With the pandemic receding from the daily news cycle, there is space in our collective psyches to contemplate other issues. Among them: mass incarceration. The public may be emerging from two years of isolation, but, of course, there’s a population that remains locked down. (And, according to the most recent report from Canada’s correctional investigator, Indigenous people account for one third of those in federal custody – and the number behind bars “is increasing at a time when overall numbers of incarcerated people are declining.”)
A wave of new books explores both the brutality of the criminal-justice system and the ways in which prisoners transcend their circumstances through love, community and artistic expression. The following four titles take readers behind prison walls and introduce some of the tenacious inmates serving time, or, later, recovering from long sentences – labouring to reclaim their lives and affirm their humanity.
The Class: Trauma and Transformation in an American Prison, Chris Hedges (Knopf, 272 pages) Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Chris Hedges is a former war correspondent for The New York Times and a Presbyterian minister. He brings his storytelling skills and his enormous empathy to bear on this outing about a group of 28 prisoners in a maximum-security prison in New Jersey. Hedges has been teaching inmates since 2010, and in this book, he chronicles the journey of one class to pen a play, Caged (which went on to be staged in sold-out shows on the outside and published 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 Freedom, Shaka Senghor (Convergent Books, 240 pages) Shaka Senghor was incarcerated as a teenager, and went on to serve 19 years – seven of which were in solitary confinement. A remarkable individual, he emerged from prison a writer and respected community leader, becoming a fellow at the MIT Media Lab and a bestselling author. His latest book is inspired by his correspondence with his own father while in prison, which proved a lifeline. Here, Senghor pens epistles to his own beloved sons, sharing his love, his regrets, the lessons he’s learned about masculinity and fatherhood – and calling them to a fuller and more free existence. Poetic and poignant.
Love Lockdown: Dating, Sex, and Marriage in America’s Prisons, Elizabeth 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 got her thinking about romantic relationships forged in prison, and the result is Love Lockdown, a deep dive into couples coping with mass incarceration. Here, Greenwood profiles a range of different situations – ranging from prisoners who meet spouses through pen-pal sites to a man and trans woman who fall in love on the inside – and the ways in which affection, support and care sustained them and buffered them from the cruelty of a system that often destroys intimate bonds. A compulsively readable book, Love Lockdown is impossible to put down.
The Sentences That Create Us: Crafting a Writer’s Life in Prison, edited by Caits Meissner (Haymarket Books, 339 pages) In 1971, PEN America, a non-profit that advocates for freedom of expression, founded a prison-writing program, offering inmates access to mentors, literary resources and audiences. Edited by the current director of the program, The Sentences That Create Us provides a handbook for writers interested in learning the craft, covering everything from the foundations of creative writing to understanding copyright law and building a community. “When I was inside, I had no access to this manual,” poet, scholar and educator Reginald Dwayne Betts says in the book’s introduction. “It didn’t exist. And so, I scraped along the best way I could. I talked to friends who plotted out novels by riffing off old rap albums. I talked to friends who’d written hundreds of pages, by hand, fantasy novels that only they and I and those walking the yard would read. And we were all writers. But had we had this book – we would have been better writers.”
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