Two Prison Anthologies
Review by Rebecca DeWitt
Imprisoned writers often try to conjure up the freedom that is denied them: whether they focus abstractly on the complexity and beauty of life or strive to reveal the cycle of oppression that put them there, it is as hard for them to articulate a sense of freedom as it is for those of us who have never been incarcerated to grasp prison’s full human impact. William Orlando, a prisoner, declares, “writing is all I have, a lament and a boast.” Much more than a cry for help, Orlando, among many others, writes to probe and prove his very existence as well as ours. That these writers and others continue to struggle from prison is an affirmation of the anarchist claim that the human spirit cannot be destroyed, even by the most onerous conditions.
While not all prison writing is explicitly political, it has always been important for radical movements. Anarchism has a long relationship with prison writing, the most famous cases being Peter Kropotkin and Alexander Berkman’s prison memoirs. However, prison writing pertinent to anarchism did not stop with them. The practice has been carried on by lesser-known anarchists as well as those who do not identify as anarchists. For anarchists, an awareness and appreciation of the continued efforts of prison writers is crucial to understanding the prison system as well as figuring out the type of society we want to create.
A Field of Broken Stones,(1) by Lowell Naeve in collaboration with David Wieck, and Doing Time: 25 Years of Prison Writing, edited by Bell Gale Chevigny, guide the reader through the prison system with fiction, poems, and sophisticated memoirs. Through these books, the reader forms a political consciousness via well written literature, develops ideas about resistance to increasingly complicated forms of social coercion, and understands what the prison system is, how it works, and how it shapes people.(2)
A Field of Broken Stones, although largely unknown, is a classic in revolutionary prison writing and should be placed alongside Kropotkin and Berkman’s memoirs. With a preface by Paul Goodman, it shows us what it was like for anarchists during the 1940s and 1950s. There is little information on WWII draft resisters in general (much less the WWI draft resisters, a few of whom Naeve met in prison), and specifically anarchist WWII draft resisters are virtually forgotten. Naeve was first imprisoned for around five years for refusing to register for the WWII draft. He met and became life-long friends with his co-writer and fellow draft resister, Wieck, while in solitary confinement. During his imprisonment, Naeve became the radical he always wanted to be and later joined the anarchist group Why? along with Wieck.(3)
The real impact of A Field of Broken Stones lies in Naeve’s personal transformation. The book is about his awakening and clarification of the type of world he was supposed to accept and the price he pays for rejecting it. (Wieck, on the other hand, was radicalized before entering prison and his idealism greatly affected Naeve.) Naeve reveals the prison world with words as well as in stark and sometime funny black and white line drawings throughout the book. These drawings, with their lack of color, continuity, and reality (officials touring the prison are drawn riding an ostrich, sheep-like animal) were ironically created by wiping the ink off the pages of Life Magazine.
We travel with Naeve from his hometown of Bronson, Iowa to New York City where, in almost complete political isolation, Naeve decides to resist the draft. What first put such thoughts into his head? Indiscriminate killing of small animals regularly practiced by country folk, the experience of killing a rabbit by his own hand, and then the celebration of war in school textbooks. Thinking that he would be free of such brutality as an adult, he encountered college level compulsory military training and American imperialism. Upon traveling to Mexico, Naeve remarked: “Outsiders owned most of Mexico's resources, were dictating production, wages. The USA, along with other imperialists, was, I saw with my own eyes, positively driving the country with a whip. To me, War, the battle for the whip, made no sense unless you wanted to be the whipper.”(4) Resisting the Communists, who Naeve thought were just another group of would be whippers, he found himself “an individual caught in between, literally a man without a country.”(5)
Unlike many revolutionary autobiographies, this one fortunately lacks the hard, almost fanatical tone we have come to expect. Naeve is not overtly persecuted nor is he subjected to outright violence meant to destroy one’s soul. His personal transformation seems to be a mystery even to him and lends credence to the anarchist idea that the desire for freedom is inherent. Even though his opposition to WWII began as a personal, almost instinctual choice, it gradually evolves into a political conviction. On an individual basis, Naeve decided that no matter how terrible the fascist presence was, war was not acceptable on any level. On a political basis, he carried this rejection of oppressive force into the prisons and struggled daily for a more just society.
