Literary Nonfiction & Biography

The Best of Prison Literature

recommended by David Coogan

Prison literature can make difficult reading but is often incredibly touching, testimony to the resilience of the human spirit. David Coogan, an English professor at Virginia Commonwealth University who runs a creative writing workshop at Richmond City Jail, introduces 'prison literature.'

Buy
  • 1

    The Autobiography of Malcolm X
    by Malcolm X

  • 2

    A Place to Stand
    by Jimmy Santiago Baca

  • 3

    Writing My Wrongs: Life, Death, and Redemption in an American Prison
    by Shaka Senghor

  • 4

    Couldn't Keep It to Myself: Testimonies from Our Imprisoned Sisters
    by Wally Lamb

  • 5

    True Notebooks: A Writer's Year at Juvenile Hall
    by Mark Salzman

Prison literature can make difficult reading but is often incredibly touching, testimony to the resilience of the human spirit. David Coogan, an English professor at Virginia Commonwealth University who runs a creative writing workshop at Richmond City Jail, introduces 'prison literature.'

David Coogan

David Coogan is an assistant professor in the English department at Virginia Commonwealth University. He is co-Director of Open Minds, a collaborative partnership between the Richmond City Sheriff’s Office and Virginia Commonwealth University. He has been teaching writing workshops at the Richmond City Jail since 2006.

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Let’s define prison literature. What sort of books fall under the genre?

It includes all the genres: poetry, fiction, essay, journalism. It’s a big field.

It stretches all the way back to the accounts of freed slaves who became re-enslaved through Jim Crow laws and convict leasing. A person tells their story to somebody who comes with a microphone from the Works Progress Administration saying ‘What happened to you? Why are you living here? I thought you were free!’ And the former slave says, ‘I thought so too. And then this is what happened to me…’ That oral narrative is prison literature.

Many recently freed slaves got re-enslaved because they could do that. They could do whatever they wanted to poor people, to vulnerable people, to black people. And they did. So there’s this theme through prison literature, stretching back to emancipation, of resisting oppression. Now, you could go back further and include political prisoners like Aaron Burr, but most people don’t.

Then there were the black power movements of the 1970s into the 1980s and people like Mumia Abu-Jamal. He was a Black Panther journalist who was, many people believe, wrongfully imprisoned for killing a police officer. There was no evidence he did it, but he’s been on death row for decades.

“It’s very rare that you see somebody writing who wasn’t first violated. Before they violated anybody else, somebody violated them”

From the imprisoned peon (as they were called) from the 1870s to Mumia Abu-Jamal in the 1970s you have 100 years of oppressing black people through mass incarceration.

There are other kinds of writers too: political dissidents who have been in prison, white people, Chicanos, gay people. There are all kinds of people who have been in prison and they write about this experience of trying to resist oppression. How are they going to be liberated? Under what terms will they be liberated?

It’s a very difficult and touching place to be as a reader, to follow along everything that they’re experiencing. Their human rights are violated, their sense of hope and possibility are violated.

On the other hand, you find people starting political movements, you find people finding God, you find people discovering their calling as witnesses. They’re going to witness all this deprivation and degradation in the system and they’re going to be spokespeople.

Then, in the more contemporary era, you find people writing memoirs about their healing from trauma, from addiction, from child abuse. They’re writing their way out of prisons of the mind, prisons of the soul.

So you can read prison literature as simply people resisting the state or state oppression, but you can also read it more broadly as all kinds of vulnerable people in American society who have been disenfranchised. Some have disenfranchised themselves, through their addictions or through their violence. In all cases though, when they get to prison, it’s very rare that you see somebody writing who wasn’t first violated. Before they violated anybody else, somebody violated them.

The books you’ve chosen have examples of all this. Let’s start with Malcolm X. He became a civil rights activist after he got to prison and found the Nation of Islam. Why does his memoir top your list?

