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Digital database captures voices from inside America’s prisons

An inmate looks out from his cell in the Security Housing Unit at Corcoran State Prison in California on Oct. 1, 2013. REUTERS/Robert Galbraith

Digital database captures voices from inside America’s prisons

Attorney General Jeff Sessions recently announced a return to a pre-Obama policy of seeking maximum penalties for all drug crimes, including low-level, nonviolent offenses. Criticism from politicians, criminologists, lawyers and others was swift and unambiguous.

Based on a discredited belief in a zero-sum relationship between crime and incarceration rates, the thinking behind this policy was called “one-dimensional,” “archaic,” “misguided” and “dumb.” America’s unprecedented attempt to jail its way out of crime long ago passed the point of diminishing returns. Drug trafficking in particular sees a replacement effect: Removing one drug seller simply makes room for another (often accompanied by a violent reshuffling of territories). Excessive incarceration can also damage communities and can actually make an individual more, not less, likely to reoffend.

I have been facilitating a writing workshop inside Attica Correctional Facility since 2006. For the past eight years, I have solicited, collected, helped publish and digitally disseminated the first-person writing of incarcerated Americans. Those on the receiving end of the attorney general’s misguided policy will naturally feel his words more deeply than others. The writers among them will be burdened with responsibility to make those feelings known.

Who is listening?

Sessions’ statement no doubt sang to the prison servicing industries, prison guard unions, the private prison industry and everyone else who profits from the salaries, pensions and lucrative contracts generated by the largest prison system on Earth. Despite a bipartisan quieting of the drums of the drug war, if Sessions and Trump make good on their promise to return to the “law and order” politics that made the U.S. the world’s master jailer, more mothers, fathers, sons, daughters and brothers will be removed from their homes and suffer the debilitation that comes from a felony conviction.

What few of this war’s partisans are likely to think about is the psychological damage the announcement may have already done to the men and women awaiting release and those awaiting the release of a loved one.

The vast majority of the writers I have encountered hope for a life of work and family and wish to make an active contribution to the communities they damaged. Face-to-face meetings and hundreds of reports from the front lines of America’s mass incarceration experiment offer invaluable insight into our archipelago of over 5,000 prisons and jails. Yet for every man and woman attending a workshop or the few college classrooms that remain since Bill Clinton cut funding for higher education in prisons, for every person who is able and courageous enough to write about their experience, there are thousands of Americans who have given up hope of changing or even documenting their condition.

Whose voices can we hear?

In 2009 I sent out a call for essays, asking incarcerated people to describe their experience inside prisons and jails. The final deadline passed in the fall of 2012. Seventy-one of the initial pool of 154 essays would become “Fourth City: Essays from the Prison in America,” published in 2014.

But essays never stopped coming. The call had opened a vein that would not be stanched. Writers documented the lives that led them to prison, a broken judicial system and staff cultures committed to humiliation and dehumanization, as well as the labor of living among damaged and broken men and women. The resulting digital American Prison Writing Archive now holds more than 1,300 essays in its paper files – the equivalent of 18 volumes the size of “Fourth City,” with 739 essays now posted online.

As important as these courageous writers are, we must understand that they are exceptions inside a system that metes out debilitating pain, that incubates what an incarcerated writer in Illinois calls “phantom souls,” writers in California call “forgotten” and “lost souls,” and from Ohio, “surplus souls.” The voices one hears in “Fourth City” and the APWA are those that have emerged from the silence of masses of men and woman bereft of hope.

Imprisoned writer Willie Johnson of Georgia writes:

“Is there a correlation between the increase in [prison] violence and the mandatory minimum sentence?….In Dante’s ‘Inferno,’ the opening line upon entering the realms of hell was first ‘abandon all hope.’ The delusion of…false hope will never be a controlling mechanism… for this generation; they have no hope. In attempting to control negative/violent tendencies the traditional B.F. Skinner reward and punishment principle is not working. Why? The incentive for compliance, the hope of parole…was removed from the equation. Their current mindset is I have nothing to lose, but most paramount: I have nothing to gain. Nietzsche said ‘He who has a why to live for can bear with almost any how.’ With this generation there is no why to live for, so they choose the how and this how is very disturbing.”

When incarcerated people’s objections are echoed by prosecutors, you know you have a bad policy. Sessions’ announcement will resume fomenting despair even among nonviolent drug offenders betting on a national shift toward more rational sentencing. I have seen this despair in the eyes of men inside.

“It was like I woke up in a zombie movie.”

These were the words of a man serving time inside Attica. He was referring to the morning of March 10, 2008 and news of the sex scandal that would end the political career of Eliot Spitzer. The then-governor had announced the creation of a commission to reform sentencing and reduce prison populations. “Guys was walking around light as Macy balloons,” another man recalled of the afternoon of Spitzer’s announcement. Then the governor was revealed as the regular client of a high-end call girl. “It was like the G-forces doubled,” another man recalled, his face recounting that sensation. “My cellie couldn’t get off his bunk.”

Rising out of a population whose hopes are crushed, ephemeral or struggling, the voices that do reach out exhibit a resilience that is humbling. Sessions’ doing what he calls “the right and moral thing” is bound to further challenge such resilience. But we’ll know that only from what some incarcerated people write about others. Dead souls tell no tales.