institutions, prison, rehabilitation

A World Inverted

I highly recommend reading Leslie Jamison’s essay “Fog Count,” on visiting her pen pal Charlie Engle in a West Virginia prison. Published this month in The Oxford American, the essay ponders America’s baffling prison rules and its vague, yet cruel philosophies of punishment and remorse. What I found most memorable is the way Jamison describes her own struggles with the divergent perspectives of author and subject. Engle and Jamison quite literally live in two separate worlds, and however close Jamison tries to get to Engle’s world, a huge gulf always remains between them. (Even though Engle is housed in one of America’s minimum-security prisons which, generally speaking, treat their inmates—who are often convicted of white-collar crimes—more humane than maximum-security facilities.)

Jamison’s piece struck a chord because in less than two weeks I will visit a pen pal at Attica, America’s most notorious maximum-security prison. While my pen pal, who has been serving time for murder for more than forty years, appears to be looking forward to my visit, I have ambivalent feelings. I still get chills remembering my last prison visit several years ago. How I was absorbed by this inverted world the moment the gates shut behind me. How forgotten, fearful and lonely I suddenly felt. One step and I was completely cut off from the outside world. Not only did prison look different, it also smelled and sounded different. The light situation was like nothing I had experienced on the outside. If it reminded me of anything it was a morgue.

Here are a couple of excerpts from Jamison’s excellent essay (but you should really read the whole thing):

“There were rules about movement and rules about hygiene and rules about possession. Too many possessions could be a fire hazard. You were allowed five books and one photo album. Hobby craft materials had to be disposed of immediately after use. Finished hobby crafts could only be sent to people on your official visitation list. There would be no postal harassment by hobby craft.”

“We punish where it’s possible. We take a systemic tragedy and turn it into neatly packaged recompense: time served.”

“I feel a pressure to separate my stance from Charlie’s—to make myself author, and him subject—but I also feel it as an act of violence to disagree with him about his own life in any way. I want to talk about his life here. I want to talk about who he has become in this place, what it has summoned from him. But I realize my interest betrays the privilege of my freedom: life in here is novelty to me; for Charlie it’s day-in, day-out reality. For me it’s interesting. For him it’s terrible.”

“I can’t figure out if hearing all this brings me closer to Charlie or simply illuminates the gulf between us. Am I learning his world or simply perusing its memorable specifics, shopping like a tourist in the commissary? Sometimes Charlie says, “I’m giving you this,” before offering an anecdote. His prison life is only mine at his bequest. I’m giving him my attention and he’s giving me something else—not the currency of stamps but rather specifics, intimate access—or its texture, at least—granted by way of details.

“Prison is a wound we keep tucked in those parts of the country that can’t afford to turn it away, who need its jobs or revenue, who must endure the quiet violence of its physical presence—its “Don’t Pick Up Hitchhikers” warning signs, its barbed-wire fences—the same way a place must endure the removal of its mountaintops and the plundering of its seams: because a powerful rhetoric insists that we can only be delivered from our old scars by tolerating new ones.”