Friday, March 8, 2019

Prison (March 8, 2019)

As I speak to you, there are approximately 2.3 million people in prison in the U.S., where more people per capita are locked up than any country on the planet. Less than 50% of prison inmates are locked up due to violent crimes. The majority of prisoners are serving time due to drug offenses, resulting from state and federal drug laws enacted as far back as the 1970’s and made more severe in the 1990’s. Many people are in prison because they cannot afford to be bailed out while awaiting trial. Practically everything in the state and federal prison system has been privatized and corporatized: food services, clothing, healthcare, products for sale through the commissaries, and most egregiously, phone service, which profits off of the desperation of family members and loved ones separated from the inmate by distance. 

There are also thousands of people in prison who were wrongfully convicted, due to malfeasance on the part of law enforcement, coerced and flawed witnesses and coerced false confessions. Since 2004 I have personally been advocating for several individuals in the NY State prison system who were wrongfully convicted. One of them, Mr. Shane Watson, was just released on parole after serving 25 years in prison for a crime he clearly did not commit. 

The prison complex and its devastating effect on individuals and families is a natural source of poetry and expression.  This edition of W&M will give voice to poetry inspired by the phenomenon of prison, from the vantage point of those on the outside and those locked behind ominous prison walls.
 -Will Duchon

To Althea, from Prison

When Love with unconfinèd wings
Hovers within my Gates,
And my divine Althea brings
To whisper at the Grates;
When I lie tangled in her hair,
And fettered to her eye,
The Gods that wanton in the Air,
Know no such Liberty.

When flowing Cups run swiftly round
With no allaying Thames,
Our careless heads with Roses bound,
Our hearts with Loyal Flames;
When thirsty grief in Wine we steep,
When Healths and draughts go free,
Fishes that tipple in the Deep
Know no such Liberty.

When (like committed linnets) I
With shriller throat shall sing
The sweetness, Mercy, Majesty,
And glories of my King;
When I shall voice aloud how good
He is, how Great should be,
Enlargèd Winds, that curl the Flood,
Know no such Liberty.

Stone Walls do not a Prison make,
Nor Iron bars a Cage;
Minds innocent and quiet take
That for an Hermitage.
If I have freedom in my Love,
And in my soul am free,
Angels alone that soar above,
Enjoy such Liberty.

Women's Prison Every Week

Lockers, metal detectors, steel doors, C.O.
to C.O., different forms, desks—mouth open, turn—so
slow I use the time to practice patience,
grace, tenderness for glassed-in guards. The rules
recited as if they were the same rules every week:
I can wear earrings. I cannot wear earrings. I can wear
my hair up. I cannot wear my hair up. I dressed
by rote: cords in blue or brown, grey turtleneck, black
clogs. The prisoners, all in grey sweatshirts, blue jeans,
joked I looked like them, fit in. I didn't think about it,
until I dreamed of being shuffled in and locked
in there, hustled through the heavy doors.
In the dream the guards just shook their heads, smirked
when I spelled out my name, shook the freezing bars.
Instead of nightly escorts out, I'd stay in there
forever. Who would know? So I went to Goodwill,
spent ten bucks on pink angora, walked back down those halls
a movie star. When I stood at the front of the class
there rose a sharp collective sigh. The one
who said she never heard of pandering
until the arraignment said OK, I'm going
to tell her. Then she told me: freedom is wasted
on women like me. They hate the dark cotton, jeans
they have to wear, each one a shadow of the other their
whole sentence. You could wear red! she accused.
Their favorite dresses, silk slips, wool socks all long gone,
bagged up for sisters, moms—maybe Goodwill,
maybe I flicked past them looking for this cotton candy pink
angora cardigan, pearl buttons. They can't stop staring, so
I take it off and pass it around, let each woman hold it
in her arms, appraise the wool between her fingers,
a familiar gesture, second nature, from another world.

Jill McDonough, "Women's Prison Every Week" from Where You Live. Copyright © 2012 by Jill McDonough. Reprinted by permission of the author.

A Wasp Woman Visits a Black Junkie in Prison

After explanations and regulations, he
Walked warily in.
Black hair covered his chin, subscribing to
Villainous ideal.
“This can not be real,” he thought, “this is a
Classical mistake;
This is a cake baked with embarrassing icing;
Somebody’s got
Likely as not, a big fat tongue in cheek!
What have I to do
With a prim and proper-blooded lady?”
Christ in deed has risen
When a Junkie in prison visits with a Wasp woman.

“Hold your stupid face, man,
Learn a little grace, man; drop a notch the sacred shield.
She might have good reason,
Like: ‘I was in prison and ye visited me not,’ or—some such.
So sweep clear
Anachronistic fear, fight the fog,
And use no hot words.”

After the seating
And the greeting, they fished for a denominator,
Common or uncommon;
And could only summon up the fact that both were human.
“Be at ease, man!
Try to please, man!—the lady is as lost as you:
‘You got children, Ma’am?’” he said aloud.

The thrust broke the dam, and their lines wiggled in the water.
She offered no pills
To cure his many ills, no compact sermons, but small
And funny talk:
“My baby began to walk... simply cannot keep his room clean...”
Her chatter sparked no resurrection and truly
No shackles were shaken
But after she had taken her leave, he walked softly,
And for hours used no hot words.

“A Wasp Woman Visits a Black Junkie in Prison” from The Essential Etheridge Knight, by Etheridge Knight, © 1986. All rights are controlled by the University of Pittsburgh Press, Pittsburgh, PA 15260. 

Glutton for Punishment
By an anonymous inmate at Clinton Correctional Facility

Not a masochist per se
In fact physical pain’s anathema to my well being
But still it’s freeing to wallow in self loathing, disposing of this pretense and common sense at my own expense
I’m my own worst enemy
No friend of me or confidant, just he who
Wants to turn the screw and earn a few rebukes and looks of pity from the committee times infinity plus one
You’re me, scary, ain’t it?
I can’t explain it but I love to be down sometimes
It’s when I feel most alive,
Primetime for rhyming and winding up climbing the walls
I’d rather feel nothing. Isn’t that something?
No, it’s something else, a cry for help, A yell, the death knell of my self-actualization The realization, in amazement that I’ve wasted and squandering by pondering
The very that thing that buries me is the colossal chasm between
what everybody else thinks of me and what I think of myself.
One of us has to be right. Either way I lose.
I’m doomed or an underachiever
Oh well, at least I’m not mediocre
I feed the ogre inside of me because I have no self-respect
I’d rather be right than correct and just write so I get something tangible out of it And really, I’m proud of it
a little bit
But a little bit less each day.

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