Naeve actively begins his transformation when he goes to the draft office to declare himself a resister and is tricked into signing up for the draft. Upon realizing what happened, he furiously tears the card up and sends it to the Secretary of War with the following note:
Afterwards, he nervously awaits the authorities for six months. He is then subpoenaed by the FBI and questioned extensively about party affiliations, of which he has none. In general, the authorities are as mystified with Naeve as he is by what is going on. Eventually, all he wants to do is go to jail because he believes that this is the only way he can make his point. But, they won't arrest him. Several interrogations later he ends up in court with a judge who tries to lecture him into changing his mind. Finally, Naeve interrupts him and says, "It seems to me there is a race going on here between God and the United States Government. And who do you think is going to win?"(7) The judge, embarrassed and angered by laughter from the peanut gallery, has the guards cart Naeve off to jail to await sentencing.
The year is 1941, Naeve is sentenced to one year and sent to New York City’s West Street Jail. Draft resisters were generally treated with respect if not bewilderment by the rest of the prison population, partly because the U.S. involvement with the war hadn't started yet. However, to most of the prisoners, you had to have done something really bad to be there. One day, Louis Lepke, fellow inmate and famous boss of the Murder, Inc. crime syndicate, asks to speak with Naeve. After conversing for a bit, Lepke says, referring to the fact that he was headed to the electric chair for ordering the killing of hundreds of people, “It don't seem to me to make much sense that they put a man in jail for that” (i.e., refusing to kill).(8)
Soon afterwards, Naeve is transferred to Danbury Prison, in Connecticut, to serve his year-long sentence. While in prison, Naeve makes contact with other draft resisters but he tries to stick to his goals prior to prison. He just wants to paint and draw and tries to do what he can but work detail keeps getting in the way. Soon, he recognizes that the work is meant to keep the prisoners busy and concludes that if he is to be kept busy, why not do it by painting. Surprisingly, the Warden all too eagerly accepts Naeve's request for supplies and a space to paint. It turns out that the Warden wants to use Naeve not only as a example of the “model prisoner,” but also to produce free portraits of his family. When Naeve refuses to play the part for visiting officials touring the prison and refuses to paint portraits of the Warden's children, Naeve's idyllic time in prison comes to an end, although his idealism perseveres. His solution, he said to the Warden, was to draw lots—prisoners as well as officials—to see who would get their portrait painted. Of course, the Warden refuses any attempt to equalize prisoners and officials and thus Naeve becomes a political activist.
The war objectors were the only inmates not afraid to protest against the authorities and they paid a price. Naeve was placed in quarantine for ninety-seven days after the portrait incident and his refusal to do any prison work. But Naeve and his friends continued their solidarity work and constantly challenged the authorities. They protested against censorship, poor food quality, and the segregation of black prisoners.
Eventually, Naeve completes his first prison sentence and is free but not exactly hardened or streetwise from his experience. His bewildering re-arrest occurs when he finds himself in a small town with no place to sleep. A local points him to the county jail whose sheriff occasionally rents out beds for the night. Once there, the deputy sheriff becomes suspicious and asks if he is a draft resister. Naeve answers yes and finds himself charged again for resisting the war. Not only was his arrest suspect but his new five-year sentence was also probably illegal because he had already served time for his offense.
Once back in Danbury Prison, Naeve found even more draft resisters and together they made their presence felt. No offense committed by the authorities went unnoticed. Soon the war resisters were placed in solitary after staging a work strike protesting the Jim Crow treatment of black prisoners (the segregated mess hall was their initial target). There they stayed until the war was over but they did continue to stage protests from within solitary. When the war ends and they are still not released, they stage a “lie in,” barricade their cellblock, and picket inside the prison (supported by their families and others picketing outside the prison). They are denied amnesty and, instead, are broken up and shipped to other prisons to serve out their sentences. Naeve goes to Ashland federal prison in Kentucky.
