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kk ,0 EAST CONDEMNED AjW:V ,k,K , Death Row entrance, San Quentin Alan Pogue BOOKS & THE CULTURE Prison Lit Inside and Out the Prison-Industrial Complex BY MARY S. MATHIS DOING TIME: 25 Years of Prison Writing. Edited by Bell Gale Chevigny. Arcade Publishing. 349 pages. $27.95. THE GELLING OF AMERICA: An Inside Look at the U.S. Prison Industry. Edited by Daniel Burton-Rose, Dan Pens, and Paul Wright. Common Courage Press. n “Coming to Language” \(collected in poet Jimmy Santiago Baca writes of learning how to read and write in prison. First, he listened: Before I was eighteen, I was arrested on suspicion of murder after refusing to explain a deep cut on my forearm. With shocking speed I found myself handcuffed to a chain gang of inmates and bused to a holding facility to await trial. There I met men, prisoners, who read aloud to each other the works of Neruda, Paz, Sabines, Nemerov, and Hemingway. Never had I felt such freedom as in that dormitory. Listening to the words of these writers, I felt that invisible threat from without lessen … my sense of teetering on a rotting plank over swamp water where famished alligators clapped their horny snouts for my blood. While I listened to the words of the poets, the alligators slumbered powerless in their lairs. The language of poetry was the magic that could liberate one from myself transform me into another person, transport me to places far away. During his next stint in prison, at age twenty, Baca learned how to write, and he has been writing for his life ever since. Winner of the American Book Award, holder of endowed chairs at Yale and Berkeley, Baca transformed himself from an illiterate chronic criminal into a major American poet. It’s easy to say that Baca is an exception, and, of course, he is. It’s also easy simply to look away from prison writing. But prisoners see what most of us will never see, and we owe it to ourselves at least to understand what the prison system increasingly called “the prison/industrial complex” with good reason is doing in our name. roughly that of Russia. The demographics of the prison population are changing. Increasingly, those we incarcerate are African Americans, who now make up a majority 51 percent of the U.S. prison population. Almost a third of black men in their twenties are under the supervision of the criminal justice system. According to Noelle Hanrahan, a grassroots activist contributor to The Ceiling of America, if present trends continue, by 2010 a majority of AfricanAmerican men between eighteen and forty will be incarcerated. Since these rates are grossly disproportionate to the amount of crime actually being committed by African Americans, the suspicion that the criminal justice system has become a selective instrument of control is impossible to ignore. Although women make up only about 6 percent of the prison population, the growth in women’s incarceration is six times that of men’s, in large part thanks to certain rules of engagement in the war on drugs. The Ceiling of America: An Inside Look at the U.S. Prison Industry and Doing Time: 25 Years of Prison Writing give voice to our burgeoning “prison nation,” and they provide an invaluable education that simply can’t be found anywhere else. I came away from these two remarkable books grappling with this challenge: what do we want our prisons to do? Do we want our society to be one that believes in the possibility of rehabilitation, in the capacity of criminals to change? Or are we satisfied with the current ruling functions of incarceration: punishment and profit? Despite the politically popular “lock ’em up and throw away the key” approach, the vast majority of this nation’s prisoners even those in our shiny new experiments in de-humanization, the SuperMax prisons will get out some day. Who will they have become by then? And who have we become, to tolerate the U.S. prison system as it exists today? The Ceiling of America reads like a primary sourcebook for the nineties. Most of these short, dense, detailed articles were culled from Prison Legal News, edited by Dan Pens and Paul Wright, prisoners in the Washington state prison system \( penal press, founded in 1990, relies for information and articles on a network of inmates all over the country. Pens and Wright themselves account for roughly half the essays here; the rest are by other 22 THE TEXAS OBSERVER NOVEMBER 26, 1999