Zachary Lazar. Vengeance: A Novel. Catapult, 2018.
Jackie Wang. Carceral Capitalism. Semiotext(e), 2018.
Rachel Kushner. The Mars Room: A Novel. Scribner, 2018.
Tayari Jones. An American Marriage: A Novel. Algonquin, 2018.
Albert Woodfox. Solitary: Unbroken by Four Decades in Solitary Confinement. Grove, 2019.
PRISON IS A PLACE where stories go to die. To be incarcerated is often to be dispossessed of the basic materials of a life-narrative: family, friendships, community, free movement. Chances for self-realization can be strangled off, the momentum of a person’s story arrested. Viewed from a certain angle, the penal system has actually been designed to prevent the production of narratives altogether—a terrible punishment.
But if that’s the purpose of prison, it has failed in a few conspicuous cases. Some of the most spiritually and politically potent narratives of any time have been written behind bars: Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s letters and notes from prison, the prison epistles of Saint Paul, “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.” All such writings have been formed under a type of pressure unimaginable outside the walls. When they reach the thinner air of free society, they seem to explode.
Several books of fiction and nonfiction released over the past two years join in that lineage. At their most powerful—such as Albert Woodfox’s memoir Solitary: Unbroken by Four Decades in Solitary Confinement—they bring us word from the inside with the urgency of a ballpoint-pen note passed from cell to cell. These books provide needed texture and breadth to an extraordinary moment for criminal justice reform in the wake of the killing of George Floyd. The movement to defund police departments has a natural corollary in prison abolition; these books illuminate the system which would be torn down, and trace the damage it inflicts. With the prophet Isaiah, the authors plead for people who “are snared in holes, and they are hidden in prison houses; they are for prey, and no one delivers,” asking, “who among you will give ear to this?”
In his 2018 novel Vengeance, Zachary Lazar surely gives ear—attentively and almost obsessively. The narrator (also a writer named Zachary) visits the notorious Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola to document an annual Passion play staged entirely by inmates. Beginning to interview the convicts, Zachary quickly realizes that he is emotionally unprepared for the experience: “I did not know what a burden of information would be waiting for me.”
He comes to focus on a Black man named Kendrick King, who is serving a life sentence for murder. Zachary is drawn to him because he claims to be innocent; surprisingly, few other inmates do. The murder that put King behind bars was not a particularly lurid or dramatic case, just one more quotidian homicide in a city and a nation awash in violence: A man was killed in a New Orleans apartment, drugs were involved, various parties fingered King. Open and shut, trial and conviction, a brief mention in the Times-Picayune. But of course no murder is ever so simple or bloodless.
King confessed to the murder during the course of an intensive interrogation, but later says the confession was coerced by a detective. No matter how hard the narrator pries, the case will not quite yield its secrets. And all the while, Kendrick King is sitting in his cell.
Two versions of a single story. In the first, a black man is saying that a white man’s story is fiction. In the second, a white man is saying that a black man’s story is fiction. I know which story I would prefer to believe (and I know you know which one you’d prefer to believe), but of course none of that has anything to do with which version is true. It’s a problem not just of facts but of imagination. The crow wished everything was black, William Blake wrote, the owl, that everything was white. He wasn’t talking about race. I’m not only talking about race. I’m talking about the problem of seeing anything clearly in this time and place in which we live.
Though this case is fiction, uncannily realistic “transcripts” of King’s interrogation show how a false confession might come to pass. We see a detective manipulating the young man over an hours-long process, “offering suggestions” as to how he might have committed the murder, undermining King’s confidence in his own memory, encouraging him to incriminate as many other people as he can. It becomes clear that what the investigator is after is not truth, but rather convictions. That word is interestingly ambivalent. It exists in shared terrain between judicial verdict and creedal faith, both senses of the word yearning for moral certainty. Conviction hints at the modern justice system’s deep family resemblance with religious practice, unsettling its claims to perfect secular objectivity. From this angle, the TV courtroom drama is a latter-day Passion play, where the audience roots for Pontius Pilate as often as for the Nazarene agitator.
