01 September 2017

The Lock-Up: Prison Fiction and Reality

by Thomas Pluck
About 11 million men and women cycle through U.S. jails and prisons each year, according to a September report by the online media outlet AlterNet. The report, which cited data compiled by the Prison Policy Initiative, the U.S.--with 5% of the world's population--is responsible for a quarter of the world's prison population. At any given moment, more than 2.3 million people are housed in "1,719 state prisons, 102 federal prisons, 942 juvenile correctional facilities, 3,283 local jails, and 79 Indian Country jails, as well as military prisons, immigration detention centers and prisons in the U.S. territories," and in some parts of the country, more people are in jail than in college.
--John Corley, "Prisonomics," The Angolite, Dec. 2016 issue
That was written by John Corley, a lifer at Louisiana State Penitentiary, and editor of The Angolite magazine, the prison's newspaper. Better known as "The Farm" or Angola, the former plantation houses the most life-sentenced prisoners in the U.S., if not the world. The peace is kept through occupational programs that give the inmates opportunity to stave off boredom and better themselves, to spend quality time with family on park-like benches rather than plastic orange chairs, sports, and faith-based groups.

You would think, with 2.3 million in jail or prison, that we would have more prison stories. There's Orange is the New Black, which is an entertaining fairy tale, but we have had few prison novels of note in the past few decades, as the population has soared. The time is ripe for accurate stories that depict the school-to-prison pipeline, the vicious circle of probation fees and jail, recidivism and parole, and lifers dying in hospice. All too often our stories begin at the prison gates--like my own novel, Bad Boy Boogie--and pay little attention to what happened before. We let the imagination do the job, but our imaginations are thirty or fifty years out of date, if we're still thinking like The Birdman of Alcatraz and The Shawshank Redemption or even American Me.

Inmate Damien Costly on suicide watch. from Mother Jones

Our genre has many tropes about prison, and they come from our cultural beliefs, which come from stories, so it is a vicious circle. Many of our beliefs about incarceration are outdated. For one, no one says "shiv" anymore. That went out with "cordite." There is violence in prison, but it is usually not how it is depicted in fiction. The majority of reported sexual assaults against prisoners is committed by faculty. Rape does occur, but there are plenty of inmates who will willingly trade sex. There's no need to get an assault or murder on your jacket. When rapes occur it is often paid for as revenge, or to make the victim seek protection within a gang. I wrote about this with the Heimdall Brotherhood (a fictional white supremacist gang based on several real ones) in Bad Boy Boogie, as well as what causes some prison riots. Racial lines used to be uncrossable, but things have changed. A friend of mine who is not Latino joined the Latin Kings during his time, to have protection, for example.

The biggest fantasy is that chimo's (child molesters, in prison parlance) will be punished by the population. This seems to be the greatest wish of half the internet commenters whenever a sex offender is charged, but it rarely happens. Most will seek Protective Custody (aka "punk city") which is similar to Administrative Segregation; you're in your cell 23 hours a day, but without the punitive rules regarding visitors and reading material, etc. Incarcerated former police often opt for this as well, putting to rest the "killed by the people they put away" myth. Anyone who can be victimized probably will be, but threats and long con games are more likely than getting shanked to death. When you're dead you can't pay for protection.

The classic prison novels like On the Yard by Malcolm Braley and The Animal Factory by Edward Bunker are still good reads, but they served time in the '50s. Better is Just Like That by Les Edgerton, which involves convicts after release, but gives a great view into the criminal mindset and how well (or not) prison works as a deterrent to the outlaw kind. Les served time in the '70s and stayed current. For an outsider's view, the book Games Criminals Play is a must-read, especially if you plan on writing to prisoners, or working with prison literary or education programs. It explains the long con games some use to get favors and coerce you into illegal behavior. If you have read about psychopathic behavior or how emotional abusers "gaslight" and coerce, the methods will be familiar, and they work outside of prison as well, when a criminal wants to infiltrate a business, or blackmail a government or law enforcement worker.

They start small, asking for the tiniest of favors. Can I bum a cigarette? What time is it? This is also how con artists find victims: Hey, can you help me with something? If you say yes, you are malleable. It depends. What happened? is a better answer, if you don't want to just keep on walking, which is usually the best option. Giving an inmate a cigarette is a violation. So now when they ask you for something bigger, they can use that against you. C'mon, you gave me a smoke. You're not like the others. And when you get adamant: You have a pretty good job here, but John saw you give me the smoke, and he's a rat, he needs to look good, but I can stop him from ratting, if you help me out...

