Words from Behind the Wall
BY MAUREEN A. NOLAN
When he was an English major at Hamilton, Matthew Hennigar ’14 spent a year reading essays written by prison inmates from around the country. Doran Larson, an English and creative writing professor, had put out the word he was looking for inmate writings for a new digital archive based at the College, and Hennigar was assisting him on the project. Scores of submissions arrived in the mail, usually hand-written, sometimes typed, and Hennigar worked his way through the sobering accounts of life locked away. The one that sticks with him most was not an essay but a stream of journal entries in a scratchy hand sent from a California prison. Each thick batch was folded three times to fit into a single envelope, and the envelopes kept coming.
“They were these long rambling entries, dozens of pages each sometimes,” Hennigar recalls. By then Hennigar had seen what he describes as “the guy’s psyche falling apart” in many ways. “You know, there’s the old image of someone going to prison and losing his mind in solitary confinement, and that’s what I was reading,” he says.
Essays and inquiries from inmates are still flowing in. Larson spent his mornings last summer reading and responding to the mail. He anticipates that the archive, a project of Hamilton’s Digital Humanities Initiative, will bourgeon. The United States has the largest prison population of any country. “It’s quickly going to become, I think, one of the largest witness literatures in the world. There’s so many potential contributors who are so willing and able and very anxious to write about that experience,” Larson says. “The material will fill a hole in the literature for academics, policymakers, researchers and students, about the actual conditions inside prisons.”
The United States is in the midst of what is referred to as the “era of mass incarceration.” With nearly 1 out of 100 adults in prison or in jail, the U.S. incarceration rate is 5 to 10 times higher than that of Western Europe and other democracies, according to a report issued this year by the National Research Council. The document notes that the U.S. state and federal prison population ballooned from 200,000 in 1973 to 1.5 million in 2009. (The number has declined slightly in four subsequent years.) There are roughly 2.3 million people in federal, state and local jails as of 2012, according to the federal Bureau of Justice Statistics.
Inmates, who have the most knowledge about the efficacy of the U.S. prison system, are the last group of people to be asked about it, Larson says. His belief that those voices should be heard traces back to his first visits to the maximum security Attica Correctional Facility near Buffalo. His experiences there changed the direction of his scholarship and, he says, the tenor and focus of his life.
In 2006, a Buffalo Presbyterian minister invited Larson to take part in an inmate and community discussion group in Attica — a group that had been formed in response to the 1971 uprising in which 43 people died. Larson, impressed by the honesty and gravity of the conversation, volunteered to teach a creative writing class to inmates. As he walked through the gates to reach the classroom for the first time on Nov. 13, 2006, he was nervous not for his physical safety, but about how he would be accepted as a teacher.
“I worried about that a lot. You know, in a traditional academic class, I have a Ph.D., I’ve been teaching for 30 years, I know that I have authority. Whatever the students think of me or the class, it’s not a problem of my not having the goods to deliver,” he says. “But you go into this sort of atmosphere, and I’m such a naive newcomer to that environment. I may have literary resources to bring to them, but they are the experts about the environment that we’re sitting in, right?”
As it turned out, the inmates gave him credit before he taught a single class because he was there as a volunteer who wanted to help them, and they were grateful for that. Among the 13 men serving 20- or 25-years-to-life sentences, Larson encountered some of the most engaged writers, readers and speakers he’d met in his decades of teaching. His perspective on the prison system changed drastically.
“I felt a real sense that these people’s voices needed to get out. I’m not saying that they have the last word — there’s all kinds of different considerations when you think of public safety and the criminal justice system,” he says. “But the fact that they are not part of the conversation, I think, is a real disservice to the public in general. Because in general what we have is a representation of the prison system either by people who don’t know anything about it, people who create popular media, which is enormously influential, or it’s largely represented by people who have a financial investment in keeping the system as large as possible.”
