Back in March, we began participating in the Poetry Coalition's March theme: "I am deliberate / and afraid / of nothing: Poetry & Protest." The line is from from "New Year's Day" by Audre Lorde. The theme was inspired by a number of occasions taking place next year, including the 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment granting women the right to vote and the 50th anniversary of the tragic shooting of student protesters at Kent State University. It also speaks to the role poetry has played in encouraging civic and grassroots engagement, and contributed to public debate and dialogue. Much has changed in the world since then, and we are happy to finally be able to present the rest of the winners of our contest for incarcerated writers.
Last fall, volunteer mentors who currently participate in the Poetry Center's workshop, FREE TIME: Building Community for Incarcerated Writers (part of our Art for Justice project), solicited submissions from prisoners across the country to enter into our POETRY & PROTEST contest. By our February deadline, we had received close to 100 poetry and prose submissions from writers on the inside on "the inequities and unsustainability of the American legal system and mass incarceration." Both the poetry and prose winners will be published here on the Poetry Center website over the course of the next several weeks. They will also receive cash prizes.
Click here to read the Poetry Honorable mentions. Today we are thrilled to feature the Prose Honorable Mentions.
Inside Mass Incarceration Blues
by William Williams
It starts with arrest, detectives laughing, farting, and getting booked into an antiquated jail: suicides by hangings, razors and pills. There were more psycho thrills locked in a vomit smelling phone tank mesmerized by a boozy bum choking and sodomizing a passed out drunk. I witnessed a drunken jail sergeant walk up on a nurse during an inmate's epileptic seizure. He lunged, kicking out an eye. In running showers, dressed and booted, I waited for a so-called Aryan Brother pressuring my measly canteen who didn't show. A Nuestra Familia Lieutenant tried, too, sending stabbers who fumbled a sharpened spoon. It ended in court, a somber dark-suited circus of proud angry faces arguing where, even when I won, I lost.
I caught the new 25-to-Life. The D.A. said, "Don't worry son, take this deal, I’ll drop the greed, keep your nose clean, be out in 17.” l said, "Hell no!" But Dad prevailed, "Take the deal, learn law or to write. You’ll get out.”
San Quentin Prison housed the worst of the worst. We arrived by a cigarette smoke-filled prison bus nicknamed the Grey Goose. Quentin was crazy; a living hell; saw a man stabbed my first week, another got screwdrivered in the neck. An old black man razored his penis sitting on the toilet bleeding to death; the guards counted him until he reeked. I met a cardshark rustler and during a quick shuffle he crowed, "You're living every man’s dream, kid. Kilt your wife.” Screw him, I think, unclenching my fists and drawing three kings, showing nothing—a childhood, prison survival trait. My reality was self entitlement, hateful crazy thoughts, greed, and towering regret the cops used, pressuring a confession. Instead, I clammed out of shame, my anger at their games. They lied. I lied. Everyone lies about murder. It's forever pain to those left crying, broken to graves. l was just another slit-eyed pirate, do or die, marooned by concrete and steel inside a bloody bastille. Hurrah, Hurray for mass incarceration.
It started in the late ’70s with fake, whipped-up hysteria. Criminals weren’t doing enough time, a regular hullabaloo backed by the well-to-do, protecting what they had. Life with parole wasn't long enough. Behind the scenes, there were racist schemes. Poor Blacks and Browns coming up, wanting their share of an unfair economic system. Sometimes that meant pointing a gun, burglaries and selling dope, grabbing the American dream. Over decades, life sentences climbed a hundred years or more, even for petty crimes: mass incarceration for every petty thief.
Despairing convicts were warehoused with faint chance of parole, overcrowded, few jobs or worthwhile trades, doing dope, not caring about an early grave. Violence increased via gangland rules, not guards, decided fate. San Quentin exploded June 19th, 1981, where 2,000 men rioted having fun. Knives, clubs, batteries and soap bars loaded into doubled socks were wielded. lt was die-hard whites and southern Browns united against Blacks. Most were trapped between warring tribes and stampeding herds. Near a hundred shots were blasted from overhead gunwalks using Mini-14s, shotguns, and P38s into this deadly melee. Clanging bells, blaring sirens, blown whistles, gunfire, and screamed obscenities of mass incarceration brutality.
