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The Abyss

PRISON WRITING IN 20TH-CENTURY AMERICA;\o7 By H. Bruce Franklin; (Penguin: 368 pp., $13.95 paper)\f7

JAILHOUSE JOURNALISM: The Fourth Estate Behind Bars;\o7 By James McGrath Morris; (McFarland & Co.: 252 pp., $37.50)\f7

GOD OF THE RODEO: The Search for Hope, Faith, and a Six-Second Ride in Louisiana's Angola Prison;\o7 By Daniel Bergner; (Crown: 304 pp., $24)\f7

July 04, 1999|ANTHONY M. PLATT | Anthony M. Platt is the author of "The Child Savers: The Invention of Deliquency," among other works. He teaches at Cal State Sacramento and is on the editorial board of Social Justice. He is currently a Mayers fellow at The Huntington Library

Criminal justice used to be a public spectacle with ritualized executions in town centers and criminals on display in stocks. By the 19th century, when the first penitentiaries were built in the United States, punishment still had an important physical presence, and the lives of the free and unfree were intertwined on a daily basis. But as industrialization took hold and convict labor lost its value, American prisons increasingly became a world apart.

This changed, briefly, in the 1970s when, inspired by the civil rights and antiwar movements, serious books about prison life were popular bestsellers. Works by George Jackson, Eldridge Cleaver, Piri Thomas, Bobby Seale and Angela Davis, for example, reached millions of readers with their revolutionary critiques of life inside the walls. Their exposes fueled a penal reform movement that united community and prison activists with convicted criminals and political prisoners to bring a human face to anonymous convicts; to reveal prison's racial dynamics; and to pressure the federal courts to mandate minimum rights for prisoners.

Today in the late 1990s, it is hard to even remember that there was a prison reform movement and that much of the media and some politicians had some sympathy for people inside. During the last 20 years, radical and liberal views about justice have largely disappeared from public discourse. More people are incarcerated than ever before in this country's history--about 2 million, including those in reformatories and military stockades--and between 1985 and 1997 the rate of imprisonment more than doubled. Prisoners are doing longer and harder time, with state legislatures in a frenzy to criminalize and punish, endorsed by legal policies of malign neglect. Except for occasional scandals, the media ignore life behind bars. Crime and punishment remain one of the most discussed topics, yet most people have no idea of the realities of prison life. Three recent, very different books--a literary anthology, an academic monograph and a first-person investigation--try to pierce the concrete veil.

Anthologies are a dime a dozen, but really good ones are rare. An editor needs to know how to whittle without mercy; how to intervene when necessary, without upstaging the contributors; and how to present old material in new ways. H. Bruce Franklin, professor of English and American studies at Rutgers University, does all this and much more in "Prison Writing in 20th-Century America." Building upon his innovative "Prison Literature in America" (1978), Franklin's encyclopedic knowledge of both modern American literature and penology enables him to update, expand and bring together a fine collection that is extraordinarily diverse in its authors, literary genres and points of view.

What unifies this book is that the writers have served time and that they express what it is like to experience, in Jack Henry Abbott's phrase, the "atmospheric pressure" of the American prison in this century. Contrary to demonic images of convicts as a lesser breed, life inside and outside the walls has its continuities.

It was in jail that Jack London, arrested as a teenage hobo in 1894, got his first insight into "the awful abysses of human degradation." Socialists, such as Agnes Smedley and Kate Richards O'Hare, honed their political beliefs in prison after World War I; and petty hustlers such as Malcolm X and George Jackson transformed themselves into revolutionaries in the 1960s. It was writing in prison, recalls award-winning poet Etheridge Knight, that "brought me back to life." Franklin's book helps us understand that there is no typical convict or monolithic prison culture, and that the line between us and them is blurred indeed. "We are only a few steps removed from society," writes Abbott. "After us, comes you."

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