Malcolm X is foundational in so many ways. He dictated his autobiography to Alex Haley, who also wrote Roots. When he came into prison in the 1950s, he was a common street hustler. Like so many (as they then said) ‘poor negroes,’ he had very few options in life. This was before the civil rights movement. It was a segregated society. We forget that.

It was still the era of ‘rehabilitation.’ There were so-called rehabilitative prisons in liberal parts of the country, parts of California. Malcolm X was imprisoned in Massachusetts and went to the Norfolk State Prison Colony. They had books, they had instructors from Harvard, they had classes. He had the opportunity to change and to better himself. He learned how to read.

As the same time as his so-called rehabilitation, he was also in correspondence with Elijah Mohammed from the Nation of Islam. I say so-called because he wasn’t the beneficiary of a benevolent state that said, ‘We will give you books.’ He resisted the Harvard instructors who tried to teach him Christianity and their version of a white, blue-eyed, blond-haired Jesus.

“It’s a very difficult and touching place to be as a reader, to follow along everything that they’re experiencing”

He listened to Muslim prisoners who were, at that time, activists in the prison system. They argued that black prisoners were being oppressed in terms of freedom of religion and gave them legal and defence money so that they could practise Islam. Nation of Islam helped them get things—like dietary restrictions or classes or correspondence—and to be free so they could resist the Thirteenth Amendment, which would enslave them with labour.

Nation of Islam radicalized Malcolm X. His memoir describes that process of transformation from a common narrative of street hustler and limited opportunities, struggling in a racist society, to this radicalization in part through literacy, in part through literature and religion.

Then, the last third of the book is him coming into his own as a Muslim leader. The rest is history.

What’s the difference between a rehabilitative prison and what they had down South?

The larger history is that after the Civil War, the southern model was more or less re-enslavement through convict leasing and work programmes. So you would either work in the prison, or you’d be lent out to different industries—like iron, coal or agriculture—to do slave work, basically for no real wages.

The Northeast had something called the penitentiary model, and that was complete silence, except the Bible. You could read the Bible or be silent. That was supposed to be rehabilitative because you could confront your sins.

In the West, you had a work camp or containment model. You had native Americans and indigenous people that needed to be contained so prisons were built around that model. The Quakers were involved and the first to develop this model of labour as rehabilitative. The idea of rehabilitation has its origins in Christianity and working.

But then there was this movement in corrections in the 40s and 50s to extend the full resources of the state into the prisons. So psychologists got involved and librarians, there were work programmes, there was counseling. At places like where Malcolm X was (and he writes about this in the book) a millionaire dedicated his library.

The problem was that it was a paternalistic model. It would rehabilitate you to be a citizen, to be a worker, to follow patriotic, more or less Christian, white values. It was thought that you could control the prisoner’s mind and you could make him a better citizen.

What’s interesting is that it sounds like it was great he went to this prison, because it had all these resources (which he resisted) and what really rehabilitated him, if you want to use that term, was his fellow black prisoners and the Nation of Islam—these groups we consider very radical. 

In his case, that’s what happened. The other part of this is that before the 1990s, and the Criminal Justice Reform Act, higher education had a bigger presence in the prisons. So prisoners could take correspondence courses.

Again, not all parts of the country were keen on prisoners getting anything. It wasn’t a unified system. There were whole parts of the country that never had rehabilitation. But liberal parts of the country tended to be around university towns. So the Bay Area in San Francisco has a lot of well-known universities and they also have a very famous prison, San Quentin. So you had a lot of liberal-oriented volunteers and programmes. They still do.

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But it was always a bit tinged with that paternalism and conservatism. We want you to be rehabilitated into the society we want. For example, they didn’t think that some black prisoners even could be rehabilitated. It was thought to be a white thing. They didn’t think women could do anything except become homemakers. The counselors also thought that gay people were, by nature, predestined to crime, because homosexuality was considered a deviancy by the American Psychological Association until 1973. That means that all through the 50s and 60s, if you were thought to be homosexual (it didn’t matter if you were or not) you could be trapped in a rehabilitative programme that said, ‘We’re going to cure you of your homosexuality! You’re welcome, you’re welcome. Now you can be cured of your deviancy and you can be free of crime!’