Our population was mostly white, Black, and then Brown, but 20 years later, it totally reversed. Some joined prison industrial sweatshops to get off the yard, earn a dollar, and work like mules: money for drugs, tattoos, and sweets. New prisons sprouted like weeds with names like Iron Wood, Skeleton Bay, and Unpleasant Valley breeding lockdowns, isolation, and festering yards of criminality. There were doctors who didn't care as men sickened and died. We watched the guards’ union grow strong donating to politicians, judges, and governors. Lifer paroles now required governor review, and the courts agreed. It was another mass incarceration hilarity.
Food went from bad to worse, living each day prepared to die; young and tough, we shrugged it off. Prison gangs justified racial unity, but preyed on their own: get a hustle, be taxed, or be stabbed. Lockups sporting open shithole sewers, rubberized walls, and iron doors marred by bloody decades of pain. New laws added time for crimes long ago. Family visits went, wives lost, friends died off, but plenty of guard union overtime: Yahoo! Mass incarceration blues.
Parole boards kept moving targets. "Do this, do that. Now that's not enough. Good psych reports don't matter, or if they do it seems the rules have changed. Yours must improve, can't tell you how or what to do. Yours isn't low-risk anymore, but high or moderate without a new crime." How can this be? It's all a structured change of opinion by educated tools who can't predict. I do good and carry on. God help me with these mass incarceration political creeds.
I’ve spent 40 odd years in living doom. Now it’s: “You're old, can't make it free, difficulties too much for old men to hew. Your family, what's left, tainting you.” I want to cry, maybe die, fearing insanity. It's always something, but still the same old rhyme. "Eenee, Meanee, Minee, Moe. You can’t go until we say. Take it to court and bankrupt your family. The odds are a thousand to one.” Then get pissed on for having the guts to hope laws work for poor convicted men, remembering the old prison joke. What's psychotherapy in prison? Four guards whacking a convict, then beefing him for assault, keeping prisons full.
Things are getting better because huge costs have cracked the State's apartheid system, more cons squeaking out, laws changing, but still some courts fight back using legal tricks. Food has gone from horrible to just bad. Now and then a decent salad, more vegetables, hurray! Hallelujah, we've been saved, but there's still processed, low-grade foods. They finally figured less sugar, salt and fat would save on medical costs. They even took away cancer-causing toast. It’s mass incarceration healthcare rules.
Got gold? Then, make the golden rules and laws. The working poor bear these blues: broken families, sons behind bars, needles and daughters, homeless people defecating everywhere tarnishing California’s streets; searching trash for gold, a living American dystopia. Who knows, I might fall for penning this ode having learned that after 10 years, men generally get worse, not better, but that's mass incarceration's true goal: forever, hidden from view, lying inmates in concrete boxes; living graves surrounded by deadly electric fences and unionized guards; known more by numbers than names.
William Williams is serving time in the California state prison system.
Orwell Would Be Shocked
by Michael Wiese
The light in his eyes winked out on the second day. On the third day an Aryan Brother came by with wetted fingertips and snuffed the smoldering wick that had been his hope. Shining eyes gone, replaced by a newly-inherited blank stare, he becomes another gang member intent on paying society back.
I can already hear the retort, flowing red from certain lips, preaching vengeance that never heals. Ignorance collides with indifference and the resulting shrapnel wounds. “If you didn’t want to go to prison, you shouldn’t have broken the law,” they say.
So, we turn a young drug user into a sleek predator. A suburban black kid tossed to the CRIPS to raise. Mother’s milk turns to hooch and father’s wisdom to ashes, while a young man’s dreams faulter and a young woman records bedtime stories for her absent child.
