In her poetry book, One Big Self, CD Wright explores her experiences visiting Louisiana prisons, including Angola, with a photographer friend. I heard Wright read from the book at an AWP conference nearly ten years ago — she was a stark contrast to the poet and Rumi translator, Coleman Barks, who gave a charismatic and jocular reading before her — and the paralyzing nature of her work prompted me to buy the book and read it almost immediately. The heartbreaking content within her sprawling, fragmented poems – reading lines like “See what I did was, I accidentally killed my brother” and “My mugshot turned me against being photographed” — makes reading these poems somewhat like realizing a few steps in that you’re walking across broken glass; there’s no way out except to keep going. I have a friend who sometimes says, “There are things you can’t un-see,” and I think his truism applies to One Big Self.
The glamorizing of prison has been going on in pop culture for a long time, but everybody I know who has ever been in prison or around prisons doesn’t share that sense of glamour. I have had a few friends over the years who have done time, and their stories about rapes, thefts, intimidation, constant noise, and a lack of basic comforts helped me to understand at a relatively young age that I should stay out of trouble with the law. Later, I taught a creative writing class at the Frank Lee facility near Deatsville, Alabama, back in 2005, and I didn’t see anything that made me wish I was in there, too. People can sing along with Johnny Cash’s “Folsom Prison Blues” until they turn blue, but it won’t change the speaker’s message in that song, begging us all to understand that he would rather be anywhere else than where he is. Likewise, in RL Burnside‘s song, “You Go To Jail,” the male speaker assures his woman, “You got to jail, I go ya’ bond, bet yo’ life I won’t quit little babe!” If she ends up getting arrested, he will “pick up the dough” from betting horse races and they can leave together. Take your pick of other representations – the singing scene in August Wilson’s play “The Piano Lesson” or the oral-sex rape scene in Tony Morrison’s novel Beloved or any scene in the film Cool Hand Luke – and the message is pretty clear: a Southern prison ain’t no place to end up.
The Deep South is notorious for having some of the harshest prisons in the nation. Mississippi’s Parchman Farm, the subject of the famous blues song of the same title, and Angola down in Louisiana are names that conjure up images of hell on Earth. Mississippi’s notorious segregationist governor Ross Barnett’s main attempt to thwart the Freedom Riders centered on placing them in Parchman, rather than in a small county jail. Though I’ve never been to either of these places, one of my brothers-in-law is a lawyer whose work centers on death penalty cases, and his anecdotes about places like Angola, about the blatant injustices blighted onto certain populations – defense lawyers who put no effort into mounting a defense, unusually harsh sentences from some judges – color in the details of what most of us already know: there are both guilty and innocent people in prison, and inside no special privileges are afforded the innocent ones.
Like the previous entries I have written on this blog, I have a reason for choosing this topic right now. The Alabama legislature, which refuses to raise taxes in any way, is facing a budget shortfall that could drastically affect the Department of Corrections and could lead to the release of thousands of inmates. Alabama’s overcrowded prisons have been under federal court order to rectify manifest problems, like containing roughly double the number of inmates they are designed to hold. And very recently, Alabama’s only prison for women, Julia Tutwiler, became both the subject of scathing report and the defendant in a lawsuit by the Equal Justice Initiative for alleged rampant sexual misconduct by males guards and prison staff. The dubious infamy of state’s institutions is long standing: Alabama was the last state in the Union to utilize the convict lease system until it was finally abolished in the late 1920s, and in the 1990s Alabama’s DoC received national media attention for reinstating “chain gangs.” These latest situations are just more bricks in a very tall wall.
The government-spending aspect of the “epidemic” of over-incarceration in America, and in the Deep South as well, is striking. The obviously unworkable nature of political promises both to be “tough on crime” and not to raise taxes has fiscal conservatives, who often remind us that we can’t pay with money we don’t have, scrambling. Prisons cost lots of money.
Yet, all the news isn’t grim. Last month, on one local news broadcast where I live, a sheriff in a nearby rural county announced a new crime-reduction initiative, which would allow judges to sentence people found guilty of assault and similar offenses to a program that would teach them conflict-resolution and anger-management skills, the same kinds of tactics used to curb domestic violence. I was watching and thought, What an enlightened way to handle it! Take the people who resort to violence to solve their disputes and teach them better ways to solve their disputes . . . which will have residual effects on neighborhoods and families and child-rearing, when those people are present at other disputes in the community, in homes, in night clubs . . . the idea brings to mind another song popular in the Deep South: “This little light of mine . . . I’m gon’ let it shine . . .”
In the Deep South, the inexpedient politics of being sympathetic to convicted offenders offers little hope of redemptive policies prevailing, outside of the possibilities offered by litigation. Deep Southern politicians who want to be re-elected are not going to take the side of incarcerated people, especially considering that in some Southern states convicted felons have no voting rights. In Alabama, Mississippi, Tennessee and Florida, a felon’s voting rights are permanently revoked, while in Georgia, South Carolina and Louisiana, those rights can be restored after all sentences have been served and completed. Not exactly a voter bloc to pander to!
For most of us, people in prison are easy to forget, easy to ignore, or both, but in the Deep South, we can’t do that any longer. Our new fascination with reducing government spending means that we have to take that ideal for its pros and its cons. In Alabama where I live, there are 4.6 million people and about 25,000 people are incarcerated here, which constitutes about half-a-percent of the state population. However, that tiny percentage doesn’t diminish the fact that 25,000 human beings in Alabama are crammed into facilities that are designed to hold about half that number— and they are living, for years or in some cases decades, in wretched conditions. Only time will tell what the release of inmates will yield in terms of effects within our larger society. Will it mean well-used second chances for thousands of people, or will it mean an astoundingly unmanageable rate of repeat offenses and recidivism? Or neither, or some of both? The real question is: how are we preparing to assist those inmates who will soon be released? To my knowledge, we’re not.
With the often-used Biblical rhetoric of Deep Southern culture, I don’t mind pointing out verses 31 through 46 in chapter 25 in the Gospel of Matthew in which Jesus remarks that being kind to the sick, needy, and imprisoned is in fact doing the Lord’s will. The disciples are confused when Jesus tells them that they have visited Him in prison . . . and then they get it! What we do to the most helpless people, and what we fail to do for the most helpless people, will be visited back on us when it comes time to be judged ourselves. At other points in the Gospels, Jesus makes references to how we will be forgiven by God and will be shown kindness and mercy by God in the same way that we forgive our fellow Man on Earth, in the same way that we are kind and merciful on Earth.
Just some things to think about. When I think about that one line in CD Wright’s book of poems – “See what I did was, I accidentally killed my brother” – it haunts me because that could just as easily have been me, or you, or someone we know. And eventually, we will all be standing before the Judge, having to answer for the things we have done.