Where there is sorrow there is holy ground. Some day people will realise what that means. They will know nothing of life till they do.
As Oscar Wilde was led handcuffed between two policemen in front of the crowds filling the road between his prison and the Court of Bankruptcy, a friend, Robbie Ross, stepped out from their midsts and publically and gracefully tipped his hat to the writer. Wilde remembered this ‘little, lovely, silent act of love’ years later as he wrote De Profundis [‘from the depths’] in his prison cell. This sign of sympathy, a recognition from one man to another of commonality and respect in the context of shame and exclusion, ‘made the desert blossom like a rose, and brought me out of the bitterness of lonely exile into harmony with the wounded, broken, and great heart of the world’. Wilde’s letter, later published for the public, is an act of connection itself, reaching out as a prisoner, an outcast man, to the world from whom his suffering is hidden. He speaks for his co-prisoners too, explaining ‘I have said of myself that I was one who stood in symbolic relations to the art and culture of my age. There is not a single wretched man in this wretched place along with me who does not stand in symbolic relation to the very secret of life. For the secret of life is suffering’. In this notion of ‘symbolic relation’ we see Wilde investing within the experience of prison a certain terrible knowledge accessible only through this very specific perspective of the imprisoned, excluded individual. Wilde’s words are an act of conversation, bringing those placed outside society, and what they have learnt, into a shared cultural discourse.
Prison occupies an unknowable space in society, containing the people deliberately hidden and segregated from the general public. Current debate has brought widespread attention to matters of controversy surrounding the American prison system. Ava DuVerney’s 2016 documentary investigating prison culture in the USA, 13th, was the first documentary ever to open the New York Film festival, highlighting the urgency of debates about injustice in the justice system in contemporary America. In 1970 the prison population of the United States stood at roughly 200,000 – today it is closer to 2,000,000. America, the land of the free, is one of the most imprisoned nations in the world – home to 25 per cent of the world’s prisoners. These statistics show something deeply disturbing about the way a nation thinks about its citizens, and the state’s responsibility and right to condemn and intervene with individual lives. DuVerney’s documentary is just one of a number of voices demanding a consideration of the social effect of the current policy. The exponential increase in imprisonments has had a disproportionate effect on African American communities: one in three black men in the United States can expect to go to prison in their lifetimes. Many social commentators have stressed that the consequences of the culture spurned by Lyndon Johnson’s 1965 declaration of a ‘War on Crime’ have served to initiate a new stage of racial and classist oppression, just as the greatest achievements of the Civil Rights movement were being made. Prisons, they argue, act as social cleansers, removing those that elite society deem unacceptable; works like DuVerney’s try to give this sector a voice with which to reiterate their right to a presence within mainstream discourse.
Prison writing – about prisons, by prisoners, from prisons – traces a long heritage in western literature as a genre entrenched with questions piercing the core of human consciousness. Some quality of incarcerated experience, lying in the forced remission of those human rights that by their very name claim to define our concept of the human, offers the conditions of a literary space particularly amenable to these considerations of humanity.
The 6th century writer Boethius composed the De Consolatione Philosophiae whilst imprisoned awaiting execution. Visited, in his story, by the Lady Philosophy, he comes to see that he is twice constrained: physically, in his body, and mentally, in his despondency. The consolation Philosophy offers is that mortal life, beholden to the arbitrariness of fortune and the whims of fate, is nothing compared to the life of the soul. Philosophy offers freedom from this imprisonment of the mind, after which no bodily affairs can matter to him. From the darkest hour of physical peril comes liberation of his soul. Boethius’ text opens a window into his soul. In his suffering he exposes the reader to a privileged vision of his mind, sorrow and then revelation. We watch as his consciousness is challenged, responds to its new conditions – what Wilde calls the ‘knowledge of sorrow’ – and learns to see anew.
Exposure is central to the prison experience. Jeremy Bentham’s 1791 ‘Panopticon’ design models the ‘ideal’ prison building. Used as an inspiration for the real designs of Pentonville and Millbank, the intention of this prison is to create an illusion that one overseer might watch all inmates at same time without them knowing. As this is physically impossible, the system depends instead on the basis that the inmates do not know when they are being watched – they therefore must act as though they were always observed. The voyeurism inherent to this nature of imprisonment comes with a deliberately oppressive purpose, described by Bentham as ‘a new mode of obtaining power of mind over mind, in a quantity hitherto without example.’ From this attempt to invade and limit the mind, prison literature fights back: whilst prisons hold inmates in positions of forced publicity, prison writing exposes the prison and what is inside it – what the state, the system, tries to hide and to silence.