The longer I’ve done in prison, the more aware I become of time. I’ve learned that if you watch closely a person can identify the precise moment when things change. The first time I watched hope turn to despair it broke something inside of me. I’m not a stranger to tragedy, but that moment is the saddest thing I’ve ever seen. I watched it happen 100 times the first year and 200 the second. It’s been 11 years now and I am numb.
Do I deserve to be in prison? Absolutely. I am not innocent, but that is the wrong question. The better question, the proactive one, is, “What should prison be like?” There are many answers; it should be a separation from friends and family, a place of rehabilitation, or a way of protecting society. But these are idealistic spoonfuls of sugar that lace the bitter medicine of what prison really is. There are also the euphemisms that politicians use to get votes, the hatemongering of police forces seeking ever higher budgets, the phrases that have been coined so that society can sleep at night pretending that our youth are not being murdered and raped while in the custody of the State.
These are tiny dystopian societies that dot each state in our country. The most insane part isn’t even that they exist; it’s that these Orwellian societies are nourished by capitalism and the tax dollars of Americans of every political party, race, and class. These dystopian societies practice a hyper-totalitarianism that would make Hitler and Stalin sigh with admiration, for they come complete with dictators who hold unchecked power. They command police who use violent force, sensory deprivation and overload, and long periods of separation from human contact as ways of torturing people for even minor rule infractions. The practices of racism, sexism, and homophobia are fostered and stoked into violence daily.
To understand just how insane the system is, start at the beginning. Inside interrogation rooms across the country police routinely tell 18- and 19-year-old kids, “You’re too pretty for prison. Bubba’s gonna be your cellie.” And, “They’re gonna love you in there.” Police say these things to coerce confessions; police threaten young people with gang rape in order to get them to sign plea deals whether they are guilty or not. So the prison system often morphs into something it most certainly should not be: a training ground for becoming the worst of the worst.
A person commits a crime and society puts him/her in prison to be “rehabilitated.” Using this word to describe any prison in America is the most perverse kind of joke. I even hesitate to call it ironic because I don’t want to boil it down to a literary term that will offer intellectual space or pretty up the reality. Most of society has no clue about what happens in prison. The question remains, “Why should I care? They did that to themselves.”
People should care because inmates, who have been sentenced to extended rape and torture sessions, will soon be released back into society. They will be walking around a mall near you, trying on a pair of jeans, stopping for a burger. Consider the casual drug users who becomes addicted, sent to prison to “teach them a lesson”; three or four years later they are released with the same drug problem, except now they have PTSD and mental health, anger and control issues from a trauma that has broken them. And you have participated in, condoned, and paid taxes in order for these people to be broken.
Why should you care? Because prisoners are not born, they are created. It is a long-term slide due to mental issues, poverty, culture and a severe lack of education, causing habitual unemployment and self-esteem problems. By identifying these reasons our society can take a more proactive stance and lower the causes of crime, which will, in turn, lower the crime rate. If we are to be a responsible society, we should focus all available resources on rehabilitating potential errants instead of incarcerating them with PTSD and joblessness to look forward to after release.
The American prison system is archaic and self-defeating. To continue the trend that we are following is to pump more and more taxpayer money into this corrupt and failing system. Allocating these resources, instead, to education, trades, counseling and especially re-entry programs, can help curb the prison population, reduce recidivism, and use taxpayer dollars constructively. Admit it or not, the prison system in this country is both destructive and unsustainable.
Yet, I sit on my throne of shredded paper and empty pen cartridges, a witness to the paradox that there is humanity even here. I think Orwell would understand. There is laughter even here in the dark reaches of our land, and it will not be silenced because, even here, we fight on. We fight for our freedom and our families, we fight for Justice, we who once offended that same Justice, because we have seen the light and it is truly as blinding as they say.
Michael Wiese is serving a 30-year sentence in the Texas Department of Criminal Justice.
