Letters from prison: Felons write back|
by Shawn Thompson
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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
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
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.