Vengeance becomes Zachary’s own private investigation into King’s trial and imprisonment, as he seeks the absolute truth of the case. He throws everything in fiction’s toolbox at the question, from reportage to imaginative recreation. And yet he comes away empty-handed: “I still don’t know if he had anything to do with it.” There is something both infuriating and refreshing in this admission. We are asked to live in a painful space where guilt and innocence are far harder to assign than we’d like. It’s as if an episode of Law & Order were to end without that resounding clang, the sound of guilt or innocence properly assigned. And we are left asking ourselves why we longed to hear it so badly.
When it comes to an honest accounting of the American justice system, there’s a sense in which individual guilt or innocence is beside the point. Jackie Wang’s punk-academic treatise Carceral Capitalism decries a “politics of innocence” in campaigns against police violence. As she acerbically notes, “empathy can be established only when a person meets the standards of authentic victimhood and moral purity.” This is something we’re all familiar with, whether we know it or not; it’s the camera’s sudden lurch from the police-shooting victim’s body to his or her rap sheet; it’s the careful dissection of the deceased’s character and choices. Political support is withheld for victims who can be more easily slotted into the role of criminal. The breaking of the law voids any need to consider the law itself.
People of color must clear a particularly high hurdle: “When the ‘innocence’ of a black victim is not established, he or she will not become a suitable spokesperson for the cause.” Wang shines a light on how this reinforces the racially determined underpinnings of criminality which have often locked Black people into a state of implicit guilt. “This insistence on innocence results in a refusal to hear those labeled guilty or defined by the state as ‘criminals.’” It should never be so easy to disregard someone based on their standing before the law.
This has a theological echo. The person whose trial and execution Zachary sees reenacted in Angola did not associate only with “wrongfully accused” criminals, but with the genuine article. The list of broken and outcast people with whom Jesus walked during his life ends with the two who were closest to him at the darkest point of his Passion: the thieves whose crosses flanked his own. Being crucified next to these two criminals was not some kind of divine happenstance. The same institution convicted each of them—thieves and Messiah. When looking to Mount Calvary, we are forced to see all three at a single glance.
There’s no question of guilt or innocence when it comes to Romy Hall, scapegrace protagonist of Rachel Kushner’s novel The Mars Room. A white woman, she is entirely, wholeheartedly guilty of murder. She is also a former heroin addict, a public-library philosopher, a stripper, a loyal friend, and a product of San Francisco’s vanished working-class neighborhoods. She is serving two life sentences for beating a man to death with a tire iron. But here again the reader gets a vastly fuller account than her jury ever did.
The man Romy killed was stalking, or in her better phrase, “hunting” her. This should have been important evidence during the trial, but her bumbling public defender fails to make it admissible. The slick prosecutor pounces: too easy. Romy’s only possible recourse is to sit there and “look relentlessly guilty, in order to seem possibly a little less guilty.” She fails in this test of abjection and also fails to take a plea deal. “What I didn’t realize, at the time, was that most people took pleas because they did not want to spend their life in prison.” This simple error, almost clerical, results in two “indeterminate state commitments.” Stanville Women’s Prison was built for people like Romy: the unreformed and impenitent.
Last year the New York Times Magazine printed Kushner’s profile of Ruth Wilson Gilmore, whose seminal book about the California prison system, Golden Gulag, was clearly the trellis upon which The Mars Room grew. Along with Angela Davis, Gilmore has been one of the prime movers of the prison abolition movement, a once-unthinkable position which society is slowly beginning to acknowledge. Its project is both tightly focused—simply stopping new prisons from being built is a main goal—and vast. Abolitionists propose a society in which carceral punishment is not reflexive, believing that the resources currently used to punish and segregate can be used far more effectively to treat and support. They suggest that people who have not been subjected to punitive state violence are less likely to enact violence themselves. As Gilmore says, “where life is precious, life is precious.”
There is unmistakable overlap here with longstanding Jewish and Christian arguments against the death penalty. These arguments hold that no believer should countenance the state’s destruction of that most precious of precious things—a fellow human being, the imago Dei. For prison abolitionists, the harm that penal systems inflict on individuals is also insupportable. They do not only oppose the destruction of human life, but also the practice of throwing lives away into deep dark pits.