Wow. That brings us to the author of the next book on your list, Jimmy Santiago Baca, who also was illiterate before he went to prison. He learned to read and write in prison, and now he’s a renowned poet. Let’s talk a little bit about his memoir. Does it seem to suggest that, in a way, prisons work? If people like Malcolm X and Jimmy Santiago Baca can go into prison and then leave becoming critical thinkers and activists and model citizens?

They tell inspiring stories and what the stories teach me is that the human spirit is much more resilient than any abomination of the system like mass incarceration. Malcolm X and Jimmy Santiago Baca are a testament to that, to the strength of their own character, their talent as writers and visionaries. I don’t think they or anybody else would ever credit prison for their achievement. They did it in spite of prison.

Jimmy Santiago Baca, in his memoir, writes about how, when he was 20 or 21, he realized he was an illiterate Chicano in this very violent, maximum security prison. He knew he wanted to get out and lead a better life, he knew he’d screwed up and he thought, ‘I should go to school.’ But they wouldn’t let him go to school, because he had to be in a work programme.

So, in a dramatic part of his memoir, he simply stops going to the work programme. He gets disciplinary tickets on the cell bars for three weeks straight. Everybody around him is like, ‘Yo, Jimmy, why don’t you go to work? Come on man! Go to work! They’re going to get mad at you.’ And he’s like, ‘Fuck them. I want to learn.’ He gets to the meeting with the review board, and he confronts the counselor. He says, ‘You told me that if I showed signs of change, I could go to school!’ And the counselor reverses himself and says, ‘You’ll do whatever I say, this is a fucking prison.’ The warden is there.

They don’t like Jimmy because he’s asserting his own agency. He’s saying, ‘I want to do better this way.’ That’s the exact thing Malcolm X did. And that’s the most dangerous thing you can do in prison, to assert your own humanity and to say, ‘I would like agency to make my own choices.’ And they say, ‘Your choices are work programme, and, when we say so, you’re eligible for the GED high school programme.’

No, prison doesn’t work–unless you want to say it works by opening up opportunities for some prisoners and some programmes to together decide their destiny. But I haven’t seen a lot of compassion for prisoners having that humanity. It’s more common for them to do the paternalistic thing and say, ‘You need to go to AA or NA.’ And the person says, ‘OK, I admit I need to work on that, but I’d also like to go to college.’ ‘No, you don’t need college you need AA.’ AA becomes a hurdle before you can raise yourself up the way you want.

The next writer you recommend, Shaka Senghor, is an activist. He’s very much about pulling yourself out. He talks about how you can have a prison in your mind, which has to do with addiction or societal pressure. His story is amazing. Can you tell me a little bit about it?

We’re going in chronological order with these. Malcolm X’s story centres around the 50s and 60s, he was killed in 1965. Baca’s story is more in the 70s, when he was in prison. That was the beginning era of mass incarceration, when they cut ties to anything rehabilitative.

Shaka Senghor grew up in the 80s and 90s. He was a young man when the crack epidemic took the country by storm. He grew up in Detroit and became a dealer pretty young. He was shot at and he shot at people and eventually killed somebody.

His story is not a story of macropolitics about the drug business. It’s not a story about discovery of religion or that kind of traditional redemption. His story is about recovering from the traumas that led him into that decision to get into the drug business, and the additional traumas he experienced when he was in prison.

It’s a journey from the boy who was basically a teen adrift in Detroit around crazy, violent adults—drug fiends, addicts. He’s 15 and discovers he’s in way over his head. He’s getting robbed, he’s getting beaten. His mother beat him, told him she regretted that he ever lived, his father is kind of gone, his siblings don’t pay attention to him. He’s not really able to get any support. So he wants to die. He wants to kill himself. He tries. He doesn’t succeed. After the suicide attempt, he gets shot.