Larson’s scholarly focus shifted from fiction (he has published novels, a novella, short stories and other works) to prison writing as a genre and to the establishment of college programs inside prisons as an antidote to recidivism. He is convinced of the singular importance of the inmate as witness to the system. In 2008, he launched a seminar on American prison writing at Hamilton. His prison-related publications include “Why Scandinavian Prisons Are Superior,” in The Atlantic Monthly online, and a book that gets the voices out: Fourth City: Essays From the Prison In America, published in 2013 by Michigan State University Press. He dedicated it “To all Americans who bear numbers for names.”
“If we aspire to practice not only equal treatment before the law but also to mete out only humane and constructive forms of legal justice, we need to know what these Americans have witnessed of life on the receiving end of legalized punishment,” he writes in the Fourth City introduction. “These writers alone can testify to whether the largest prison system on earth doles out punishment in the service or at the expense of justice.” The book’s title, Fourth City, refers to the number of people imprisoned in the United States. As a single population, inmates would constitute the fourth largest city in the country.
There’s a need and an audience for the material Larson is compiling, says Max Kenner, founder and executive director of the Bard Prison Initiative, which gives inmates in New York State’s prisons a chance to earn a Bard College degree. Over the past generation the prison system has become one of this country’s most important public institutions, yet the personal experiences of inmates are largely overlooked, in Kenner’s view. “And if we’re ever going to understand this period in American history, we have to find ways of recognizing and hearing the voices and understanding the experiences of people who have been incarcerated in this period of time. And to that end I think Doran’s work is really very valuable and a great service,” he says.
Larson’s prison work is both academic and personal. Each month, he drives three-and-a-half-hours to Attica to volunteer as a writing teacher. He volunteers, too, to lead a book discussion group at the Mohawk Correctional Facility near Utica, and, with partners, he launched college programs for inmates at both prisons. In his free time he’s visited 26 prisons, 14 of which are in Europe, and there are more he’d like to see. He’s heard good things about prisons in Vermont and especially in Oregon, which claims a low recidivism rate. (Recidivism rate is often cited as a failure of the system; the Bureau of Justice Statistics reported in April that 68 percent of prisoners released in 30 states from 2005 to 2010 were arrested for a new crime within three years. Over five years, the number climbed to 77 percent.)
At this point Larson can pump out facts about the U.S. prison system in smooth sentence after smooth sentence. There are plenty of troubling facts to be had. In July, Amnesty International published a report that asserts that the U.S. “stands virtually alone in the world” in locking up thousands of prisoners in long-term or indefinite solitary confinement. In 2012, the most recent year for which numbers are available, black males were six times more likely, and Hispanic males were 2.5 times more likely, to be imprisoned than white males, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics.
The 2014 National Resource Council report offers this description of the ranks of the imprisoned: “Those who are incarcerated in U.S. prisons come largely from the most disadvantaged segments of the population. They comprise mainly minority men under age 40, poorly educated, and often carrying additional deficits of drug and alcohol addiction, mental and physical illness, and a lack of work preparation or experience. Their criminal responsibility is real, but it is embedded in a context of social and economic disadvantage.”
As Larson began his work with the men in his Attica writing group, he observed that none of them could focus their writing, no matter their educational status, which ranged from high-school dropout to a master’s degree recipient. “It became apparent that the effects of the prison were more powerful in shaping their writing than the biographical background that they brought to it, and I’d never seen anything like that in all my years of teaching,” Larson says. He wondered whether this was an Attica phenomenon or whether it could be found at other prisons and turned to the Library of Congress, consuming as many of the 10,000 or so prison writing entries as he could. That research inspired a critical monograph he is now completing.
When Larson decided to start the prison-writing course at Hamilton, he went looking for a textbook and found books by individual prison writers and historical surveys but no single volume of writing by prisoners in the era of mass incarceration. Larson began to frequent a different type of academic conference. “I started going to conferences on law, legal studies, prison studies, criminology, and I was really struck by the fact that there was almost no reference to what incarcerated people had to say about issues that were being discussed. And I realized the problem is just access, right? There was just not easy access to a broad sampling of what incarcerated people were writing about their own experiences,” he says.