Yet of course the argument for deep dark pits can be a compelling one. Prison abolitionism demands hefty amounts of empathy and perspicacity toward offenders’ lives. Books like Kushner’s—and Lazar’s, and Tayari Jones’s An American Marriage, Jesmyn Ward’s Sing, Unburied, Sing, and Albert Woodfox’s Solitary—work to provide it. Indeed they may be ideal vessels for this mode of thinking. The novel and memoir forms call upon the reader to follow the skein of a person’s life as it winds through systems and predicaments—thinking forward and backward, perceiving cause and effect not just in the particulars of a legal case but in the whole billiard-table chaos of a life. These books show how the crimes a person committed (even the violent ones) came to pass, getting us to ask for ourselves whether the terminus of prison is the right answer for this tangle of harm and happenstance. This perspective does not excuse wrongdoing—it merely looks for a better point in the process to intervene. Because a common feeling that comes with reading accounts of prison is: surely, surely we can do better than this.
It’s fortunate that we have accounts of life behind bars at all. Prisoners’ legally mandated access to pen and paper is a breach in the wall. The practice of letter-writing survives in prison as nowhere else in modern society: it’s the slender thread upon which whole lives are suspended. Several of the books discussed here seize on this fact, but none do it more movingly than Tayari Jones’s novel An American Marriage.
The novel’s ingenuity lies in giving a lavish, impassioned portrait of a relationship, and then tearing it apart. Roy and Celestial are young couple taking their place in the ranks of Atlanta’s Black upper-middle class, their marriage still “counting off time in months like you do with a baby.” But it doesn’t take much to send their shared life tumbling: a case of mistaken identity in Roy’s hometown, and then he too is caught up by the Louisiana prison system.
The reader is tempted to rage at Jones: how could she do this to our beautiful couple, when we were just getting to know them, when they had scarcely gotten to know each other? But of course the story is merely enacting the institutional dismemberment that has affected Black families by the millions. An American Marriage becomes an epistolary novel, against everyone’s wishes. For a while the text is nothing but letters:
If we put a penny in a jar for each day we have been married, and we took a penny away every day we’ve been apart, the jar would have been depleted a long time ago… You know this and I do, too.
[N]ow all I have is this paper and this raggedy ink pen. It’s a ballpoint, but they take away the casing so you just have the nib and this plastic tube of ink. I’m looking at it, thinking, This is all I have to be a husband with? But here I am, trying.
Here, as elsewhere, the worst damage inflicted by prison is relational—the breakages between mother and child, brother and sister, husband and wife. Celestial writes about a “delicate cord that has been severed by your incarceration… What we have here isn’t a marriage. A marriage is more than your heart, it’s your life. And we are not sharing ours.”
The pain of such deprivation is tremendous. It’s audible in Celestial’s letters, as it is in Paul’s second epistle to Timothy—“I have remembrance of thee in my prayers night and day; greatly desiring to see thee, being mindful of thy tears…” It’s audible in Nelson Mandela’s letters to his family from Robben Island—“I do not know, my darlings, when I will return.” It’s audible in the letters of Bonhoeffer, the great expositor of “life together,” living apart from his fiancée Maria von Wedemeyer—“the pain of longing which can be felt even physically… we shall not and need not talk it away.”
But no writings, factual or fictional or scriptural, can possibly have as much authority on this matter as Solitary: Unbroken by Four Decades in Solitary Confinement. It’s a rare reading experience that, recalled weeks and months afterward, can still make tears come to your eyes or your fists clench in anger. Solitary is that kind of book. It’s an account of Albert Woodfox’s life in the Louisiana prison system, where he eventually became the single longest inhabitant of solitary confinement in American history: twenty-three hours a day, in a six-by-nine-foot room, for forty-three years. Those numbers call to be reread and dwelt upon. They don’t get any easier to comprehend.
Solitary is marked by Woodfox’s steely refusal to engage in emotionalism or self-pity. If any man alive has earned a right to air old grudges or wax long about the unfairness of the world, it’s him. We get no such thing. Only a calm recitation of beatings, gassings, hunger strikes, appeals filed, appeals denied, juries rigged, all made somehow more poignant by the matter-of-fact tone in which they are delivered. Taut allusions to his sufferings slip through:
After about a month in CCR [Closed Cell Restricted] I was sitting on my bunk bed when I started sweating, and the walls of my cell started to move toward me at the same time. My clothes tighten ed around my body. I took off my shirt and pants but still felt like I was being squeezed, strangled. The ceiling was pressing down on me… I continued having episodes like this one, which I later learned was claustrophobia, the whole time I was in prison.
