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Shut-up Shakespeares

October 16, 2005|Robert Dellinger | Robert Dellinger is currently working on a novel, "Real Deal Teal."

MY FRIEND, EDWARD BUNKER, died in July at age 71, leaving behind a body of work -- a memoir and four novels -- that reveals a Southern California netherworld inhabited by the human outcasts most of us scorn, fear and ultimately lock away behind bars.

I met Bunker in 1973, while we were both doing time in the Federal Correctional Institution on Terminal Island in Los Angeles Harbor. I'd had a breakdown that led to a felonious bomb threat. My job was teaching creative writing to inmates and editing the prison newspaper.

Bunker had been in L.A. County Jail on bank robbery charges. From jail, he'd written a piece called "The Inhuman Zoo" for The Times' Sunday magazine. Citing personal experience, he revealed that deputies in the jail sometimes stomped inmates for no reason. He gave examples of these law officers' almost casual willingness to abuse the poor and minorities.

The piece received a lot of attention. Had Bunker been imprisoned today, however, authorities would almost certainly have prevailed in suppressing that expose and the literary career that budded in prison. More important, law-abiding readers would never have gained the blunt, critically important insight Bunker offered into the social and psychological underpinnings of crime and punishment.

The world's concrete garbage cans have always been fertile compost heaps for prisoners with an itch to write, the source of compelling ideas and insights produced by men and women often dismissed as losers with nothing to contribute to society. Works by convicts, such as Bunker's "No Beast So Fierce," Jean Genet's "Our Lady of the Flowers," Nelson Algren's "A Walk on the Wild Side" and John Bunyan's "The Pilgrim's Progress" are literary classics. Donn Pearce's "Cool Hand Luke," Eldridge Cleaver's "Soul on Ice," Angela Davis' "If They Come in the Morning," Chester Himes' "Cotton Comes to Harlem," Miguel Pinero's "Short Eyes" (a play) and Jimmy Santiago Baca's poetry have staying power with mainstream thinkers and readers.

Yet it would be extremely difficult for these works to be written today in a California prison. The Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, the California Correctional Peace Officers Assn. and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger have become one, enacting rules, regulations and laws that muzzle prison writers, eliminate prison newspapers, de-fund creative writing classes and prohibit prisoners from freely discussing their ideas, beliefs and opinions in person with journalists.

By the end of the 1970s, a tsunami of prison literature was pouring out of correctional institutions across the United States, appearing as books and in magazines, newspapers, television shows and motion pictures. Then came the start of the repression that was to devastate writing and other educational and rehabilitation programs inside prisons.

Today, the primary lobby for muzzling prisoners in California is the powerful guards union. It wants to hide from the public what takes place inside the correctional system.

Prison horrors, such as those revealed in The Times' 1996 stories about abuses at Corcoran State Prison, haven't stopped. But far fewer surface for the simple reason that there are no prison newspapers to expose them, that there are far fewer, if any, writing classes to dramatize them, and that outside reporters have an increasingly difficult time getting in to talk to prisoners.

Last year, the governor gave in to pressure from the guards union and reneged on his promise to bring transparency to the correctional system, vetoing a bill that would have made it easier for reporters to get inside prisons and interview prisoners.

His veto will end up killing more inmates than the death penalty, and there will be no way to learn the truth about them.

This is bad for prisoners. It's also bad for the rest of you who've never been imprisoned, because society needs to understand its outcasts -- if only to protect itself from them.

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