He decided to collect the writings himself. Fourth City and the developing digital archive are the results.
Hennigar says the prison-writing course influenced him more than any other he took at Hamilton. “It really changed the way that I view, for starters, race in America. I’m not going to lie; it really made me rethink a lot of not only my politics, but it gave me a new perspective on a lot of moral issues. Because, of course, the prison stands in the center of a whirlpool of issues: moral, political, racial and also educational. I thought more about one day getting into teaching, really, when I took that class,” says Hennigar, a writer who is looking for a teaching job abroad.
Larson employs a lesson his students are not likely to forget. Two at a time, they accompany him to the book group he leads at Mohawk Correctional. Until the Attica administration changed its rules about admitting undergraduate visitors, Larson took students to his class there as well. Olivia Wolfgang-Smith ’11 went to Attica and was shocked by how much the workshop felt like she hadn’t left the Hill. The men were intelligent and well spoken, and afterward she grappled with the complicated realities of crime, sentencing, humanity and the potential for humans to change.
Nora Grenfell ’12, too, was struck by how closely the Attica class resembled classes she’d been in at Hamilton. “To get to the class we had to walk through hallway after hallway, passing guard after guard after guard, and occasionally other inmates who we wouldn’t be interacting with in class and who looked at us like we were aliens. Because we basically were, just a couple of young girls walking through this maximum security prison,” she remembers. “And then in the class itself I was just, I was just struck by how intelligent and creative and passionate the men in the class were. They were all in there for various crimes, but it really was amazing to me how much they seemed like people you could just have a conversation with and talk about writing with.”
Larson says he makes it clear to his Hamilton students that the men in the Attica class are a very special subgroup of the general prison population. They receive no college credit for the course, and it won’t help them with their parole; they attend because they want to read and write. A few of the inmates have been in the class since day one. “This is a group of people who are very focused and virtually all of whom take absolute and full responsibility for the actions that brought them inside. Because if they were still in a state of denial about their guilt, they would not be moving on to do other kinds of activities; generally that’s just the case,” Larson says.
He asked his Attica students for feedback on Fourth City, and the book includes essays from several of them. A half-dozen or so of his students over the years have had work published in a number of periodicals. John J. Lennon, who is serving a 28-year sentence for shooting someone to death, wrote a piece about gun control published in The Atlantic online in 2013.
Outside the wall, among the policymakers and politicians who shape the prison and criminal justice systems, there’s ongoing discussion about the need for change. In July, Newt Gingrich co-wrote an opinion piece in the Wall Street Journal that called on Congress to reform the federal prison system to reduce ballooning costs. Gingrich is a Republican former speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, and co-writer Pat Nolan is director of the Center for Criminal Justice Reform, launched earlier this year by the American Conservative Union Foundation. Both are supporters of Right on Crime, a project of the Texas Public Policy Foundation, which bills itself as a one-stop source for conservative ideas on criminal justice.
Right on Crime takes the position that Americans must be tough on crime — and on criminal justice spending. “That means demanding more cost-effective approaches that enhance public safety,” the organization’s website says. “A clear example is our reliance on prisons, which serve a critical role by incapacitating dangerous offenders and career criminals but are not the solution for every type of offender. And in some instances, they have the unintended consequence of hardening nonviolent, low-risk offenders — making them a greater risk to the public than when they entered.”
Lately there’s more talk, from the U.S. attorney general on down to state representatives, that the prison population needs to be reduced to cut costs, Larson says. People on the political left have worked on the issue for years, and with people on the right involved, too, it looks to him as though change may happen. “I don’t think it’s changing for the right reasons. I think it should be changing on civil rights and human rights issues, but as far as I’m concerned anything that reduces the population is a good thing,” he says.