The Inequities & Unsustainability of Mass Incarceration
by Santonio D. Murff
“The Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994 allotted
$12.5 billion to states to increase incarceration.'' ( 1 )
People outside the know look at certain urban communities as having been deserted by the government. Blind and ignorant, they couldn't be farther from the truth.
When you build a multi-billion-dollar prison industrial complex, enact some of the most draconian sentencing practices in the history of the world, then cut-off a community's funding for education and opportunities while providing incentives for an occupying army of police officers to prey upon those victims that poverty and miseducation have bred—oh, no, you're not abandoning that community. (2)
You're investing in it. To fail.
The government has set into place all of the necessary mechanisms to ensure those communities’ failure. They've placed all the necessary capitalistic machinery to reap huge financial rewards when they do fail. (3)
The over 2 million citizens incarcerated nationwide, to the tune of $8O billion annually, attest to the unscrupulous profiteers' success. (4)
"Incarceration affects nearly every household in the United States. 1 in 4 Americans
have a sibling incarcerated. 1 in 5 have a parent incarcerated. 1 in 7 have a spouse or
co-parent incarcerated. 1 in 8 have a child incarcerated ." (5)
The prison industrial complex has grown into an $80-billion behemoth that enriches the few at the expense of the majority. For the sake of massive profits, families have been torn asunder, communities decimated, and the founding principles of our nation have been buried beneath the greed of the ungodly.
Elected officials have sold out their constituents to fatten their own pockets (7), turning blind eyes to the senseless sentencing practices that have made many U.S. citizens indentured servants at best (8) and modern-day slaves at worst.
We are, once again, legally trafficking in human flesh.
Ineffective assistance of counsel, prosecutorial misconduct (9), and trial judges' abuses of discretion (10) have worked hand-in-hand with habitual, three-strikes laws, and mandatory minimum sentencing (11) to reduce the world's lone SuperPower into a global embarrassment, home of the great shame of mass incarceration. (12)
The imposition of fines, fees, and court costs are other ways that prisoners and their families are exploited, extorted, and recycled in and out of jail . The practice of operating an "Offender-Funded" criminal justice system was exposed in Ferguson, Missouri. The city's 95 percent white police force funded itself by preying upon its nearly 70-percent Black population with fines, fees, and other charges. (13)
Free or dirt-cheap labor has been a staple of penitentiaries since the 13th Amendment abolished slavery for all but those duly convicted of a crime. In Texas, able-bodied incarcerated people are forced to work 12-hour shifts or face the consequences. They receive no pay and are not provided even basic hygiene, like deodorant.
While the majority of offenders must burden their families to send them funds to meet their needs, it is a further payoff for the traffickers in human misery to charge incarcerated people for requested medical attention, while their free labor generates millions of dollars a year for their insatiable purses. (14)
This is the human trafficking that hasn't made the evening news. These are the labor camps that have operated beneath our country's moral compass for decades. This is the predatory, maligned legal system that has reduced sitting judges to tears, depression, and early retirement. (15) This is mass incarceration exposed and explored. (16)
Mass incarceration is the second sin that must be abolished, dismantled, and buried deep beneath the golden principle and rallying cry of "One nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all."
"This will keep our communities safer, provide hope and a second chance to those who
earn it--In addition to everything else, billions of dollars will be saved." (17)
Mass incarceration is unsustainable, because—with the American conscience being collectively awakened to the injustices perpetrated against the poor, and taxpayers who have been saddled with a criminal justice system that many conservatives and liberals view as too costly and unfair—there is a unified cry for prison reform. (18)
That cry was minimally answered by President Trump's signing into law the First Step Act in December 2018. The First Step Act eased some harsh mandatory minimum sentences and created new programs aimed at improving prison conditions and preparing incarcerated people for successful reentry into their communities. It also rewards good behavior, working, and taking rehabilitative classes with credits that make it easier for prisoners to earn early releases. (19)
What the First Step Act doesn't do is affect the state prisoners across America who make up the majority of our country's incarcerated persons. It only applies to the 10 percent that are federal prisoners. But it is an encouraging step in the right direction. (20) Now we must continue forward with the repeal of the Law of Parties, three-strikes laws, and mandatory-minimum sentencing.
