With the pandemic moving away from the daily news cycle, there is room in our collective psyche to contemplate other issues. Among them: mass incarceration. The public may be emerging from two years of isolation, but, of course, there is a population that remains confined. (And, according to the most recent report from the Correctional Investigator of Canada, Indigenous people make up one-third of federal inmates — and the number behind bars is “rising at a time when the total number of people incarcerated is falling.”)
A wave of new books explore both the brutality of the criminal justice system and how prisoners transcend their circumstances through love, community and artistic expression. The next four titles take readers behind prison walls and introduce some of the tenacious inmates serving their time or, later, recovering from long sentences – striving to reclaim their lives and affirm their humanity.
Class: Trauma and Transformation in an American PrisonChris Hedges (Knopf, 272 pages) Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Chris Hedges is a former New York Times war correspondent and Presbyterian minister. He brings his storytelling skills and enormous empathy to this outing about a group of 28 prisoners at a maximum security prison in New Jersey. Hedges has been teaching inmates since 2010, and in this book, he chronicles one class’ journey to writing a play, In cage (which was later staged to sold-out shows outside and released in 2020). The creative process tore down participants’ emotional walls and transformed the workshop into a forum for healing and hope. A deeply evocative read.
Letters to the Sons of Society: A Father’s Invitation to Love, Honesty, and FreedomShaka Senghor (Convergent books, 240 pages) Shaka Senghor was incarcerated as a teenager and served 19 years, seven of which were in solitary confinement. A remarkable individual, he emerged from prison as a respected writer and community leader, becoming a member of the MIT Media Lab and a best-selling author. Her latest book is inspired by her correspondence with her own father in prison, which proved a lifesaver. Here Senghor writes epistles to his own beloved sons, sharing his love, his regrets, the lessons he has learned about masculinity and fatherhood – and calling them to a fuller and freer existence. Poetic and poignant.
Love Lockdown: Dating, Sex and Marriage in US PrisonsElizabeth Greenwood (Gallery Books, 272 pages) When Elizabeth Greenwood was writing her last book about people who faked their own deaths, she interviewed a prisoner who eventually became a good friend. It made him think of the romantic relationships forged in prison, and the result is love lock, a deep dive into couples facing mass incarceration. Here, Greenwood describes a range of different situations – from prisoners meeting spouses through pen pal sites to a trans man and trans woman falling in love on the inside – and how affection, support and care supported and buffered them. of the cruelty of a system that often destroys intimate ties. compulsive reading book, love lock is impossible to submit.
The phrases that create us: shaping the life of a writer in prisonedited by Caits Meissner (Haymarket Books, 339 pages) In 1971, PEN America, a nonprofit organization that champions free speech, founded a prison writing program, providing inmates with access to mentors, literary resources, and an audience. Edited by the current program director, The phrases that create us provides a handbook for writers interested in learning the craft, covering everything from the fundamentals of creative writing to understanding copyright and building community. “When I was inside, I didn’t have access to this manual,” says poet, scholar, and educator Reginald Dwayne Betts in the book’s introduction. “It didn’t exist. And so, I scratched as best I could. I’ve talked to friends who were plotting novels by riffing off old rap albums. I spoke to friends who had written hundreds of pages, by hand, of fantasy novels that only they and I and those who walked the yard would read. And we were all writers. But if we had had this book, we would have been better writers.
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