William Eric Waters

When Prison Walls Talk

Prison is a place steeped in mythology. Politicians tell outright lies about it; prison officials spew propaganda; even prisoners, in their writings, contribute to the mythology.

The poet and author Fielding Dawson, who died in January 2003, probably knew as much about the realities and myths of prison as anyone could. Since 1984, Dawson taught writing workshops in New York prisons, including Sing-Sing and Attica. He later became chair of PEN's Prison Writing Committee, and turned the languishing program into a flourishing outlet for prisoner talent.

In his 21st book, No Man's Land (Times Change Press), Dawson addressed the mythology head-on, through the eyes of his protagonist Francis Robinson. Robinson teaches a class in playwriting at Snagg Prison, a mythical place that could be any maximum-security prison in the United States.

Prison walls do talk. The corridors of a prison, as well as the cells, are overcrowded with the ghosts of prisoners past. These ghosts whisper their stories to the people who walk the prison's corridors and are confined in its cells, with the hope that they will in turn tell them. Not everyone hears the voices. One has to really listen, and it is evident that Dawson, a passionate advocate of prison reform, was a good listener.

Robinson's descent into the Snagg Prison is worthy of Dante. The walls even quote the poet's line, "Abandon hope all ye who enter me!" As Robinson goes "deeper into the labyrinth" to get to the school block and the classroom where he will teach, he can hear the prison talking. It "had a voice of its own: well over a century old, its voice sonorous, on a wavelength outside my own. It had an added grating, dungeon echo that seemed to follow wherever I went, inside my ear yet inside its walls."

Robinson, though, has hope. Armed with copies of the first 10 pages of August Wilson's "The Piano Lesson" ("for a sample of format"), and a copy of "Hamlet," this hero -- at 60, no young idealist -- enters the labyrinth to do battle with the monster the prison system has become.

In the classroom he tries to persuade the prisoners that there is drama in their lives, that even in captivity there are tales worth telling. The prisoners, of course, are reluctant. One says he does not want to write about the reality of prison life; he lives it every day and hates it. This is a problem because, despite his best intentions, Robinson has some hard-learned notions about prison and prisoners and playwriting. (Maybe there "wasn't any plot in prison life," as one prisoner tells him.)

The main problem is that the prisoners themselves have become mythological creatures. They are men who live fantasy lives in order to escape the meaningless reality of prison. But the show must go on, and the drama unfolds. The prisoners write and act the parts of a play, which is tentatively titled, "In the Dungeon." They fall easily into character because they are imprisoned in a larger-than-life drama in which they, as well as the guards, are mere pawns.

Though brief, this is an ambitious novel, tackling the major problems of our prison system: overcrowding, despair, double-bunking, violence, AIDS, anger, racism, the lack of "rehabilitational" programs, the end of college-level instruction and education, the exploitation of prisoner labor, and the willingness of politicians to pour huge sums of money into the prison system.

The book has one critical flaw; the gratuitous prison rape of a "new young kid," which takes place, so to speak, off-stage.

Horror stories about prison rape are so widespread the public believes it is commonplace. Granted, at one time it was a big problem, particularly in some prisons in the South. Wilbert Rideau and Billy Sinclair, the famous prisoner editors of The Angolite, wrote an expose titled, "Prison: The Sexual Jungle," which was published in the November/December 1979 issue of their magazine and won the prestigious George Polk Award.

Nearly 25 years later, prison rape is not the problem it used to be. To debunk the myth I conducted an unofficial survey, asking 20 prisoners (who have been in all the maximum security prisons in New York) with an average of 20 years in prison, if they had witnessed or knew about a prison rape. Only one had witnessed forcible oral sodomy; all had heard about one such rape at most; none in recent memory.

Notwithstanding, No Man's Land is a quick but thoughtful read. Granted, it is a polemic against the prison-industrial complex, but instead of detracting from its power this makes it a must-read. The prison system is currently holding approximately two million people and counting, and since astronomical amounts of taxpayers' money is being spent (read: wasted) on it, almost anything half-decent that informs the public about prison is essential reading.

The problems of crime, imprisonment, and recidivism may seem insurmountable, but there are some simple solutions: Increase the availability and use of alternative sanctions; award the states with incentive grants for reducing recidivism instead of keeping people imprisoned for longer periods of time, as the federal government currently does; and make the education of prisoners a priority.

Even though Fielding Dawson was an outsider, he spoke with the voice of a prisoner in the know, and he was considered an "honorary convict." His experience came with a price, however; the awful price of knowing that our prison system is not what it claims to be, and is, in fact, far worse than we can even imagine.

Snagg Prison is like Daedalus' Labyrinth -- a place of confinement from which escape was thought to be impossible. Once inside, one would go endlessly along its twisting paths without ever finding the exit. But here, too, there was a simple solution: Fasten one end of a ball of thread to the inside of the door and follow it back to find your way out.

Can we find our way out of the No Man's Land of the prison-industrial complex, of prison expansion and sentences seemingly without end just as easily? As Dawson demonstrates through Francis Robinson, one does not have to be a hero in the classical sense to stand up to the monster and help people escape from seemingly hopeless situations.

William Eric Waters, a poet who lives in Brooklyn, is the author of "Black Shadows and Through the White Looking Glass: Remembrance of Things Past and Present" (Edwin Mellen Press, 2000). He is Family Resource Center coordinator at the Osborne Association, a nonprofit that provides assistance to prisoners and their families.

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