The rather long interlude between this and my previous posts provides the material for my post today. For the past month I have devoted considerable time editing a manuscript version of the memoirs of an ex-con, a man with quite a story to tell. I won’t go into the particulars, as I am not sure what the future status of the manuscript is, but I would like to relate a few lessons I have learned from the experience of reading the words of someone who, in many ways, adopted the prison system as a second home:
1) Institutional practices exercise enormous power over the lives of prisoners within the system. What might seem (to outsiders) to be little more than trivial procedural matters often constitute the very fabric of prisoner’s lives. Changes in the routine, even small ones, can cause chaos and upheaval, and are not to be taken lightly. The society in prison is complex and volatile. Mistakes and inefficiencies can easily cost prisoners their lives, and so those administrating the penal system must (if they value the lives they administer) consider far more carefully the possible outcomes of their policy decisions than must those who administer the far more stable, robust, and self-sustaining society that those outside prison are accustomed to.
2) The distinction between a prison and a mental hospital seems very thin indeed. This point has been belabored by many theorists far more capable than I, so I won’t do much more than mention it, but even to someone familiar with the large body of work linking mental illness and imprisonment, the outsize role that psychological trauma plays in the prison population is startling to experience, even vicariously.
3) The historicity of imprisonment is far more prominent than that of many other social conditions. A prisoner is defined by his past to an extent that makes the circumscriptions of identity we on the outside feel as a result of our past actions seem almost nonexistent. Once a man has been imprisoned for a felony, the narrowness of his path, the pruning of so many future branches of life, presents a very grim and a very stark picture.
4) Doublespeak, always a threat to the modern liberal society as we hope to construct it, dominates prison culture so completely as to make it seem almost unreal. Rational certainty almost ceases to exist in the world behind bars. One may be self-assured, as an emotional state of being, but one cannot be “sure” of anything, except, perhaps oneself. Codes of morality arising from this depraved sort of solipsism are shockingly self-contradictory, rules seem arbitrary, reliable asymmetries of power are subject to startling upsets -- all of which conditions so attenuate the connections between language and empirically perceived reality that they can hardly be said to correlate at all.
In fact, were it not for the oppressive historicity of the prisoner's life, I might best compare the experience of reading the prison memoir with that of making my sickening way through the closing chapters of George Orwell’s 1984. Such an odd mixture of reality and fantasy, of being chained by the iron immutability of one’s past to a present too slippery to pin down in meaningful words, makes for a fascinating and sobering tale.
I hope that, in time, it does become widely available, as it has almost to be experienced to be understood. The experience (most-fortunately) being unavailable to most people, the narrative will have to stand as a substitute.