Letters from prison: Felons write back

by Shawn Thompson
ISBN: 0002000865

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A Review of: Letters from Prison: Felons Write about the Struggle for Life and Sanity behind Bars
by David Colterjohn

There have been two major narrative streams the "traditional" and "revisionist" describing tales of modern penal punishment. To simplify the difference, traditionalists tend to celebrate a steady march of progress while the revisionists spell out a tale of woeful, abject failure. Michel Foucault is by far the most influential of the revisionists. Foucault argued that the modern practice of imprisonment which began in the 19th Century was just one of several "Great Incarcerations" taking place as emergent capitalism began to fashion a new social order. Among many other ideas, Foucault introduced the idea of the carceral continuum to describe "how the disciplinary techniques employed by the prison were also applied in hospitals, schools, asylums, factories, and military academies." In other words, we are all imprisoned by our social institutions.
Foucault givens us a useful, two-word platform from which to introduce Shawn Thompson's thoroughly engaging Letters from Prison: Felons Write about the Struggle for Life and Sanity behind Bars. Without delving into the arcana of deep sociological constructs, Thompson instinctively gives himself a spot on the great French intellectual's "carceral continuum."
Anyone who's ever felt trapped in their job or burdened by their social obligations ought to feel some sympathy when Thompson matter-of-factly refers to his office cubicle as a "cell" or complains that he feels as if he were "incarcerated with other people." To make quite sure that we understand his point, he posits that "life in the joint is just an extreme version of marriage, work and school."
The key word here is extreme. Formerly a prison beat reporter in Kingston, the penitentiary capital of Canada, Thompson now teaches journalism at the University College of the Cariboo. While working as a reporter, he managed to cadge an Easter weekend as a guest inmate in the notorious Kingston Penitentiary. A three-day stint was quite enough for Thompson. Although his brief experience was further truncated by a lack of contact with any real inmates, he tells us that "two or three more weeks in that and I would have needed psychoanalysis for the rest of my life."
Fortunately, Thompson owned enough curiosity and initiative to take this thought one further step. He swapped addresses with some of his contacts behind bars and began to take a real interest in prison life for Lifers. Through word of mouth, his list of correspondents grew until he eventually developed a network of articulate, funny, tragic and dangerous pen pals in prisons all over North America.
"Felons are felons," writes Thompson, "not angels in a skewed cosmology or heroes from the church of rebellion." By adopting an open-but-don't-bullshit-me attitude, he succeeded in eliciting this rich collection of epistolary snapshots, letters penned by as fascinating and articulate a group of inmates as you could ever hope (not?) to meet.
Take Stephen R. Pang, otherwise known as the "Pangster." A dual citizen of Canada and the United States, Pang had spent 14 of the previous 19 years of his life in prisons all over North America. A bank robber by profession, he hero-worships his stern father and credits military service with helping to provide the discipline needed to master his craft. When he's not offering what sounds like credible advice on how to rob banks, Pang waxes philosophical about life lived on The Edge.' This, as Thompson learns, is "a finely tuned consciousness that could adapt quickly to unseen developments."
Here's Pang on crime: "Is crime a different morality or philosophy? Both. We need $, we get $. We have a problem with someone, we deal with that person. No civilized' waffling, no wringing of hands, no guilt. See the problem, solve the problem. We know society is a sham."
Tough as old saddle leather, Pang patiently serves out his time. He'd rather wait for his mandatory release than grovel on his knees to get time off for good behavior. Whatever his future prospects, one doubts that a free Pangster is likely to squander too much of his dignity trying to make Employee-of-the-Month at your local Wal-Mart.
While Thompson showcases Pang and several other correspondents in individual chapters, much of the book is arranged thematically. He embarks by laying out the "dos" and "don'ts" of prison life: "Say no' to everyone"; "Stay away from drugs or booze"; "Don't dress well"; "Never back down" and perhaps most important, "Do your own time." Gleaned from many prisons and many inmates, the author offers this "distilled wisdom of felons" to teach us how to survive "the dark side of humanity." Any readers who soon expect to hear the dread words Guilty as charged,' are advised to study this chapter thoroughly, whilst they still have access to libraries and bookstores.
In other chapters, Thompson's correspondents share their thoughts and experiences on topics as diverse as prison tattoos, pets, women prisoners, jailhouse humor and the odd, "co-dependent" romances that blossom so easily between inmates and outsiders. In one section we are shown why the nature-centered Wiccan religion has such a strong appeal in the thoroughly de-natured' prison environment; in another, we are challenged to consider the mentally ill, people for whom incarceration serves as society's most convenient alternative to treatment.
Does cramming our lawbreakers together in a honeycomb of cells do us any good in the long term? Without pretending to offer a better solution, Thompson is skeptical, referring to a cycle of imprisonment and premature release. Elsewhere he wonders how removing people from their natural environment is supposed to help them cope better when they are returned to it. "After about five years," writes one con, "imprisonment stops being punishment and becomes mere abuse- nothing but an alternative lifestyle that we have adjusted to which no longer has any connection with the crimes committed by those who actually did it."
Although some of these men and women have performed acts of horrific violence, they are usually forthright about their guilt. One lifer writes, "my crime lacks any sort of philosophical underpinning and was wholly inexcusable." Of this prisoner Thompson says, he "knows the truth of his past and doesn't avoid it. But that doesn't stop him from growing beyond his past."
Despite a shell of skepticism, Thompson finds himself making deep, human connections with his correspondents. When he doesn't hear back from them, he worries. Felons, he explains, "are easily distracted." They can also get "beaten up, transferred, stabbed, thrown in the hole, sick, despondent or just fucked up. All this creates stress and anxiety for a writer like myself who depends on prisoners for his inspiration, like a little pig suckling at the big institutional teat of the penitentiary."
This self-criticism goes too far. Though he occasionally stumbles over his own self-consciousness, Thompson gives as good as he gets. His observations, reflections and commentary are precise, pungent and entertaining. Taken as a whole, Letters from Prison presents a gritty, well-rounded picture of what prison life feels like at the dawn of the 21st Century. Honest and funny, tough and yet sometimes astonishingly gentle, the self-portraits sketched here first satisfy, then shame, one's innate voyeuristic impulses.

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