Naeve is released on May 14, 1946. He has plans to exhibit paintings done in prison and, once Wieck is released, plans to write the book. Upon release, he follows through with his plans but he realizes that not only is he a changed man but the world seems irrevocably different. Naeve writes prophetically: “This country is tightening up, tightening up much more than many other countries. The US has become a nation of atomic bombs, a military giant. It is at present having a try at permanent military peace-time conscription, a sign that the country is not only creeping toward a fascist way, but already has crept a long way in that direction. Put one or two more ingredients into the national way of doing things, just tighten up some more on labor congressionally, and the country will be almost there. Instead of a double chin or square mustache, it appears this country will get its fascism by congressional law and congressional committee. Everywhere there are signs that democracy has lost ground.”(9)
Fast forward to 1973 when PEN (Poets, Playwrights, Essayists, Editors, and Novelists) begins its Prison Writing Program (PWP). Founded in 1921, PEN is dedicated to world peace through a global association of writers. Despite a long tradition of celebrated prison writing, foreshadowed by people such as Naeve and Wieck, it was not until the Attica uprising that PEN decided to fully support U.S. prison writers. PEN's writing contest was launched, the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) sponsored prison writing workshops, academics began to take notice, journals were launched, and prison writers became a cause celebre. It seemed that, through their writing, prisoners started to be generally acknowledged as victims of an oppressive society. Then Jack Henry Abbott's prison letters to Norman Mailer, In the Belly of the Beast, were published in 1981 and things changed yet again.
At the whim of prison writing popularity, Abbott was probably over-whelmed with press and expectations when released in 1981. While he was glorified for the fact that he had been incarcerated, his supporters as well as opponents demanded that he properly reintegrate himself into society. He made an appearance on Good Morning America where Mailer answered all the questions. The Fortune Society offered help with the de-institutionalization process, which Abbott refused. Shortly afterwards, he killed a man in a fight, was reincarcerated and society's love affair with prison writers came to an end. Support for prison writing virtually ended: under Reagan, the NEA cut most of the funding and prison journals and newspapers folded or were suppressed. Even the PWP began to lose support from PEN members, although they continued to award the annual writing prize.
Doing Time is comprised of fifty-one works of poetry, fiction, and autobiography, all written by winners of PEN’s writing prize. The sections reflect the prison routine: “initiations,” “time and its terms,” “routines and ruptures,” “work,” “reading and writing,” “players, games,” “race, chance, change,” “family,” “the world,” “getting out,” and “death row.” These works present a far more complex and frightening picture of the prison system than Naeve had experienced.
While I knew much of the history behind A Field of Broken Stones, I purposefully did not read any of the introductions to Doing Time. Just as I had learned from Naeve and Wieck about opposition to WWII, I suspected that I would learn everything I needed to know about the contemporary prison struggle and search for freedom from the PEN writers. This turned out to be true and the snapshots provided by Doing Time presented a comprehensive image of the prison system. And, of course, the desire and argument for freedom was only amplified as both a crucial goal and difficult path.
I marveled at the purposeful monstrosity of a maximum-security prison presented in Victor Hassine's “How I Became a Convict.” “Graterford State Prison, Pennsylvania's largest, was built in the early 1930s to hold the state's most violent prisoners. On June 14, 1981, while it could not contain all eight thousand of the state's most wanted, it certainly had enough room to hold me. Its steel reinforced concrete wall measures four feet thick by thirty-two feet tall and encloses over sixty-five acres of land. The five cellblocks are huge, each containing four hundred cells. Each cellblock is a three story rectangular structure, measuring about forty-five feet by eight hundred twenty feet, over twice the length of a football field. I knew none of this as I sat handcuffed and shackled in the back seat of the sheriff's car. All I could see was a blur of dirty, grainy whiteness from the giant wall that dominated the landscape before me. It made me feel small and insignificant and very frightened."(10) With a life-without-parole sentence, once he enters the building he will never leave.
