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Prison Sentences

Mumia Abu-Jamal is a prisoner on death row in Waynesburg, PA. Before his incarceration, he was a journalist and activist in Philadelphia. For more info, or to get involved in the fight to stop his execution, contact: Concerned Family and Friends of Mumia Abu-Jamal, PO Box 19709, Philadelphia, PA, 19143; phone: (212) 476-8812; e-mail: mumia [at]

Doing Time: 25 Years of Prison Writing (New York: Arcade, 1999), 349 pp., $27.95, cloth.

Fyodor Dostoevsky’s old adage, about measuring a civilization by reviewing its prisons, if followed in the U.S. context, is a condemnation of this nation’s own version of the gulag archipelago. A cross-section of prisoner’s writings submitted to the PEN writing contest for the past quarter-century reveals the cold, dark underside of the American dream. Men and women, denizens of both state and federal prisons, write brilliantly about trying to stay human in the midst of places of marked inhumanity, and indeed, places that only succeed if they dehumanize.

The submissions in Doing Time work, on one level, like maps of time, tracing the high-water mark of prison activism and social rebellion of the early to mid-1970s to the more individualistic, less politicized, and more repressive 1990s. Here we see the microcosm that prisons represent in a social order, for as in the streets, so in prison.

Here, it is also clear that prisons, by their very nature, serve political interests, and one of them is black containment, seen in the sharp trajectory of African-American incarceration rates from the 1970s to the present.

It is a rare submission that does not reflect the predominantly black milieu that prison has become. Indeed, to speak of ‘prison culture’ is tantamount to speaking of a black subculture that is the fundament from which distinctive prison slang, attitudes, and ways of jailing arise. It is no historical coincidence that one of the nation’s largest and most repressive prisons stands on the site of a one-time slave plantation, and is even named for the region of southwest Africa from which most of these captives were taken: Angola. Caged Cajun writer Michael E. Saucier pens a poem on working in the tropic-like fields of Louisiana that could’ve been crafted by an observant, literate slave:

we chop chop chop
our hoeing has a rhythm
our mouths dry and dirty
the water cooler, empty
fewer words are spoken;
we’re looking for the headland …
The gun guard’s eyes sweep the line
alert to any disturbance;
carelessly, I take an extra step
his 12 gauge
pumps up—KA KLAK
steel-barreled voice, blue and hot
“Get off my guard line. NOW!” ….
(from “The Gun Guard,” 1991, pp. 78-79.)

What is obscured and hidden in society is often naked in prison: the relentless stimulation of racism to keep folks divided, the ruthlessness of official power, and the reliance upon state violence to protect the status quo. These features define the U.S. prison experience and again reflect its roots, which are intertwined with the larger social order.

Prisons serve another function: the inculcation of terror in the minds of the working class, as a tool of class and racial discipline. It is for this reason that prisons held (or hold) some of the most memorable rebels and activists in the nation’s history: Marcus Garvey, Eugene Debs, William Lloyd Garrison, Malcolm X, Eldridge Cleaver, Dr. Huey P. Newton, Ramona Africa, Assata Shakur, Geronimo ji-Jaga, Dhoruba bin-Wahad, Leonard Peltier, Sundiata Acoli, Dr. Mutulu Shakur, Dr. Alan Berkman, and many others. Prisons serve to stifle and decimate movements that oppose the status quo. In many ways, such a strategy has prevailed.

One of the ways to defeat such a strategy is to destroy the cloak of invisibility that pervades U.S. dungeons. Doing Time does this, and is a tool to be utilized. Yet, it is not an end; it is a beginning. It is a doorway to consciousness, and a window into a dark world where consciousness, like flood tides, ebbs and flows.

Some of the work frankly reflects the period of ebb, where prison hustles abound, where prisoners play pimp, where resistance is a distant, faded memory. Some of it, however, is quite perceptive, and sees clearly the political role dungeons serve. Here is some damn good writing: imaginative, moving, wrenching, and humorous. It is a beginning.

But a good beginning.

1999, Volume 51, Issue 05 (October)
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