Some of America's best writers are locked in its brutal prisons

The greatest work often comes from the abyss

Many US prisons are notoriously difficult environments. AP
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Writing is hard. Dorothy Parker is attributed with saying: “Writing is easy. You just open a vein and bleed.”

Most writers spend their days propped up in a hard chair in front of a desk, staring at a screen or a typewriter. It can be lonely and isolating, and I have often likened my windowless writing rooms to prisons.

But imagine being incarcerated, and your office really was a prison. It would be hard to create in such conditions.

And yet, the greatest work often comes from the abyss. One of the best known prison literary initiatives comes from one of the most brutal prisons in America, bounded on three sides by the Mississippi River. There, a group of unique journalists work to put out a bi-monthly magazine called The Angolite.

“[Writing] takes on a somewhat different flavour when the office in question is in the bowels of the nation’s largest maximum–security prison, the Louisiana State Penitentiary – better known as Angola,” wrote the former editor, Kerry Myers, who served worked on the magazine for nearly 20 years while he was incarcerated.

Nearly 76 per cent of Angola’s prisoners are serving life sentences. The grim reality of a life inside is harsh – Angola is notoriously violent – and solitary. In the 1960s it was called “the bloodiest prison in the South” because of the high rates of assaults.

But for a small group of fortunate men – the staff at The Angolite is only seven journalists with rare turnover – writing a prison newspaper is a unique chance to have something close to freedom.

One of the best known prison literary initiatives comes from one of the most brutal prisons in America

The Angolite, which was founded as a tabloid newspaper in 1953, has a paid subscriber base that fluctuates between 1,000-1,500 inmates.

“The job made endless days, months, and years anything but ordinary or routine in a place where routine infects daily life like a contagion,” Myers wrote.

Words, music, education – these are things that can transform rough justice. Last week, Goncourt, the presitigious French publisher, announced an offshoot to their yearly literary prize which has been won in the past by some of France’s greatest authors. The government-sponsored prize, Goncourt des Detenus (“Inmates’ Goncourt”) is awarded by a unique jury – all prisoners. About 500 people in 31 prisons took part in reading and reviewing the books, and finally choosing the winner.

France’s Justice Minister, Eric Dupond-Moretti, put it beautifully when he talked about the power of words: “Wherever culture, language and words advance, violence recedes,” he said. “Time in prison has to be a time of punishment, but also of transformation.”

The prize is an attempt to halt the isolation and misery that many prisoners feel, faced with years behind bars. France has also experimented with prison restaurants, go-kart competitions and “prison rap”.

The tradition of writing in prison is one that goes back to the times of Marco Polo when he was incarcerated in a Genoese jail. Martin Luther wrote from prison, as did Cervantes, Oscar Wilde (who wrote the beautiful letter “De Profundis” to his lover who betrayed him), Jean Genet, and Sir Walter Raleigh. Fyodor Dostoevsky's semi-autobiographical The House of the Dead is set in a Siberian prison camp and Beethoven's opera Fidelio is based in a miserable 18th century prison. There are many more great literary books set in such surroundings.

Shortly after I read Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn brilliant account of Stalin’s forced labour prisons, The Gulag Archipelego, someone gave me a copy of George L Jackson’s Soledad Brother. That book changed my life.

Before his early death in prison, Jackson penned two extraordinary books, Soledad Brother and Blood in my Eye. The latter was completed in August 1971, only days before Jackson was killed by guards at the notorious San Quentin State Prison as he was attempting to escape. His younger brother, Jonathan, had also been killed in prison a year before Jackson died.

George Jackson’s story is one that happens far too often. Jackson had been convicted aged 18 in 1961 for stealing $70 from a petrol station. He spent 11 years – the rest of his short life – incarcerated. Seven of those years were in solitary confinement.

Prison changed Jackson’s life, though. “They’ll never count me among the broken men,” he wrote. In solitary, Jackson read and studied Marxism, became a member of the Black Panthers movement, and a self-declared “revolutionary” whose books were widely read and revered. I read Jackson for the first time when I was around the same age as he was when he went to prison. I remember thinking: had Jackson not been black and poor, how differently this stunning book would have been received. Despite that, Soledad Brother became a cult classic.

Myers said he chose his staff because of their “character”. These men wrote on topics including trafficking in prison, the death penalty and the societal cost of mass incarceration. Other American prison newspapers include the Danville Vanguard, the Huron Valley Monitor, the Joint Endeavour and others. These papers deserve to stand alone – not just as prison journalism. But as great journalism.

I don’t hide my views on incarceration in America, where I think the system is racist, misogynistic and unfair. I think most of those who can afford expensive lawyers avoid jail or get lighter terms, and are sent to country club prisons. Those who have to “cop a plea” often go to prison innocent because they are poor. These are usually young men of colour who can’t afford lawyers.

I wish prisoners could study literature, or write poems, or make rap music outside of prison bars. I wish there was a judicial system that was decent and honest and that worked. I wished that the cruellest prison systems in the US studied transformative justice as alternatives to criminal justice. I wish George L Jackson did not die in prison, and lived to be an old man writing more extraordinary books.

But until then, initiatives like Goncourt des Detenus are a good start.

Published: January 04, 2023, 2:01 PM
Updated: January 11, 2023, 11:53 AM