The blood and ghosts of prisons and prisoners past and the substitution of prison labor for slavery is evoked by Easy Water's poem, “Chronicling Sing Sing Prison.” “The prisoners labored/To build their own cells/7 feet deep, 3 feet 3 inches wide/And 6 feet 7 inches high/What could be crueler/To dig their own graves/Or to suffer the added indignity/Of having the graveyard called/Mount Pleasant State Prison/Stone upon stone/Granite known as Sing Sing marble.”(11)
We learn that the desperate hope for parole is a prisoner’s form of belief in the system. The betrayal expressed by Larry Bratt in “Giving Me a Second Chance” is the result of arbitrary decisions on the part of the prison system. “From the perspective of those inside the prison, it seems there's a new breed of mean-spiritedness among politicians, and more of a concern with public opinion polls than rehabilitating criminals. We've been told that if we worked hard, and followed the rules, that the system would work fairly for us, as it does equally for law-abiding citizens outside these walls. We had to earn parole, they told us.”(12)
There are the old-timers who lived with a code of ethics now forgotten, as described in Patrick Nolan's poem, “Old Man Motown.” “Old Man Motown/times have changed/The once noble beasts/of this barren Savannah/are almost extinct,/ravaged by the vicious sweep/of rat packs that make prey/of the aged, sick, and weak.”(13) In “Skyline Turkey,” by Richard Statton, there are those who “came to prison not because they were failures at crimes, but because in their contempt for the law they were not trying to get away with anything."(14) In J.R. Grindlay's “Myths of Darkness: The Toledo Madman and the Ultimate Freedom," there is the stoic’s discovery that "Nobody expects anything of you and there's not a thing they can take away from you. That's freedom.”(15) We meet a prisoner on death row through Jackie Ruzas poem, “Easy to Kill,” whose perspective is painfully childlike. “The prison priest, a sometime visitor,/his manner warm, asks/“How are you today? Anything I can do for you son?”/”Is it just that I'm so easy to kill, Father?”/His face a blank, he walks away.”(16)
Gender inequality is, of course, not forgotten in the anthology. Of the fifty-one contributors, ten are women. Female prisoners frequently do not receive as much support, education, or encouragement as the men. The women’s writing workshops often begin as empowerment exercises and end up producing high-quality, written work. Some of the work is collaborative, written by the whole group. Women face distinct problems such as lack of privacy and harassment by pre-dominantly male guards. But they are first and foremost writing about what they know: prison. Vera Montgomery's “Solidarity with Cataracts” describes a scene familiar to any prisoner. “One afternoon/a sister wept and/I wept inside for the/wreckin'-crew sisters/I can't erase this scene:/a water soaked mountain of/broken/empty toiletries/shredded literature/cut up garments and/atop the heap/our sister's loved one's/pictures hate torn/to bits/all the while/I stood and wondered/ where was the solidarity?”(17)
Paul St. John's story, “Behind the Mirror’s Face,” focuses on what the prisoner becomes when picking up the pen. Is he a writer who happens to live in prison or a prisoner who happens to write? “A con may write fiction, but everybody will know where it comes from. His fiction wears the stink of prison for a belt. Her fiction is pregnant with loss disguised as possibility. His outlaws always get the better of a wicked status quo. Her heroines grope through a jungle of shame for their stolen womanhood, and perhaps a piece of heaven. A convict may write about Mars, the sea, rebirth, cats, needles and pins; without the 'convict point of view' there is no prison writing. Take this goddamn place out of your art is what I'm trying to tell you all.”(18) Yet, Paul St. John cannot take prison out of his writing, anymore than he or anyone can take the desire for freedom out of their life.
The idea of freedom is everywhere in these two books. For these prisoners, their writing embodies it. They have chosen to tell their stories, through fiction, poems, and memoirs, to shift our focus from them as individuals and onto the society that brought them there in the first place. They succeed in putting themselves forth as human beings who dream of communal and individual freedom as much as anyone on the outside, and give us an idea of their struggle. How to do justice to their efforts is the hard part.
What to do about prisons could very well be the biggest challenge anarchists face in envisioning a free society. What happens to all those who have been damaged by society, as well as those who have contributed to the damage of society? An anarchist idea of freedom will have to address the role of rehabilitation in a future revolutionary order. Does our ideal future include some form of prison and, if so, why? Certainly, if our free society were to include some form of prison, it would not be based on the current model and, at the very least, would have to incorporate the issues of equality and decency that prisoners fight for.
How much do we rely on accounts that are not journalistic, analytical or even completely factual, but poetic, fictional, and autobiographical? I began reading these books simply out of a preference for literature and the knowledge that we can enjoy and learn a lot from a well-written story. In the search for ways to introduce people to ideas of resistance, these books offer a transformative experience above and beyond any academic tome.
Ultimately, the ideals of human dignity and freedom, for which anarchists and these prisoners struggle, might not be any clearer after reading these books, but the reader will know that people continue to fight for them on a daily basis. Intellectually, readers will recognize the power of literature to shape political consciousness, follow the search for freedom in an increasingly unfree world, and understand the prison system itself. If all else fails, turn directly to the writers themselves and the emotional impact is unavoidable: "I wrote to sublimate my rage, from a place where all hope is gone, a madness from having been damaged too much, from a silence of killing rage. I wrote to avenge the betrayals of a lifetime, to purge the bitterness of injustice. I wrote with a deep groan of doom in my blood, bewildered and dumbstruck; from an indestructible love of life, to affirm breath and laughter, and the abiding innocence of things."(19)