“Life” sentences need to be capped at 15 calendar years, as it is in most developed countries. Administrators must be held accountable for rehabilitating their charges in that time. It is imperative that we amplify our voices, petition our politicians , and multiply our advocacy and contributions to ensure that these changes are enacted in every state. (21 )
As California Sen. Kamala Harris stated: "We ultimately need to work for greater reforms if we are to right the wrongs that exist in our criminal justice system.'' (22)
Now that most of the nation agrees with her, let's continue to work together, so that the First Step is not our last.
Santonio D. Murff is a three-time PEN America Prison Writing Award winner from Shreveport, Louisiana, serving a life sentence in Texas.
Sources and Notes
(1) The Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994 allotted $12. 5 billion to states to increase incarceration. About half of that was earmarked for states that enacted stringent "truth-in-sentencing" laws—requiring people to serve at least 85% of their sentence. (Excessive Punishment, Equal Justice Initiative.)
(2) The New Jim Crow in the Age of Colorblindness by Prof. Michelle Alexander; pages 5, 49, and 57.
(3) The New Jim Crow in the Age of Colorblindness by Prof. Michelle Alexander; page 230: A memo sent by the C.E.O. of the Corrections Corporation of America, explaining to then V.P. Dick Cheney, one of their rich and powerful investors, that their growth and profits are dependent on keeping prisons full and there being no changes to draconian sentencing practices.
(4) The U.S. has the highest prison population in the world! (Online database World Prison Brief.)
(5) TIFA CONTACT: The Official Newsletter of Texas Inmates Families Association, Volume 24, No.2, April 2019.
(6) The New Jim Crow in the Age of Colorblindness by Prof. Michelle Alexander and As I Hear The Rain, Santonio D. Murff's Mass Incarceration: The Shame of a Nation, anthology.
(7) Locked In: The True Cause of Mass Incarceration and How to Achieve Real Reform by John F. Pfaff.
(8) In 1991, 25 percent of inmates reported owing court costs, restitution, fines, and fees. By 2004, that number increased to 66%. Currently it is estimated that 80-85% of inmates leave prison with debt. (Equal Justice Initiative.)
(9) “How to Hold Bad Prosecutors Accountable: The Case for a Commission on Prosecutorial Conduct,” by Gershman, Bennet. The Daily Beast, August 31, 2015.
(10) “Corrupt Justice: What Happens When Judges' Bias Taints a Case?” by Green, Peters, and Mazor; The Guardian
(11) The Meaning of Life author Ashley Nellis describes how habitual laws, three-strikes laws, and mandatory minimum sentencing, etc. ... got us into this mess of mass incarceration.
(12) America has 5% of the world's population, but accounts for 25% of its prison population. (World Prison Brief online database.)
(13) “Profiting from Incarceration and Punishment,” The Justice Initiative.
(14) “No escaping Medical Co-Payments, Even in Prison,” by Ollove, Michael, July 12, 2015 .
(15) As I Hear The Rain Anthology, Mass Incarceration: The Shame of a Nation by Santonio D. Murff, Pages 147-148.
(16) “The New Jim Crow: Exposed and Explored,” by Santonio D. Murff, The Minutes Before Six Blog.
(17) This is a tweet that was sent by President Trump before he signed The First Step Act.
(18) “The Senate overwhelmingly back overhaul of our criminal justice system,” by John Wagner and Karoon Demirjon, Washington Post.
(19) April 1 , 2019, upfrontmagazine.com
(20) “Source Policy, Policy Initiative,” as reported by Kate Rabinowitz, Washington Post
(21) The Sentencing Project’s National Campaign to End Life Sentences, TIFA Newsletter
(22) The Final Call, pp. 7 & 22, by Barrington M. Salmon, and the April 1, 2019 upfrontmagazine.com