New Book Shines Light on Routine Dysfunctions of Prison System
by Victoria Law
If you asked people who have spent years inside prison to write noir set inside prisons, what stories would they tell? In what ways would they reflect their own experiences? What would they say that might be missed by writers who have never spent a year inside a prison cell?
With fifteen stories from writers in eight different states, Prison Noir gives readers an opportunity to find out. Each perspective is different and, while some offer different takes on similar themes, nothing is repetitive. The anthology’s first two stories, for instance, offer both a sharp contrast in prison relationships and a damning indictment of prison conditions.
Christopher M. Stephens’s “Shuffle” starts when Al, in his mid-sixties, returns from the shower and finds a cellmate making himself comfortable in the eight-by-ten-foot solitary confinement cell after eleven years alone.
Al despised the BOP’s [Bureau of Prisons’] policy of squeezing two men in a cell in the SHU [Special Housing Unit]. The old days were gone, the days when segregation meant single cells — true solitary confinement. As the prisons filled to overflowing and budgets tightened, the feds needed to get the most bang for their bucks. If that meant cramming two grown men crammed into a space designed for one, so be it.
It’s not only the presence of another person inside his solitary cell that aggravates him. Martin, his new cellmate, taunts him with his knowledge about not only Al’s original conviction, but also the reasons behind his crime. It’s a little like Jean-Paul Sartre’s Huis Clos if Sartre had imagined hell as an indefinite term in a shared solitary confinement cell — you and another person who goads you, forever and ever.
Set in the California state women’s prison where she served time during the 1970s, Sin Soracco’s “I Saw an Angel” depicts a very different form of prison relationship. The story follows Frankie as she moves through prison just days before her release. What happens is mundane — she learns that another woman, Rodeo, has been diagnosed, but before she can find out more, the guard interrupts their conversation, ordering “Move it, ladeez. Move it along here.” She passes a woman in the kitchen being searched by guards for some missing item. “A block of cheese? A missing spoon? The day was built on broken trivialities.” Soracco’s story shows the monotony of prison life, one that Frankie is soon to leave behind. But in the humdrum, Soracco also shows the relationships the women have built to support each other. When a guard cruelly and gleefully informs Rodeo’s concerned friend that Rodeo will die, Frankie comforts the woman in her own way—not with platitudes and comforting words, but with a story filled with bluster about smuggling drugs into prison. Later, as Frankie faces off against the same guard, another woman comes to her rescue. None of the actions are bold and splashy, but Soracco imparts the sense of community they’ve formed and the ways that they keep each other out of harm’s way. It’s a very different type of human interaction than what Stephens portrays.
It’s telling that, although the anthology is not meant to be political, nearly every story in Prison Noir offers a pointed critique about at least one aspect of the prison system. Soracco is not the only author to point out the abysmal medical care inside prisons. Although not the main focus of “A Message in the Breath of Allah,” Ali F. Sareini, incarcerated in Michigan, also touches on the long delays of prison health care. The fictional Ali uses his prison job caring for the dying to attempt to send a message to Allah. He describes one of those dying—after waiting six months for the prison to approve a cancer operation, one of Ali’s charges finally sees a doctor. His appointment, for which Ali waits in the hall, takes a whole five minutes in which he is told that the cancer has spread to other parts of his body and so approval has been denied. Scott Gutches, incarcerated in Colorado, sets his story “Bardos” around a death from the prison’s negligent medical care: “He shuffled out of the pod, into the sergeant’s office, and begged to be taken to medical. At first they made him walk, but when he collapsed on the steps leading into the main corridor, they rushed him to the clinic.” The effort is too little too late and the man is dead.
Medical negligence and indifference to prisoners’ health care are only some of the conditions that authors call attention to in their stories. In Linda Michelle Marquardt’s heart-wrenching “Milk and Tea,” the only other story by a woman, the narrator alternates between the horrific violence she suffered at the hands of her abusive husband and the institutional violence suffered by the women inside the Michigan prison. “The daily routine is easy and familiar. Like an abusive relationship, there are officers on power trips, and there are strict structures that lack any form of common sense. Even though you are never alone, you are lonely;” most notably while she is watching her bunkie, another survivor of terrible abuse, deteriorate over time. Instead of offering her mental health care — despite the narrator’s repeated pleas and a suicide attempt–prison staff issued tickets for rules violations. When moved to the mental health unit months later, she was diagnosed with dissociative identity disorder. But, notes the narrator, “There is no true help in the penitentiary.” Medicated into a zombie-like state, her bunkie is nonetheless classified as a management problem rather than as someone with mental illness. “She’s a shell of the person I knew, truly the epitome of the walking dead.”
In Bryan K. Palmer’s “3 Block from Hell,” also set in Michigan, the serial killer notes the decline of the idea of rehabilitation since entering prison in 1989:
At first I had high expectations of the state. There were good programs to help prisoners. Prisoners were paid a good wage. But then, as the inmate population grew, the economy collapsed and the first things to go were the good programs. With each program cut, the recidivism rate grew.
He uses the decreasing number of rehabilitation programs and the revolving door of recidivism to justify his murders: “I got tired of seeing it happen every day. If ten thousand prisoners come into Michigan every year, at least 50 percent are repeat offenders.”
When editor Joyce Carol Oates and Akashic Books solicited and selected writings from inside prison walls, they may not have anticipated damning accounts of prison medical care, but this is what happens when those who have been directly affected are given the chance to write about prisons for a wider audience. They include some of the horrors that pass as everyday life there—and in ways that make it clear that, for them, these horrors are everyday life, whether the walking dead or repeat offenders.
Victoria Law is a writer, photographer, mother, and Contributing Author for New Clear Vision. She is the author of Resistance Behind Bars: The Struggles Of Incarcerated Women (PM Press, 2009), the editor of the zine Tenacious: Art and Writings from Women in Prison, and a co-founder of Books Through Bars — NYC. Her most recent book, Don’t Leave Your Friends Behind, focuses on how radical movements can support the families in their midst.