Nobody could survive such an experience alone. But his isolation was not complete. He had two best friends, who kept in constant written contact when they were not housed on the same CCR tier.
He had allies outside of Angola. He had a cause, a transcendent purpose which was also the reason for his extraordinary persecution: the Black Panther Party. (Both here and in Wang’s Carceral Capitalism the BPP is shown to have been a movement of lasting importance and intellectual vibrancy, not a dusty sixties curio.) Woodfox taught literacy and assembled a library by his bunk. “I turned my cell into a university…a hall of debate, a law school.” He worked tirelessly to clear his name of the murder of a prison guard which had landed him in solitary confinement, understanding that the politics of innocence meant he would never be granted a hearing by the public otherwise.
Woodfox’s life story offers a telling sketch of the limits of the guilt-innocence axis. He was clearly innocent of the 1972 killing that put him in CCR. Prior to that, he was clearly guilty of the string of sometimes-violent crimes that landed him in prison in the first place. And it is just as clear that his upbringing in breathtakingly impoverished, segregation-era New Orleans left him with few ways to feed himself other than petty crime. And underneath all sociological and structural considerations, you are left with the irreducible quiddity of a given human soul—one which happens to be a monument of self-possession and endurance. What to make of such a case? Where to place it on the axis of innocence and guilt? Who are you to say?
Despite Woodfox’s endurance, there was one thing that almost broke him: mourning, or rather the inability to mourn. He was denied permission to attend the funeral of his mother, as well as those of his siblings and closest friends. “I was used to being separated from people,” he writes, “but separation by death was different.” It nearly destroyed him. “There was no place in my cell to put these aching losses… If I ever got out of prison, a part of me would always be looking for them.”
Woodfox’s testimony shines a light on some deep, dark reaches of the human experience: funereal ritual and the consecration of the dead. These concerns are at the very root of all religious activity, of symbolic expression itself. “The public that cannot mourn does not exist,” the critic L.M. Sacasas wrote recently, and the person who cannot mourn is in danger of disintegration. Of all the things the state of Louisiana did to Albert Woodfox, keeping him from standing next to a gravestone and saying goodbye may be the most inhumane.
Grieving is critical; suppressing it has consequences. (Wang cites an anecdote from Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor: the mother of Michael Brown placed a flower memorial at the place where he died. It was desecrated by Ferguson police once, twice, three times. “Later that night, the uprising began.”) It is surely a terrible thing to be prevented from remembering the dead. How much worse, then, is it to forget people who are still living? And yet that is just what has happened to too many people in prison: erasure behind wire-topped walls.
Chris Hoke, a writer and church organizer who founded Underground Ministries, has called for churches to exchange letters and build bridges with prisoners. It’s a natural role for religious institutions, engaged as they are in the work of personal and cultural memory, to prevent people from being forgotten. Such correspondence can be an act of mercy. It may also begin to unshackle both parties from the strictures of guilt-or-innocence which the criminal justice system both requires and generates.
Prison abolition remains a bridge too far for many people, and understandably so. There are practical and ethical questions left to answer, some that may not even have been asked yet. But a crucial first step is simply learning what is happening to people inside of America’s prisons. Seeking to understand how they came to be there, and maybe even getting to know them. This is the humbly radical work modeled by the books described here. They perform the kind of thinking that will be pressingly needed before prisons can ever cease to be necessary. We can follow their example, transmute it from literature into lived experience. Direct contact with a person in prison is as important as any political solution or policy salve. The profound act of attention which letter-writing entails is a blow against the walls. “Remember my bonds,” the imprisoned Paul wrote to the church at Colossae. We can only trust that they wrote back.
James Chapin is from Florida, which has the third-largest incarcerated population in the country. His novel about that state’s frontier period, Ride South Until the Sawgrass, is forthcoming from Lanternfish Press. He currently lives in Athens, Georgia.
The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.