He’s just on his own, trying to figure out life. He never gets any adult saying, ‘It’s going to be alright, you’re going to be fine. Let me take you over here instead.’

He’s surrounded by crackheads and then he becomes a crackhead himself. In prison, he’s contending with the fact that, ‘I’m alone. I have all this negativity in me and I want to kill that guy in the cell next to me, because he keeps doing stupid shit.’

“You find people starting political movements, you find people finding God, you find people discovering their calling as witnesses”

And then he has this revelation. He starts writing things down, like ‘I want to kill the guy in the next cell’ and he realizes this is not normal. He reads it the next day and he says, ‘How did I get to be 30 years old and in prison? I’ve already killed somebody and now I want to kill again.’

And then his young son writes him a letter. The letter says, ‘Dad, I feel angry all the time and my Mom says I gotta get over my anger otherwise I might end up in prison like you.’ And he writes back to this little kid and he realizes that if he doesn’t change, his legacy is going to be murder.

He also gets a letter from his victim’s godmother. She writes to him asking, ‘Why did you do it?’ He explains everything to her, and she says, ‘You need to ask for forgiveness.’ And he’s like, ‘Yeah, I do.’ Then he puts it all together: I need to write to my victim and ask for forgiveness. He’s dead, but he writes him a letter, and asks, ‘Will you forgive me?’ It’s very moving.

Then, when he gets to the turnaround, he says, ‘I can’t just end there. I’ve got to do something about this.’ He’s part of a radical Afrocentric group in prison. They’re saying, ‘Black people have been oppressed. The only way we’re going to seize power is if we get over this oppression.’ Meanwhile, while they’re getting all radical about their political salvation, they’re ordering stabbings of other black people who oppose them. Shaka has this revelation that he can’t be asking for forgiveness and trying to become a part of the solution, while he’s participating in violence against his own people. So he cuts ties with them.

That’s one of the interesting transformations that you see in contemporary prison literature. The real hero in the story is the psychology of the writer. It’s the inner drama. His whole story hinges around forgiveness and redemption, not with reference to some higher spiritual power, or a state ideology, or a political movement. It’s all about recovering from your own trauma and being able to survive and pass that on to people in any way you can.

Shaka is the most contemporary and vocal of the writers you mention isn’t he? There’s a lot of discussion about reforming prisons and trying to solve the problem of mass incarceration. But his story leads me to wonder if that’s even possible, if ultimately it has to come down to an individual’s motivation and realization.

The thing we didn’t get at with Senghor’s story is the reason why we have so many people in prison. I mentioned the crack epidemic. We have to go back into history to understand that crack is the same drug as cocaine, in a different form. They add water, baking soda and cook it into a rock and it’s smoked instead of snorted, I’ve heard (I’ve never done it. I have never wanted to do it). But because of the violence associated with the distribution of crack cocaine in the 1980s and into the 1990s, we kept passing laws that would put people into prison for a much longer time if they were caught with crack than if they had powder cocaine. It’s the same drug, but you could get a 100 times greater prison sentence for this form of it.

In any event, we can end mass incarceration by ending the racism in our criminal justice system. I say racist because crack cocaine was the preferred form of cocaine in the inner city, ghetto communities. It was the preferred form because it was cheaper.

There are all kinds of conspiracy theories—that I’m not going to get into—as to how we got so much cocaine into the country in the first place. I think there’s some validity to them, if you go back to the Reagan years and the Iran-Contra scandal and the drug trade in Nicaragua and freedom fighters.

“The biggest group of volunteers in prisons these days are evangelical Christians”

It also goes back to the gun laws, which changed in ways that were not beneficial. We have so many new legal guns in the country, you’re going to have people defending drug turf with weapons that they never used in the 60s and 70s. How did we get so many AR-15s on the street? How do gangs get these guns?

