Friday, September 23, 2011
Prison as Cultural Shadow
At 11 PM EST, Wednesday, September 21, Georgia prison inmate Troy Davis was pronounced dead from lethal injection. To his last breath, he maintained his innocence of the murder for which he was condemned. Very likely, the doubt which shrouded his case will never be cleared; at least, not in the dimension which we presently inhabit. Whether a murderer or an innocent man was executed will always be subject to debate. There is nothing left of Troy Davis, now, but a jar of ashes—and the matter of our own guilt or innocence in allowing a man who may have been innocent to be euthanized in the prime of his life.
I have long contemplated the institution of prison and its function as cultural shadow. In my capacity as creative writing instructor at a California men's prison, for five years I had a unique opportunity to observe the corrections system at work and to acquaint myself with some of its charges, a handful of inmates among the almost two million now incarcerated in the United States.
This experience and those acquaintances have changed my life and caused me to look deeply into the fabric of American culture and the role of the writer, there.
I want to make two important points, right at the outset:
First, I believe the majority of prison inmates are among the most severely psychologically wounded members of our culture. The psychologist Winnicott speaks of a child's "knowledge from experience of having been mad." Madness is not a state of mind one readily equates with infancy and childhood and it is a disturbing notion. Yet severe early trauma was part of the life history of the majority of inmates in my classes. It's not without reason that one of my favorite students, a black man whose mother was a prostitute, who never knew a father, and who was born addicted to crack cocaine and was prostituted for over a decade as a child, has said, "The Department of Corrections says my name is John Doe Smith, but I'm here to tell you, my real name is Madniz!"
A survey conducted by the U.S. Justice Department revealed that among those polled, 87% of female and 44% of male prisoners were attacked either physically or sexually or both, as children. It is not difficult to imagine that, for them, normal ego growth was interrupted by early, incapacitating, traumatic anxiety.
My second point has to do with the privatization of prisons in America. With this trend, a new and insidious threat has arisen that strikes at the heart of the democratic process, of Constitutional guarantees and of the moral and ethical underpinnings of our nation. The agenda of private prison corporations is not so much hidden as thinly veiled behind euphemisms hinting at the inmate population as a resource; as a cheap and plentiful domestic labor force. Masquerading as a virtuous anti-crime movement is the reinstitution of what virtually amounts to slavery.
This might sound preposterous, but consider the facts: prison industries show a multi-billion dollar profit, annually. Inmates at our prison are paid between 12 and 65 cents an hour. They have no benefits, no union and no right to refuse to work. Their work spaces are not subject to OSHA inspection. Their work hours are not necessarily limited to 8 per day nor are they compensated for overtime or hazardous duty. There is a formal assumption of superiority by the officers who oversee them, providing great latitude for arbitrary and capricious behavior on their part and concomitant fear on the part of the inmates.
Consider further that 3-Strikes laws, nationwide, have filled prisons to overflowing with non-violent offenders, many of whom will be incarcerated for life, the vast majority of whom are people of color. Behind political hyperbole about "making our streets safe" lurks the specter of greed, and a deliberate economic policy geared to compete with third world countries in the labor market, with the added element of gratifying racist agendas.
To recapitulate, for emphasis: inmates are among the most severely psychologically wounded members of our society and, with the rise of private prisons, they are being targeted as a virtual slave labor force for industry. Despite its name, the Department of Corrections is much more involved in warehousing than in correcting or redeeming human lives. Therefore, one finds a situation in which those who are among the most severely traumatized individuals of our society are shut away in subhuman conditions which both recapitulate and exacerbate the original trauma, without benefit of psychotherapeutic treatment and the barest of creative outlets, with the likelihood of becoming lifelong drudges in prison industries. That a nation which thinks of itself as among the most civilized in the world could treat its wounded so abysmally is a shocking thing and speaks to our collective, medieval notions about criminality.
It is instructive to explore just which archetypes haunt the prison setting. To do so, let's imaginally enter the world of the prisoner:
How does it feel, to be incarcerated? First, you are always afraid. Maybe you sleep with a book on your chest so you won't have a shank driven into your heart. Maybe you don't use the bathroom at night, for fear of being gang raped. Maybe you look out your 7 X 18- inch window into asphalt and French razor wire and think of suicide. Doubtlessly you live in fear both of your fellow inmates and of The Man, the Correctional officers who run your life. And you've learned not to cross the Line, that imaginary boundary that runs through the prison yard, separating one race from another, one gang from another.
You will never doubt the universal applicability of myth if you enter into the world where Chronos still eats his children, in increments of 25-to-Life. If you sit in the undoing timelessness of doing time. If you allow yourself, even for a moment, to be ingested into the belly of the beast.
Prison is the embodiment of the shadow fantasies of the Senex. Imaginings around how to control, suppress, repress, disempower, punish, humiliate, depotentiate, depersonalize and dehumanize are the ground of its being. Institutionalized paranoia is its pathology. A hatred of beauty, moistness, lushness and the Feminine is its aesthetic. Black, deep blue and gray are its alchemical colors. Suffering and depression, its climate. Reason and logic, its justification. Violence, fascism, racial bigotry, homophobia and classism, rationality’s shadow. Pure rage and testosterone, its propulsive energies.
