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.” Continue reading