Reading Prison Novels In Prison
An ex-convict looks back on the books he read, from Dostoevsky to Malcolm X, during the decade he spent behind bars.
One day something awful happens and you leave your planet of youth, beauty, underemployment in cultural fields and hipster heroin dealers. You exchange the comforts of Barnes & Noble (where it’s easy to steal what you wish to read) and Amazon and Starbucks (where you can shoot up in the bathroom between chapters) for a desolate world of ignorance and anger, where violence is the currency and cruelty the culture. You’re a kid, then you’re a dope addict, then it gets ugly and meets its ugly end and they send you away.
You’re a prisoner now, the bars have locked you in and the old world out. You have to find your solace where you can. Books are what let you connect—to yourself, to what you’ve lost. One day you find the prison books, written by other convicts or scholars of the penal colony, and they help explain you to yourself as you read them in your cell.
Prison is a whole other planet from the one you have known, but you do have friends here. They reside in the prison library, and they come to visit you through the package room after their spines are checked for smuggled razors and their contents perused for the subversive and the radical. There is a whole list of books not allowed in New York State prisons. Ted Conover’s Newjack, for example, has an overly precise description of the guards’ quarters and is therefore disallowed. More puzzlingly, The Art of War by Sun Tzu and Machiavelli’s The Prince are also on the list. That is almost flattering to the incarcerated population, in my opinion.
Strangely enough, Mein Kampf is not on the proscribed list and many of the white inmates own personal copies and try to make sense of the gobbledygook.
As inspiring as it was to witness literature written in confines not too different from my own, I needed friends who dealt with the realities at hand. Bars, gates, frisks, being hit in the back of the head with one’s own boot by a cop, etc. Luckily, enough talented writers have been imprisoned in the last few centuries that I had no shortage of friends of this sort. Some were as old as Dostoevsky, who wrote his House of the Dead in 1861 after four years in a Siberian prison camp.
I’m complaining about being smacked with a boot; poor Fyodor had to go through a mock execution before his incarceration. While reading about the special scorn he received from the other prisoners for being a ‘gentlemen’, I was reminded that just the other day I was mocked for not using the word ‘ain’t’. Dostoevsky spends a lot of description on the little hustles his ‘peers’ worked at for money and services. As I was reading about illiterate peasants carving chess pieces out of wood to sell to the imprisoned ‘gentlemen’, the man in the cell next to mine was crafting his own chess pieces out of paper and spit, hoping to sell the set to me. And I did buy it, although he still owes me a rook.
It was amazing to discover that a work almost 200 years old was describing the same behaviors I recognized in my fellow inmates. Could it just be that prison itself conditions a sort of pavlovian reaction to carve chess pieces? There are experts who write on penology, and I read them as well. Jeremy Bentham seemed an especially unpleasant fellow, certainly no friend of mine. He spent 16 years of his mostly 18th century life designing the Panopticon, which was to be the ideal disciplinary institution. It was a central phallus, with watchers inside. The prisoners lived in a ring outside the tower and could never tell if the watchers were there or not. The idea was to make them feel as if they were always being watched so, fearful of the invisible all-seeing eyes, the prisoners would develop their own inner jailers.
The Panopticon is usually considered an abstract idea, but in fact I lived in one. During my three trips to solitary, I went through the disarming experience of not knowing when someone was looking in on me, whether I had my cock in my hand or not. The walls and doors are thick enough so one can’t hear footsteps, and the first thing they take away from you is your watch, so that you can’t time the rounds. Theoretically this makes the prisoner feel always watched, though in my experience the guys who are locked in those places for years lose all shame over human functions rather than police themselves. The very limitations that we understand as modesty are erased by this process. Eventually most of these men are released. Their loss of human shame makes them great candidates for rejoining society!
Reading Bentham was a good warning but Solzhenitsyn was a better friend. I started with A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovitch but with 8 years left on my sentence, ended up completing the entire Gulag Archipelago. The first impression any American prisoner should get is how damned lucky he is to be locked up in a democracy. The Stalinist hell that Solzhenitsyn describes in stark detail is beyond anything possible in the United States, and the people that suffered most were the innocent millions put in those camps.
The biggest lesson I learned from my pal Solzhenitsyn, as well as other Eastern-European authors like Koestler, Sinyavsky and Shalamov, was that I had nothing to complain about. After all, no one in American prison is hungry but obesity is an actual problem. But reading those thousands of pages on the worst aspects of humanity in situations worse than mine explained the cruelty and orneriness of my own neighbors. Alas, I must invoke Marx, because it is a question of limited resources.
