Professor of English and Creative Writing  Doran Larson has edited a new book Fourth City: Essays from the Prison in America (Michigan State University Press). The book contains 71 essays written by prisoners from across the U.S.

Larson said he solicited the essays through direct mail to prison education programs, prisoner support groups and prison support newsletters. From a pool of 154, he chose 71 for the book. “Each had to be accessible in voice and composition, illuminate some dimension of prison life, politics or culture,” he explained, “and I sought the broadest sampling possible of regions, races, religions and sexual preferences.”

He said it took four-and-a-half years to compile the book, from the first solicitation of essays in fall, 2009, to this month’s publication.

According to a press release from the publisher,  “At 2.26 million, incarcerated Americans not only outnumber the nation’s fourth-largest city, they make up a national constituency bound by a shared condition. Fourth City: Essays from the Prison in America presents more than 70 essays from 27 states, written by incarcerated Americans chronicling their experience inside.

“In essays as moving as they are eloquent, the authors speak out against a national prison complex that fails so badly at the task of rehabilitation that 60 percent of the 650,000 Americans released each year return to prison. These essays document the authors’ efforts at self-help, the institutional resistance such efforts meet at nearly every turn, and the impact, in money and lives, that this resistance has on the public.

“Directly confronting the images of prisons and prisoners manufactured by popular media, so-called reality TV, and for-profit local and national news sources, Fourth City recognizes American prisoners as our primary, frontline witnesses to the dysfunction of the largest prison system on earth. Filled with deeply personal stories of coping, survival, resistance and transformation, Fourth City should be read by every American who believes that law should achieve order in the cause of justice rather than at its cost.”

As editor, Larson said he learned, “The 2.2 million Americans in prisons are assumed to be a massive problem; what I found was an enormous, untapped resource of insights into and true wisdom about how poverty, public policy, uneven police enforcement and a ragged criminal defense system have created the largest prison regime on earth,” he remarked.

As far as the prisoners whose essays are included, Larson concluded, “They cannot express the depth of their thanks; they are thankful even to know someone wants to read their work, let alone publish it.”

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