My creative writing classes entered into this scene at the point where an inmate had been incarcerated, clean, sober and introspective for a sufficient period to begin asking himself: "What does my soul want?" My approach is much different than the traditional academic one because I have seen demonstrated, time and again, that one cannot come into proper, creative relationship with writing -- or quite possibly, with any other facet of life -- in the absence of Eros. My first, most challenging, and overwhelmingly important task was to create a container, safe from the vicissitudes of prison life, in which gang hatred, racial strife, classism and sexism could be laid aside for a time, and an atmosphere of mutual trust, concern and encouragement could be generated.
In such a supportive atmosphere, individual voices were free to arise, speaking and writing from an authentic place for the first time. The voice arising out of my classes was a powerful one on four main counts. First, it is a voice enraged by punishments which did not fit the crime. Second, it spoke of childhoods and young adulthoods of unbelievable brutality in a numbed, matter-of-fact voice. Third, its tone, when speaking of the future (always a terrifying direction for their gaze), was wistful and filled with longing for, and imaginings of, redemption. Finally and surprisingly, it was also a lyric voice filled with concern and love for Earth and the beauty and fragility of nature, where they seemed to see and hear their own wounded and unbearably beautiful souls resonating.
What I heard were brave voices echoing in the void of their lostness. What I imagined was a way to supply a road map out of Hell. An owner's manual for the dispossessed. A myth for the untold wasting of their lives.
I encouraged an imagining of redemption, of light after darkness, of resurrection after crucifixion. They needed a light at the top of the shaft they fell down, before they ever dreamed of consciousness of their peril. They needed a ladder up; a vision of beauty and brilliance to prime their souls, and an imagining of an authentic place in society in which to invest them.
The readiness to be enkindled is built into the prison model. There is a deep, erotic longing to rise out of darkness into light. Creative writing, for many of these men, opened a door to an unimagined world joy and light. Darryl, for example, told me: "I've been in prison, off and on, since I was 13. Now I'm 39. This is the first time, ever, that I've been with a group of people where race didn't matter and where people were saying positive things. It's changed my life."
Within the gray, institutional walls of my classroom, a sacred space was born out of this longing. Jung has said that sacred space is where the individual suffers what they always needed to suffer but lacked the courage to suffer alone.
In my classroom, the Line was crossed: blacks, whites and Hispanics came together, across gang and ethnic barriers, to support and encourage one another. The energy generated was high -- a kind of Dionysian revel. Sometimes our alchemical brew gave off a terrible mephitic stench, as old and suppurating wounds were unwrapped and exposed to the air. There were shouts and tears. Someone would leap to his feet and sing a spontaneous Blues riff, or suddenly lift his shirt to show where half his rib cage was blown away by a shotgun, or knife scars crossing his belly like zippers.
Then again, the energy released was often celebratory and joyous. There were laughter, shouts of encouragement and applause, as each writer read his work aloud from the orange Naugahyde Hot Seat.
Occasionally, the energy approached the sublime. A rich, velvety hush would fall. The atmosphere of the room heated up, producing a thick, voluptuous, oceanic consistency, as the moisture and lushness of the archetypal Feminine were constellated. At those moments, I looked at my students and saw their faces suffused in a deep glow of wonder and peace. All violence had fallen away. A profound psychological reversal had occurred, sometimes propelled by the smallest whiff of kindness or understanding. The mean and cramped prison room had become an alchemical vessel in which the dross in us all was being transformed into gold.
At just this transcendent moment, I must remind you, as I needed continually to remind myself: these men are criminals -- drug dealers, robbers, rapists and murderers. They were dangerous -- one must never forget that. My question, however, is this: what does the shadow of America's shadow look like? And I postulate that what darkens the faces of these men so deeply is the strong light that streams out behind them, from their shadows; from their wounded souls.
These are the ones whom society does not address: the disempowered, the seasoned in Hell, the broken on the social wheel and the desperately soul-hungry. Take, for example, Mickey. Over 6 feet tall, brown-haired, blue-eyed, he was handsome as a movie star. He moved with the unconscious elegance of command. If you saw him on the street, you might imagine him as the son of wealthy, doting parents who had carefully groomed him in the best schools. Maybe he rowed for Harvard or played tennis at Stanford.
In reality, both of Mickey's parents were drug addicts. Mickey robbed his first liquor store at the age of 8 to feed his parents and younger siblings. I pointed out to Mickey that he had lived a classic Hero's Journey -- that he had become what Joseph Campbell called a "person of self-achieved submission," who had taken upon himself the redemption of a deficiency. The world might see him as a criminal but he was also a hero who had provided for his family in the best way he knew how. Mickey's face lit up in pleasure, at my suggestion. No one had ever called him a hero.