Inside of prison, even our privileged American prison, scarcity is just as much of an issue as it was in the Gulag. Granted, in Siberia they had a lack of calories while we had a limited number of seats in the yard to watch ‘Jackass Part II’. But the behaviors inspired by dearth are the same. It’s the old crabs in a bucket scenario; we scramble and end up pulling each other down. A conspiracist would say this was intentional, as the scarcities are artificial. Feeding the Gulag workers would probably have made them stronger laborers; putting a few more benches in the yard would have prevented my friend Dmitry from being hit in the head with a brick in the West yard of Greenhaven Correctional Facility when he sat in a ‘claimed’ seat. In any case, it was Solzhenitsyn who explained this to me and not some sage I met in the prison yard.
Much of American prison literature is sharply political. I read The Autobiography of Malcolm X, without announcing the fact to anyone because of certain racial realities inside. The whites would have called me a traitor, the blacks might have accused me of stealing their knowledge. In any case, I wanted to understand my black neighbors a bit better, especially since I was new to a world that seemed familiar to them.
When Alex Haley wrote about the revolutionary results of Detroit Red’s apotheosis into Malcolm X, it gave me insight into the bow-tied fellows who met in the Common Religion Room on Thursday nights, but what I really wanted to know was about the man’s time inside. To my surprise, I found that I was following in his footsteps, also using the library as a place to find friends and mentors. It was an odd sensation for a Russian Jew to feel kinship with Malcolm X.
Another convict book that helped explain the laws and customs of the universal prison culture was Shantaram, a memoir by an Australian named Gregory David Roberts who did some substantial time in an Indian prison. During my incarceration, I learned that drugs governed the prison economy, with the gambling scene a close second. That meant that the availability of heroin set the price of packs of cigarettes and stolen hamburger meat, and determined which gang ran the phones. The author of Shantaram is quite explicit about his own use as well as his involvement in the trade, both inside and out. So reading a book about Indian prison allowed me to understand why certain little sketchy guys out in the yard were so important and which was the best magazine to rip up into small squares to make dope bags. Nobody else was as forthright with me about this touchy topic.
Finally, let’s talk about violence. Inevitably in prison comes a point where at least a display of it is necessary, if not to save your ass then at least your reputation. My test happened in 2007. No one really talks about where they get the shanks from, because even being caught in possession of one is a year in solitary. Good thing I knew Jack Henry Abbot. Had I only committed my crimes a year earlier, I could have met him in person, but he hung himself in 2002.
In case the story is unfamiliar to contemporary readers, Abbott was a life-long prisoner and murderer of many who managed to write with some panache. He caught Norman Mailer’s attention, got his novel In The Belly of the Beast published, and was actually released in 1981 because of the public acclaim and Mailer’s involvement. His freedom didn’t last long. Six weeks after his release he stabbed a waiter who he thought looked at him funny and went back to the joint for the rest of his life, until he figured a way out with a soaped sheet (the lubrication makes the noose impossible to get out of). Despite the wealth of insider information and the grisly story behind its publication, In the Belly of the Beast is not on the censored list. It’s also unpopular with prisoners because it describes convicts having sex with each other for fun. Nobody ever reads the last few chapters, which are all about Maoism.
Abbot was a strange friend, but he proved to be very useful. The deeper thinkers helped me make sense of my situation, but Abbott showed me how to make a knife that would get past a metal detector. That was real, practical knowledge and I needed it early in my incarceration when I was tested and had to make a show of violence.
Aluminum doesn’t ring. I tore the antenna off a cop’s radio and made it into a semblance of a weapon. I imagine if I ever had to use it the thing would have crumpled, but it was enough to make my point, and the episode carried me through to the end of my sentence.
I read far and wide during my ten-year bit. I read all of the longest works of the world, the thousands of pages of Proust and Musil and Joyce and Tolstoy and David Foster Wallace. And I could follow whatever interested me at the time. I acquired a taste for Sir Richard Burton’s 19th century travelogues and read them all. But reading books on prison in prison is a wholly different and even surreal experience.
Prison books don’t work as a safe safari to someone else’s exotic pain when you’re locked up. Reading inside was a way of conquering time, mapping the regions of my new home and understanding what it all meant—no one is looking for armchair travel to hell when they are reading on a cot in a cell.
Solzhenitsyn was my Virgil many a time as I passed through the circles of incarceration. He taught me a personal lesson in bravery. The experience of reading books on prison in prison is rare and compelling. It is one of the only times I can think of when life imitates art to the very bleeding edge of an aluminum shank.