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Jailhouse Letters



Prisons are grim reminders of how far we sometimes remain from both virtue and justice, a point that has needed the elaborations of some of our most talented and thoughtful authors. What sort of things have been written about jails and the people for whom they were built?

You might think a good start-point would be a novel titled Jailbird, and it begins well, recalling the jailbreak of famous gunman John Dillinger, who used a pistol made of soap and shoe polish. But the author is Kurt Vonnegut, who is far more interested in cleverness than in actual jails (at least in this novel), and so we move quietly on.

A more direct approach might be found in In the Belly of the Beast, a best-selling account of his time in jail by Jack Henry Abbott. Abbott's book was championed by literary lights such as Norman Mailer and helped win his release; freedom was too much for Abbott, who killed again. In his book, Abbott wrote this:

"A man is taken away from his experience of society, taken away from the experience of a living planet of living things when he is sent to prison ... Every step of the way removes him from experience and narrows it down to only the experience of himself ... The concept of death is simple; it is when a living thing no longer entertains experience."

John Cheever explores this element of self-absorption in his Falconer, an entire novel set in prison. Cheever noted that the prison administration imposes itself on the inmate by a mix of solitude and assembly, though for the protagonist, solitude is the greater grief. Here he writes to his girl:

"Last night, watching a comedy on TV, I saw a woman touch a man with familiarity -- a light touch on the shoulder -- and I lay on my bed and cried. No one saw me. Prisoners, of course, suffer a loss of identity, but this light touch gave me a terrifying insight into the depth of my alienation. Excepting myself there is truly no one here with whom I can speak. Excepting myself there is nothing I can touch that is warm, human and responsive."

So burdened by "the torpor of solitude," the punished may seek acceptance of his destiny -- or even affection for it. In the final stanza of the long poem "The Prisoner of Chillon," Lord Byron tells of a release from a maddening isolation:

"At last men came to set me free;

"I ask'd not why and reck'd not where;

"It was at length the same to me,

"Fetter'd or fetterless to be,

"I learned to love despair."

Of a far tougher-minded realism are the characters of William Faulkner's "Old Man," the tale of convicts enlisted to help in rescue efforts during the famous 1927 Mississippi River flood. In this passage, a deputy chides a jailbird whose convict-friend has drowned and will now get a certificate of thanks from the governor. ("It will be something nice for his folks to have, to hang on the wall when neighbors come in or something.")

"'All right,' the deputy said. He turned and herded his companions out. In the drizzling darkness again, he said to the plump convict: 'Well, your partner beat you. He's free. He's done served his time out but you've got a right far piece to go yet.'

"'Yah,' the plump convict said. 'Free. He can have it.'"

The Russian proletarian writer Maxim Gorki is one of the rare authors who knew jail cells from the inside out, being incarcerated no less than four times. In his story "Life in a Prison Cell," Gorki -- the name means "bitter" in Russian -- told what it was like:

"The prisoner knows its cell even in the most minute details, and yet the more he knows it, the more he can feel the presence there of something which he doesn't see, but which he can almost touch. This something returns each night to fill his heart with terror, and each night it becomes bolder and bolder. It always stands behind him, and even when he presses his back against the wall it still remains behind him, invincible, silent, and triumphant, and blowing cold chills down to his marrow bones."

Despite citations, it is highly possible that even our most skilled writers are doomed to miss some integral part of the captive experience. The famed South African prizewinner Nadine Gordimer suggested as much in her story "Crimes of Conscience":

"She spoke often of her time in prison. She herself was the one to find openings for the subject. But even now, when they lay in one another's arms, out of reach, undiscoverable to any investigation, out of scrutiny, she did not seem able to tell of the experience what there really was in her being, necessary to be told: why she risked, for whom and what she was committed. She seemed to be waiting passionately to be given the words, the key. From him."

Many wait with her.

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