Looking through the lists of writers associated with prisons, it is remarkable quite how many were imprisoned as a result of their literary activity. In these cases imprisonment is a silencing technique – publication can be seen as a refusal to submit and an act of resistance. The books If This Is A Man (Primo Levi, 1947) and The Gulag Archipelago (Alexander Solzhenitsyn, 1973) expose two of the most notoriously oppressive regimes of the 20th century. Solzhenitsyn revealed the brutal system of forced labour upon which the USSR depended, undermining forever its moral standing and undeceiving the communist sympathisers in the West who still based their ideology on the Soviet state of their naive delusions. His mammoth text parallels a history of the development of the gulag system with an account of the path a typical ‘zek’ (inmate) through the camps. The impact of the work was enormous – confronting the world with the brute truth hidden behind the carefully constructed propaganda front of the Soviet Union.
A concern that dominates the text is the nature of evil. Solzhenitsyn does not represent ‘evil’ people and ‘good’ people but shows both within every man. He comments on the enviable ease that a belief in pure evil might bring: ‘If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?’ The world and man mix, and whatever the rhetoric of a prison system might claim, it is impossible to separate bad from good by relocation of persons. This realisation is reflected in Solzhenitsyn’s thinking on the question of response: ‘confronted by the pit into which we are about to toss those who have done us harm, we halt, stricken dumb: it is after all only because of the way things worked out that they were the executioners and we weren’t’. The drama is as much one of self-recognition, as political condemnation. It documents knowledge learnt whilst ‘rotting on prison straw’ of the fundamental capacity for evil and good in all, and that chance is all the difference between a perpetrator and a victim.
Levi’s memoir revolves around the question it poses in its very title, a question it leaves open to the reader to determine: are there conditions in which having the body of a human is not enough to be a man? In the mud and the cold, scrabbling for morsels of food, utterly bereft of any semblance of ‘human dignity’, two moments stand out in answer to this question. In successive chapters he recalls being examined for a post in the chemical lab by the aryan Doktor Pannwitz and trying to communicate Dante to Pikolo, the French man with whom he carries soup. When Pannwitz looks across his clean, ordered office at the dirt covered Jew, ‘that look was not one between two men’. The absence of recognition of each other’s humanity makes this ‘as though it came across the glass window of an aquarium’. This, Levi says, is the insanity of the Third Reich – that it made men not men. When walking with Pikolo, conversely, the lines
Think of your breed; for brutish ignorance
Your mettle was not made; you were made men,
To follow after knowledge and excellence
poorly translated from Italian into broken French, are more important than soup for the starving Levi – for these words remind him that they are men. His desperate, inelegant conveyance is a bridge between him and his equally wretched companion – a link not just between themselves, but with Dante, with literature, with humanity. It is through literature later – this book – that Levi chooses to make his statement and records his witness of humanity amongst inhumanity.
The responsibility of the witness is a theme both writers explicitly dwell upon. They speak of their writing almost as an obligation. Levi writes: ‘We hoped not to live and tell our story, but to live to tell our story’. Solzhenitsyn’s work is dedicated, chillingly, to those that did not live to tell their own stories, from whom he asks forgiveness for everything he could not tell. Publication is their act of remembrance – not for themselves only but inviting all their readers to join them. Their books call us to remember too, and in remembering to be chastened.
Prison literature need not only signify literature in the traditional sense: in the 21st century writing for other mediums is gaining serious recognition. In the realm of prison literature, Orange Is The New Black is the prime example. Episodic, with an interlacement of multiple plots and grand diversity of characters from across American society, the show bears interesting points of comparison to the condition-of-England novels of authors like Charles Dickens, whose Little Dorrit was a striking critique of the debtors prisons of his own day.
The series creator, Jenji Kohan, spoke in an interview of using Piper, the show’s protagonist, as a ‘Trojan horse’: the story of a privileged white girl is used to publish the stories of underrepresented and marginal groups. This concurs with the history of prison fiction as a way to get in touch with the hidden side of society not visible in mainstream narratives. The show utilises the unnatural totally controlled environment within prison to bring into relation characters who in outside life would be unlikely ever to meet, experimenting with what happens when different cultures, classes and backgrounds converge. The individuality of the characters underlines how, despite the efforts of the institution to homogenise, these differences do not fade away. The cliques and customisations all point to people determined to maintain their identity but also to form communities, albeit excluded from everyday society. The show has been lauded for raising incredibly important social questions, one being the attention paid to the eye-watering numbers imprisoned on account of drug-related crimes. A joke stands out:
Caputo: ‘Immigration Violations: The Next Goldmine.’ (He takes his glasses off and looks at Linda.) What was the last goldmine?
Linda: The War on Drugs, I guess? (She smiles, shrugs and takes a sip of her chardonnay.)
With the percentage of federal inmates incarcerated for narcotics offenses standing at a shocking 46.3%, these are ‘jokes’ that demand to be taken seriously.
A word that appears again and again in discussions of the show is ‘humanising’: at its core, this is what prison literature seems to do – to remind us of the human agents behind the faceless institutions which linger at the back of every national consciousness. Prison literature brings us to that which we would rather ignore, those that society has rejected, and demands that we confront a difficult and uncomfortable human reality.