If you give in a second time, they have more to use against you, and eventually this can lead to cases like the officer in Jersey City, New Jersey accused of tipping off gangs. Or the ubiquitous stories of Corrections Officers caught smuggling in contraband. It doesn't help that they are often underpaid; New Jersey has a strong CO's union, but most states don't. And with the private prison industry, things have gotten much worse. Low pay, and corporate-style accountability; it's only a problem if you get caught. Investigative journalist Shane Bauer infiltrated a Louisiana private prison and worked as a guard, and his story is illuminating not only to show how prisoners are treated and mistreated in such facilities, but how the corrections officers are. And what leads them to taking the job. It's a long read, but worth it: My Four Months as a Private Prison Guard, by Shane Bauer.

Another good read is the Phoenix New Times's reporting on Sheriff Joe Arpaio. They have collected it all here: Phoenix New Times Arpaio columns.

Inmate at Angola prison in Louisiana dries his eyes before
the Traveling Vietnam War Memorial Wall. From The Angolite.
Now this is not to say everyone in prison is good or bad. If you follow the Innocence Project, DNA has exonerated hundreds of inmates who served decades in prison. Some fall into a spiral and can't dig their way out. After cuts to mental illness care, law enforcement and prison often take the place of treatment. And then there are the ones who really deserve to be there, our favorite subjects. Just ask Norman Mailer, who worked to get Jack Abbott out of prison, only for him to stab a waiter who angered him. In the Belly of the Beast is still worth reading, for its outlaw insight. Dated as they are, You Can't Win by Jack Black and Killer: a Journal of Murder by Carl Panzram are also helpful in seeing two very different sides of criminal thinking, one the low-grade hobo scammer, the other a seasoned and heartless serial rapist and murderer, frank in his feelings toward humans, and how he was made into what he was.

 America's ignominious position as the leader in incarceration is unlikely to change any time soon, so if you want to write about prison, make sure you are informed. There are many stories to tell, and they are not all the same. The Kafkaesque circle of parole and probation, fees they must pay, losing your driver's license for a drug/etc conviction, not being able to find or hold a job because you can't drive a car and public transportation isn't available, and going to jail for not paying your fines, is horrible to watch. I've seen it up close, and all it does is shift the monetary burden to the family. Who then burden the addict or convict with guilt, which pressures them to use or violate probation again, which...

Well, maybe I should write a story about it, instead.

Here are some more sources on prison and parole:

Games Criminals Play, by Bud Allen & Diane Bosta
Subscribe to The Angolite, the magazine of Louisiana State Penitentiary, by sending a check/m.o. to The Angolite, c/o Cashier's Office, Louisiana State Penitentiary, Angola LA 70712
Watch "Life on Parole," online at Frontline PBS.





6 comments:

Robert Lopresti said...

Very interesting, Thomas. THanks.

Thomas Pluck said...

Thanks. I added two photos that I'd forgotten to insert.

Barb Goffman said...

I ditto Rob.

Eve Fisher said...

Great post, Thomas. I was at a meeting at the pen with some of the inmates last night and we had an interesting discussion about an inmate and a guard. Let's just say that we've all agreed not to invite the inmate to an AVP weekend, and to keep an eye out for the guard.

Elizabeth said...

Homeboy by Seth Morgan, published in 1990, is very good. Not sure how much of the part of the story that takes place in prison is from the author's firsthand knowledge. He died young.

KM Rockwood said...

Interesting blog. And it's got me thinking about a project or two I have on the back burner, set in state prisons.

The protagonist in my 6-book series, Jesse Damon Crime Novels (Wildside Press) is on parole after 20 years in prison on a murder conviction. Although I do have a few scenes inside county lock-ups, I don't have any in state prisons (a much different situation) and I'm not familiar enough with federal facilities to try to place stories there.

I worked for a number of years in a medium security state facility, and I have worked in some county lock-ups.

Forty-some years ago, when I was living in south Chicago, the Latin Kings were recruiting members of all races & ethnic backgrounds. A friend of mine moved her African-American family out of the neighborhood when her young teenage sons were targeted as potential members.