like you were selling cars or real estate or hamburgers.”

American Prison takes an in-depth look at the roots of the idea of incarcerating people for profit: how in the 1990s CCA actually built prisons without state contracts, betting (rightly) on a massive increase in the prison population, and how private prisons make for a system deliberately opaque and shielded from public accountability—they are businesses, not government entities. It’s disturbing to think that early investors included Marriott-Sodexho and a venture capitalist who helped create the Hospital Corporation of America. The book’s historical view makes an important point: Using private prisons for immigrant detention is not something new to the Trump administration but dates back to the 1980s and Ronald Reagan.

4.
Another fundamental but surprising fact about incarceration in the U.S. is that 4 percent of the world’s female population lives in the U.S., but the U.S. accounts for more 30 percent of the world’s incarcerated women. “Total” prison statistics have often obscured the fact that on a state level, women have become the fastest growing segment of the prison population—even to the point where the growth of their populations is significant enough to counteract reductions in the men’s population, i.e., too often, states have an incomplete commitment to prison reform by ignoring women’s incarceration.

coverRachel Kushner’s The Mars Room—a novel for which the author went undercover with a group of criminology students—provides an immersive look at life in a women’s prison. The book’s fictional Stanville Prison is a composite of various women’s prisons, including Central California Women’s Facility, the largest women’s prison in the U.S., and the only one in California to house a death row. The novel follows several characters, including a white GED teacher and an incarcerated cop, but is mainly the story of Romy, who is serving a life sentence for murdering a john who was stalking her. She is very much representative of the female prison population, coming in with a history of trauma, abuse, and drug use, and, like the majority of the women in prison, the mother of a young child who will be deeply affected by her incarceration. Further, she spends significant time in and out of solitary confinement, here rebranded as “administrative segregation,” or “ad-seg.”

To be sure, many people are incarcerated because they have committed horrific crimes. But as a shocking video of a woman giving birth in her cell, scared and alone shows, incarcerated persons are some of the most voiceless and forgotten people in our society. Incarcerated or not, they are still human, they have families, and some will return to society, and as our tax dollars pay for their care (one year in prison costs the same as a year in law school), it is our business to understand how they are being treated—and if they should be incarcerated in the first place.

Image credit: Unsplash/Carles Rabada.

is a staff writer for The Millions. Her essays have appeared in The New York Times, The Atlantic, The Nation, Slate, Salon, Guernica, Poets & Writers, and The Guardian. Her next novel is forthcoming with Simon & Schuster (when she finally finishes it). She teaches fiction at Columbia and shares a hometown with Bob Dylan.

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