Prison writing is an ambiguous term, one that lends itself to the image of a tattered prisoner huddled in the corner of a dank cell in a forgotten prison in a small American town, writing on a soiled notepad and well-cordoned off from the rest of society. But this perhaps romantic notion of the writer while imprisoned quickly gave way Friday night to the harsh realities of writing as one of the last remaining links to sanity for the incarcerated in a system which practices and inflicts anything but.
Class, gender, race and the machinic operations of the United States' prison system (or private business one could say) erupted on stage at the CUNY Graduate Center on Fifth Avenue on Friday, April 30th, 2010 in a PEN World Voices Festival event entitled, "Writing Inside, Writing Outside." With a fascinating yet haunting romp through the dichotomous incarcerations of Piper Kerman (a self- described, middle class white woman incarcerated in a low security women’s prison for 11 months, an Oklahoma “transit” prison for one month, and a Federal prison in Chicago for one month) and Anthony Cardenales (a non-white male who has been in maximum security prison for 17 years or “most of my life” as he stated), and Adrian Nichole LeBlanc, a journalist who documented Anthony’s and other's incarcerations and their connections to their families in the South Bronx and beyond in her novel, Random Family (Scribner, 2003) (an "intimate portrait of life in the urban trenches" states Richard Price), Jackson Taylor (moderator) elicited a panorama of informative insight into life in (and out) of the “clink.”
With Anthony’s car stuck in traffic and the panel and audience awaiting his arrival, Jackson opened the discussion up to Piper Kerman to discuss how, in her thirteen months in the prison system, she was able to cobble together the necessary tools for her to write while imprisoned. Piper explained that she spent eleven months in a low security prison in Danbury, Connecticut, after which time she was transfered to Oklahoma City and later a federal prison in Chicago. Within the low-security prison, she explained, no significant provisions of any kind were provided. Aside from the government-issued clothing (“They own everything on you when you come in, even down to your underwear”), Kerman explained that upon entering she (like all others) was given an orange outfit different enough from the other prisoners to be noticed as a “newbie.” Contrary to Cardenales’ experience that we would soon hear, Kerman was approached by women aware of her new arrival to ask her if she needed anything, the “informal welcome wagon” as Kerman referred to them. A pen was the first thing that she owned, a stamp and a small piece of paper soon to follow. Letters to her husband consisted of small scraps of paper that she could collect (one imagines her husband with a bottle of glue piecing together these scraps into a cohesive letter) and handwriting (something Kerman explained had fallen by the wayside due to the aggressive advent of computers) became central once again to her life.
Adrian Nichole LeBlanc explained that written correspondence between those in the prison system and the outside world plays such a prominent role due to the outrageous costs of collect calls from prison (traditionally around $4 for the first minute, $9-10 total for a brief call—this was recently changed by a lawsuit filed against the telecom companies who for years had taken advantage of their captive audience and calls now cost family and friends of the incarcerated “three dollars and change” as Cardenales would later explain). As a journalist visiting Cardenales and others in jail, she relied upon the visitation room pens, pencils, and paper and if these ran low, she raided the children's section of the visitation room, writing notes with crayons on paper while feigning the act of coloring. Asked of her reception at the prisons that she visited, LeBlanc voiced frustration, stating that while she needed details, her access was limited and she was fully dependent on Anthony’s willingness and ability to describe those many things which she could not see. Asked what risks were posed by her questioning to Cardenales, the doors at the back opened wide to reveal Cardenales, arriving with a big smile and apologies all around for his tardiness.
Anthony Cardenales explained that when questioned by LeBlanc, he always attempted to answer in a "safe" way, helped by the fact that many of the questions he was asked were not in any way compromising. A key aspect of surviving prison, he explained, was the ability to safeguard oneself whether it be in letters or in spoken word. Vagueness and explicitness became a fragile waltz. Explaining that for him it was quite easy to get supplies while in maximum security prison, Jackson inquired as to whether or not he had received the "welcoming wagon" that Ms. Kerman had received. This elicited laughter from Cardenales. "There are some who have an affinity for asking, 'How can I help you?' Others ask 'How can I help you?'" he stated to laughter from the audience. This jovial, playful, yet succinct and to-the-point manner of speaking and presentation were a constant presence in Cardenales' words. Inculcated by the prison culture in as many ways as they could manage, stripping one of name, clothing, and familiar place, Cardenales revealed that it was through his own fortitude, pursuit and receipt of his Associates and B.A. degrees and the phenomenal people he met while in prison for 17 years that he was able to survive. The letters, the visits from Ms. LeBlanc and the calls to his family were all things, he emphasized again and again, that enabled him to maintain some semblance of sanity while in prison.
