The stories told in Prison Writing in 20th Century America convey brutally raw human emotions that can only be experienced while one is incarcerated. The memoirs of these men and women answer the question “What is wrong with prisons in America today?” in a way that statistics, legal jargon, and political platforms can not. The writing demonstrates the brokenness of the human spirit suffered by prisoners as they die a slow and painful civil death. A prisoner is stripped of their basic human rights, including the right to interact in society through politics, the workforce, families, and the larger community. The current prison system, which is more focused on punishment than rehabilitation, does all it can to ensure that men and women become “a confused, wasted shadow” of themselves, as Iceberg Slim recalls (173). Prisoners are reduced to the equivalent of animals, worthy of being brutalized in order to ensure security. Interestingly, from this brutality often stems profound creativity. Piri Thomas, a prisoner for six years in Sing Sing and Comstock, says that “Creativity was my salvation in prison because it kept me from being a psychopath” (180). When a person is incarcerated, their mind is the only escape available to them. It is the only arena over which they have full reign. These memoirs are saturated with pain, feelings of loss, anguish, self-pity, anger, hatred, ingenuity, self-discovery, and rebirth. Above all, these writings prove the humanity of the incarcerated.
One major theme that many of these writings shared is a distrust of society. According to these prisoners, it is society, not themselves, that makes people into criminals. While constitutionally, the United States promise justice and democracy for all, prisoners such as Iceberg Slim claim this is a lie. In a selection from Soledad Brother, George Jackson states that systematically, the same people will always end up behind bars. He says, “All of those who can afford to be honest know that the real victim, the poor, uneducated, disorganized man who finds himself a convicted criminal, is simply the end result of a long chain of corruption and mismanagement that starts with people like Reagan and his political appointees in Sacramento” (158). Assata Shakur agrees, as she distrusts the rich corporations who profit off the incarceration of the poor and the politicians who promise reform but only want political gain. Many of these sentiments are racially motivated, clearly demonstrated by the epiphanies experienced by Malcom X while incarcerated: “The black man symbolized white society’s crime of keeping black men oppressed and deprived and ignorant, and unable to get decent jobs, turning them into criminals” (152). To these people, the prison system is another institution that furthers the inequality our society promotes.
Another major theme shared by these memoirs was the brutality of life in prison. In I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang, Paul Muni says “They’ve made an animal out of me” (182). As demonstrated by these writings, as well as the film, American Me, prisoners must become cruel, selfish hustlers in order to survive. Jerome Washington’s writings portray this “spirit of hustling” well. In Barracuda and Sheryl, Washington tells the story of an inmate who orders an inflatable doll not for himself, but to “pimp out” to the other prisoners. Prison becomes its own microcosm of society, where only the strong survive. If you do not hustle, you can count on being hustled. Often this hustling spirit comes accompanied with increased brutality and devaluing of human life. Based on these writings, it seems as if prisoners often act like violent animals because they are treated as such. This, in turn, becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, as men and women who are labeled deviant are constantly cycled in and out of prison for most of their lives. Only when we realize and respect the dignity of the human life of these “marked” members of our communities will we live in a society that not only rehabilitates criminals but prevents crime as well.