Another anecdote about Mickey will demonstrate what is lost, when such a brave spirit is not nurtured. During class one night, Mickey sat aloof because he was pouring over my copy of Sister Wendy's Story of Painting, a book on art history, after saying he never missed one of Sister Wendy's programs on PBS. Suddenly, mid-session, Mickey erupted from his seat at the back of the classroom, shouting, "Oh my God . . . !!!" We all turned to him, startled. He had leapt to his feet, book in hand, an enraptured look on his face.
"It's the Madonna of the Rocks! It's right here! " He held the illustration up for all to see. And then, stammering with excitement, Mickey told us the history of Leonardo Da Vinci. The entire class sat, transfixed, as Mickey's passion swept the room. His eyes glowed and his voice was powerful with warmth and fervor. Then, as suddenly as he had erupted, he faltered, looked embarrassed and sat down.
Mickey was only 25 years old. If he were my son, or yours, he would probably have been in the University, getting his Masters in art history, maybe spending a year studying in Rome. But Mickey's story doesn't end happily ever after. Shortly after that incident, Mickey's visits to class became fewer and farther between. He'd been marked by the Aryan Brotherhood for inclusion in its ranks, a summons one disregards at his peril. The last time he came to class, he brought me a sheet of beautifully executed calligraphy: MERRY CHRISTMAS, SUZAN. LOVE, MICKEY, in letters 2 inches high, and he thanked me. Then he disappeared into the black rat hole of a prison hate group and I never saw him again.
I've kept a file folder of inmate writing. Mickey's name in calligraphy is in there, along with a lot of other men's poems and life stories and letters of thanks. I opened that folder, in the process of preparing this post and the roll call of names fell out: Rico, Lonnie, Russell and Henry. Ron, Richard, Rodney and Supreme. Aldo, Alejandro, Raymond and Michael.
Leaning over that file folder, I felt as if my heart had fallen into a bed of living coals. I wept with a grief I scarcely knew was in me, over the names of these men. Because, in prison, you don't have a first name. Official identification cards have a mug shot, a last name and a number, that's all. So one of the subversive things we did in my classes was that we all agreed to call one another by our first names, the ones our mothers and fathers who first loved us used.
In prison, absolutely the most radical, the most subversive thing you can do, is love.
Jeremy, Ricardo, Bruce and Jagindar. Kenny, Everette, Mark and Shadid. Anthony, Jason, June Bug, and Larry "The Moose Is Loose" Jarrett. To the world, they're just criminals -- dangerous, expendable and richly deserving. To me, they are my brothers and sons who fell through a crack in an inner city sidewalk one day, into a world so dark, so terrible, so brutal, so grotesquely depraved, that, in truth, I can scarcely bear to think of them there.
My student Madniz wrote of this state, from the perspective of his own nine-year old self, in his poem, "Through My Eyes As A Child":
True memories sworn to never forget
I'm up to a ounce an a half of dope a day
100 pounds, soaken wet.
My only hope was to see
just how high I could get.
Look at my get-up-an-go
now that it just done got up and went.
This is what I heard from slow-movin tears
that honestly fell down a face
that wished it never appeared.
Freakish-pressure-pimped-by-pleasure . . .
Well I'm dazed and amazed an only 9 years old . . .
Racin down the alley like so many times before.
Destination? 211: any local liquor store.
Don't try to stop me now! Because I'm goin!
Where is ma mom?
Out on the bulavard - - whorein!
Don't you see it all over my face?
Come take a real good look in my eyes! . . .
Why did ma daddy have ta leave me this way
on ta go? He wouldn't even stick around
ta play the father-son role.
Flip-spinnin in anger!
Cold-heartedly checkin each chamber!
of that nickel-plated 38
he'd got from a gangsta!
Peep-game, Baby Boy! because
ya liven in da pit of pimp-players
and hoes! and all day suckas!
Always talkin dat shit!!!
I see it in ya, son. Ya got dat look in ya eyes!
So when thay come ta try and dis-ya
Aim! Press! Make em die!!!!
Through my eyes as a child
This is what I visualize!
I did my best to feed these men hungry to become. I told stories; I taught depth psychological concepts like projection, shadow, synchronicity and archetype. We discussed and wrote about our dreams and our lives as hero's journeys, or alchemical processes, always looking for gold amid the dross. We turned from life as disaster to life as sacred business.
Over the months, profound shifts in outlook did take place, and voices drugged and abused into drabness came alive. All I could do was affirm that Darkness is a sacred place and that if they continued to honor it with such scrupulous honesty, it would surely honor them.
Madniz came to class one day, with a poem he was very excited to read, in honor of the class and of poetry and of the courage of poets to speak out. "Words are like gems", he said, by way of introduction, "they glow with color." I want to remind you that Heraclitus, the 5th-century BCE Greek philospher, said that Logos is a flow like fire, as you read the last stanza of that poem:
All wordz aren't wordz anymore. . .
they . . . soulfully dance . . .
out of the face of truth
sparkz out of the
very pit of
with each living syllable uttered.
I want to leave you with the suggestion that each one of the imprisoned -- innocent or guilty, black or white, small-time thief or serial murderer -- is such a spark from the never-ending, immaculate creative flame. And our job, as souls, as citizens, as responsible creations of a responsive universe, is to learn how to fan the flame.