Mass incarceration is a phenomenon owed in a large part to the diffusion of responsibility. Prosecutors don’t have to be accountable for anything but upholding the law. Lawmakers don’t have to be accountable for anything but making tougher laws that they think their constituents want. We voters don’t have to be accountable to anybody but ourselves and our perceptions of what’s right or wrong. If we think that the crack epidemic has gone too far and those people need to be punished more than rich white people that are snorting the same drug, well then we can go ahead and say that. And that’s what we did. And that’s how people like Shaka Senghor and those communities got incarcerated.

We need to end the drug war and we will see less of this problem with mass incarceration. But we also need to understand what does work in terms of reform. It’s not any one system claiming to have the answer and then forcing people through it. It’s treating people like human beings and giving them choices. ‘Oh, you want to practise a religion? Oh you don’t OK, you don’t have to.’

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But the biggest group of volunteers in prisons these days are evangelical Christians. I’m a Christian. I am not an evangelical Christian. I’m in some ways glad that people have a chance to fellowship but, in other ways, I’m a little discouraged that people are forced into a kind of Christianity that I find a little limiting.

What do you mean by limiting?

I think it’s limiting to teach a woman who has experienced sexual abuse her whole life that her main responsibility as a Christian woman is to stay married, because marriage is sanctified, God-given and divorce is sinful. But this is what I know women are taught in this very conservative Christian programme in Angola. It’s a maximum security prison for women. It’s all in a book by Tanya Erzen called God in Captivity: The Rise of Faith-Based Prison Ministries in the Age of Mass Incarceration

That segues nicely into Wally Lamb’s book, Couldn’t Keep it to Myself

Prison literature is generally dominated by men. There are simply more male prisoners than women prisoners, so it’s in some ways normal that more men are publishing books. But, in other ways, it’s not so normal because women are the fastest growing demographic in prison. A lot of them are women of colour. Women are starting to get incarcerated at a higher rate because of the drug war. They are suffering through the same kind of traumas that Shaka Senghor suffered through.

Wally Lamb’s book is one of several that raises up the voices of women prisoners who have suffered through unspeakable traumas before they committed their crimes. Most of these traumas and crimes can be directly related to misogyny and patriarchy. There’s no other way to say it. The violence against women, whether it was in their own homes or their boyfriend’s…

“Women are the fastest growing demographic in prison”

This book has the narratives of about a dozen women who took part in a writing workshop that Lamb taught on memoir. Memoir is a very therapeutic genre. You’re writing about yourself. For people who maybe didn’t consider themselves writers or did not have the ambition of a Malcolm X or a Jimmy Santiago Baca— and there are many women writers now, like Susan Burton or Frieda Barnes who have published memoirs from prison—but if you don’t necessarily think of yourself as a writer, it’s very humanizing to be in a class where somebody is asking you to tell your story. They’re trusting you and you’re trusting them that your story matters. Maybe nobody ever listened to you. Nobody ever acknowledged your feelings and so it was easy to abuse you or forget you or abandon you or rape you. And now you’re in this class and someone is saying, ‘That wasn’t right. Your experience matters. Your life matters. You need to write that.’ And you’re like, ‘Nobody’s going to read that!’ And you say, ‘Yes, they’re going to read that.’

And then you not only write it and have the community in the class who read it, but then it gets published in a book and people are reading the book. One of the women in this book won the PEN America award for prison writing. But do you know what happened when she did? The state of Connecticut, in which the prison was located where the workshop took place, attempted to sue all of the women in the workshop who published their stories for the entire cost of their incarceration. It’s not the first time that prisons have looked on writers with suspicion.

Why would the prison do that?

They thought the women were making a lot of money from the book. They made some money from the book, but they weren’t millionaires. There’s an old law called the ‘Son of Sam’ law. He was a psycho killer in the 70s, who killed six people. He threatened to write a book telling how he did it all to make money. So they passed laws so you can’t do that.