The juxtaposition of Kerman and Cardenales was, while perhaps unintended, revealing and fascinating for their emergent differences between gender, income level, race, and type of prison (low or maximum security). While Ms. Kerman was able to remain in her hometown of Danbury, CT until her brief time in Oklahoma City and Chicago, Mr. Cardenales was immediately taken to an unfamiliar location far away from his family in The Bronx which, like many other prisoners, limited the number of times the family could afford to visit. Violence was another key area of difference. While Kerman had not witnessed the use of force and was angered by the representation of all prisoners as irrevocably violent, Cardenales stated that multiple deaths occurred every month in the prisons he was in, and at least one person was either slashed or stabbed every single day that he was there (for 17 years). In the maximum security prison, people with 40 to 50 years to life see no light at the end of the tunnel, Cardenales said, and claim space as their own even though the very nature of the prison system is one of constant turnover and change, a space and thus ownership of said space in constant flux. This notion of putting down roots in transient space was fascinating and came through in all of the three panelist's statements.
Educational experiences within the prison system also seemed to be contrasted between Kerman and Cardenales' time in prison. While for Kerman the GED program was an unmitigated disaster run by a man who had dropped out of the postal service, education enabled Cardenales to express his situation while incarcerated not only to himself but to his family in letters and later, LeBlanc for her novel, Random Family. Jealousy related to education would erupt between Cardenales and the corrections officers (COs), the COs sometimes asking why he should receive a "free" education while they had to pay for their children's educations. As Cardenales explained, the cost for that "free" education goes much deeper than any monetary amount for prisoners: "You must sacrifice a part of your humanity in prison in order to survive with your sanity. The cost of education is very high." This antagonistic relationship between imprisoned and corrections officers was further elucidated by Kerman who stated that any contact with the staff inevitably led to problems of some sort (to Cardenales nodding), noting the potential for abuse or exploitation by staff. LeBlanc and the panel soon meditated on the "terrible job" of being a corrections officer. Besides the high suicide and alcoholism rates of COs, LeBlanc and the others noted that in the majority of cases, the darkened spaces of the prison are brought home with the COs to their families. The prison system then emerges as an amorphous force which leaks beyond the boundaries of the system, into families, the way people interact with the world, and (as Cardenales detailed in the latter section of the discussion), into the ways in which the world interacts with ex-convicts.
Overall, the panel brought to the fore the necessity for the United States (and perhaps the world over) to reevaluate the business of prison systems, one beset by privatization, systematized oppression (of prisoners, COs, and the family and friends of both), and a great lacking in support systems for individuals emerging from years within the system. It was a stunning panel with touching, heartfelt statements by all the panelists but Cardenales in particular called for all of us to care about the people currently in the prisons as well as those that will be there in the future.
As Cardenales so aptly put it (while acknowledging the reality that all those in prisons are not "good"): "Human beings are inherently good people and this comes out in the end."
Panelist's Bios (click on their names to go to their works):
Jackson Taylor (moderator): has for more than twenty years directed the Prison Writing Program at PEN American Center. He is an advisor to the Anne Frank Center USA’s Prison Diary Project, helped found the Graduate Writing Program at The New School, where he often teaches a class in narrative form and structure. He also teaches at Mediabistro and The Holy Apostles Soup Kitchen. He holds a BA from Columbia University and an MFA from Sarah Lawrence College. His poems have appeared in Sleeping Fish, Barrow Street, LIT, Witness, and elsewhere. Taylor’s debut novel The Blue Orchard, was published by Simon and Schuster in January 2010.
Anthony Cardenales: born in The Bronx. He earned his Associates Degree in 2006 and his Bachelors in 2008, both from Bard College in Liberal Arts. He currently works in the green energy business and lives in New York.
Piper Kerman: vice president at a Washington, D.C.-based communications firm that works with foundations and nonprofits. She is the author of Orange is the New Black, a memoir of the 13 months she spent in prison. A graduate of Smith College, she lives in Brooklyn with her husband.
Adrian Nichole LeBlanc: is a journalist and the author of Random Family: Love, Drugs, Trouble and Coming of Age in the Bronx(Scribner, 2003). A New York Timesbestseller, the book won many awards including the Anisfield-Wolf Book Award, the Ron Ridenhour Prize, Borders New Voices, and was chosen by over 20 publications as one of the top 10 books of that year. It was also a finalist for the National Critics Book Circle Award for Nonfiction and the international Lettres Ulysses Award for the Art of Reportage. LeBlanc was a 2009 Holtzbrinck Fellow at the American Academy in Berlin, a 2007 fellow at the Dorothy and Lewis B. Cullman Center for Scholars and Writers at the New York Public Library, and in 2006, the recipient of a MacArthur Foundation Fellowship. She is a currently a visiting Scholar at the New York University School of Journalism, completing a book about standup comedians.
Class, Gender, PEN 2010, Prison, Prison Writing, Race