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Prison Writing in 20th-Century America (Book Review)

H. Bruce Franklin,Editor, Penguin, 1998

by Daniel Burton-Rose

Closing a conversation about how hideous and abysmal prisons are these days, the great ex-con sociologist John Irwin remarked to me with a muted note of pleasure which I found somewhat unethical at the time: "Yeah, but one thing, there's going to be some amazing writing coming out of there soon."

Reading Prison Writing in 20-Century America, edited by long-time radical H. Bruce Franklin, I understood Irwin's statement better. Not only can prison writing be amazingly good stuff with all life's essentials stripped down and bare but at its best the writing conveys the fundamental inhumanities of the institution like nothing else can. These intimate records often portraits of the myriad creatures the prison damages set on paper by those it refined are definitely prison writing at its best.

Prison Writing is an oral history of the entire century the anthology spans. It's like listening to the plodding worksongs on prison plantations in the early part of the century, echoing all too directly still, or Iceberg Slim rapping his tales of '50s black ghetto life. Some poems capture brief moments of victory Norma Stafford writes to a fellow woman prisoner who has escaped: "Gritty bitch, traitor to us cowards/Run gone one, run, while I sleep/while a smile just for you". Others reveal the daily heartwrenching grind, such as "The Call", former Weatherperson Kathy Boudin's goodnight to her son via telephone.

Certainly the most striking thing about the contributors is the intensity of their own lives be it the wanderlust of Jack London, the largely prison-induced character flaws of notorious snitch Jack Henry Abbot, or the revolutionary brilliance of Malcolm X and Assata Shakur. The words by these authors that can be caught on paper are the definite products of bitter years lived.

The book is revealing in another way: reading an excerpt from George Jackson's 1970 bestseller Soledad Brother about "our 'pigs our beautiful' Governor Reagan" it doesn't take long to understand why California is the state that pioneered the individual prisoner media ban. And reading the book which includes other highly censored writers like Mumia Abu-Jamal it doesn't take long to see why prison officials have always been so intent on keep prisoners mute.

Given today's wide-ranging crack-downs both in access to prisoners and their right to be free of censorship, but more importantly by taking away the initial educational opportunities for learning the writing craft in the first place one wonders if the writers Irwin awaits will be able to grow at all. At least one encouraging thing about Prison Writing is that this many voices have been able to communicate at all.

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