Image from Flickr via x1klima

The next-to-last time I cried was in the holding cell of a windowless courtroom in Raleigh, N.C. I had rattled off my assistant district attorney spiel, letting my mouth’s muscle memory do its thing, to a Hispanic male in a jumpsuit: Do you have an attorney? Are you going to hire one? Do you want the court to appoint you one?

He said nothing but uncurled his right fist—an act of freedom executed a few inches from his shackled wrists. This revealed a crumpled piece of wide-ruled notebook paper and a few lines of child-like handwriting—the answers to my questions. He had played the game before, but that’s not what bothered me. Rather, the rawness and vulnerability of the letters, scratched with limited hope and resources, propelled me to leave the holding cell before the Wake County sheriff’s deputy could see my wet eyes.

Reading another person’s handwriting remains for me a more intimate form of communication than physical touch. Seldom have I been overwhelmed with emotion after a caress. Simply seeing someone’s handwriting, however, has on occasion caused those foreign things called feelings to besiege my southern stoicism—often irrespective of what’s written.

Handwriting comprises the memories of our lives, Vimala Rodgers writes, “reflecting both your strong points and those that have put a screeching halt to your inborn creativity.” We might expect confinement against one’s will to be one of those events that causes a screeching halt. But Bernard Malamud thought differently. In a Paris Review interview, he professed interest in “the idea of prison as a source of the self’s freedom” and described its potential in symbolizing a more universal struggle:

Perhaps I use [prison] as a metaphor for the dilemma of all men: necessity, whose bars we look through and try not to see. Social injustice, apathy, ignorance…. A man has to construct, invent, his freedom. Imagination helps. A truly great man or woman extends it for others in the process of creating his or her own…. I conceive this as the major battle in life, to transcend the self—extend one’s realm of freedom.

Malamud never served time. Still, the rich history of prison writing corroborates the idea that confinement can free the creative self. Norman Rush, Liao Yiwu, Claude Simon, and Arthur Koestler wrote while imprisoned or later about their time as prisoners. Incarceration helped spur Civil Disobedience, “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” a few O. Henry stories, Oscar Wilde’s De Profundis, and e.e. cummings’s The Enormous Room. And prison literature continues to thrive today in the work of Jimmy Santiago Baca, Kathy Boudin, and Reginald Dwayne Betts, while the blog Between the Bars has democratized the genre, bringing thousands of writings from prisoners online.

While prison is fertile creative ground for some, others find their efforts hampered by conditions imposed by correctional officers. As Andrea Jones brought to light in a series of pieces for The American Reader, many American prisoners experience “lost” inbound and outbound mail and have difficulty procuring pens, paper, typewriters, ribbons, and postage.

And still others, perhaps the majority of prisoners, experience confinement as a creative dead spot—almost a death sentence. As Lloyd Wright, sentenced to life without parole for selling $50 worth of crack too close to a school, told the American Civil Liberties Union for a report released earlier this month:

To me, to have life without parole is just like being dead. People forget about you. People grow old. Babies are born you may never see and hold. Places you will never go again. Things you would never do again.

Even when a prisoner isn’t locked up for life, conditions like solitary confinement usually do more harm than creative good. That periods of isolation and contact deprivation can cause severe psychiatric damage isn’t new news.

The last time I cried was when I opened a packet of short story submissions to the PEN Prison Writing Program’s annual fiction contest. I hadn’t yet read a word of any of the stories, but I found myself weeping as I thumbed through the handwritten cover letters: “Please accept my manuscript…. It is an original piece and not a simultaneous submission”—the same words we all use when submitting our stories to journals.

Last Friday, PEN observed its 32nd annual Day of the Imprisoned Writer to honor those who “continue to struggle with harassment, intimidation, threats, imprisonment, violence, and even death when they exercise their fundamental right to self-expression.” The next time we hold our pens, let’s consider also holding, in the curve of our c’s and the rounds of our d’s, Enoh Meyomesse of Cameroon, Wajeha Al-Huwaider of Saudi Arabia, Lê Quốc Quân of Vietnam, and the countless other writers whose imprisonment both feeds and constrains their work. “Excuse my handwriting,” read another cover letter in my packet from PEN. “We don’t have access to typewriters here, and my hand is sprained from a fight I recently had.”


Win Bassett

Win Bassett’s essays have appeared in The Atlantic, The Paris Review, The Los Angeles Review of Books, and Guernica. His stories and poems have been published or are forthcoming in Pank, Image, Ruminate, and Trop. He’s a former assistant district attorney and serves on the PEN Prison Writing Program Fiction Committee. He’s from southwestern Virginia and studies at Yale Divinity School.

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2 Comments on “Prison Scratchings

  1. Read your article with interest. You might certainly have mentioned Kenneth E. Hartman, author of “Mother California,” who has been in prison in California since 1980, serving a life without parole sentence.

  2. Hi Anne,

    Thanks so much for your comment! I wish I could have included the names of all the incredible writers who have written while incarcerated, but I had only so many words before you stopped reading ;) Thanks for pointing out Hartman, who continues to be an inspiration!

    All my best,

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