Later they realized this was not really constitutional, but a violation of freedom of speech. So they modified the Son of Sam laws to say that you cannot write about your actual crime to exploit the story for personal gain, but you can write about your life including, obliquely, your crime. And that’s what these women had done. Nobody wrote specifically about the actual facts of their crimes. Much like Jimmy Baca or Malcolm X they wrote about it as a way of dramatizing larger themes like racism, or patriarchy.

Nevertheless the Son of Sam law can be used to say they’re violating the law. Moreover, they’re making money—and you’re not allowed to operate a business in prison. So they decided to sue them to get some of that big New York publishing money. It didn’t work. There was intense pressure and they had to drop the lawsuit. The women won settlement money but that went back into funding the writing workshop—a new computer, salaries etc.

Is Wally Lamb like you, a university professor?

No, he’s a best-selling novelist.

Is his work in prisons similar to Mark Salzman and yours? Let’s talk about the Mark Salzman book, True Notebooks, next. It’s also a collection of memoirs from multiple people, but this time they’re kids. 

Mark Salzman is also a novelist. He stumbles into offering a writing workshop at a juvenile detention center in California for kids who were in gangs, many of them with very serious charges. He comes in in much the same way Wally Lamb does. Wally Lamb was not looking to do a writing workshop. Ge was invited to come in and he reluctantly said, ‘Ok, I’ll do it this one time’ and then he kind of fell in love with the process.

It was the same thing with Salzman. He was going in because a friend invited him and he thinks he could use it as research for his next novel. He enjoys it and comes again and then, the second or third time he visits, a very charismatic nun, who organizes all the volunteers, says, ‘When would you like your class to start? I think Thursday would be good. You can work with these boys. They’ll love you.’ And before he can say no, she’s set it up.

He tells his class, ‘I’ll give you a topic if you want me to. But really I just want you to write and express yourself. Then we’re going to share what your wrote about and analyze it.’ So that’s what they do.

And he’s pulled into these incredible paradoxes. You can teach somebody to gain insight into how they really ought to be living and how they really fell short of that when they were in a gang. But they’re in prison now. Now they have this new insight—that you should trust people, for example—you’re surrounded by guards who don’t encourage you and by prisoners who are trying to steal stuff from you. So how do you put into practice what you’ve learned?

The boys all go through their own journeys of developing insights like that and Salzman also has to wrestle with his own. He calls the book True Notebooks, because he always keeps a notebook where you’re supposed to tell the truth. That’s what he teaches the boys, that if you write it and believe it, it can be your truth. What do you do with truth when you’re stuck with injustice? It really opens up important questions. It’s worth it to struggle to find the truth.

In one of the scenes at the end, the question of why it matters comes up. Salzman gets a letter from one of the boys, one of his favourite students, Kevin, who is now old enough and has been sent to an adult prison. It’s a simple card saying, ‘I miss you, friend.’ It’s very moving.

Salzman is an amateur astronomer. He had shared that he likes watching stars with the boys in one of the classes and Kevin writes this poem to him. Mark wants to know where he’s going to go, whether he’s going to be alright and Kevin explains to him what his new life is like, in this new prison. And he thanks him for being his teacher. In the very last line,he says, ‘I’ll always look up to the sky and see you, my North Star.’ I’m getting teary just thinking about it. It’s very understated that book. It’s very subtle, but it’s very emotional.

This is the story of filial love, between two men, cutting across the injustice of a system designed by other men to prevent growth through love. To kill it. Prison kills love. It’s horrible. I hate prison. I try not to think too much about what I hate, because I want to save energy to love. And that’s what he’s doing. He sees all the injustices the boys are going through. He’s very clear that they perpetuated injustices when they killed people. There’s plenty of blame to go around. But blaming doesn’t solve anything.

“There are a lot of ways you can get involved and there’s a lot of ways that the literature can inspire you to do it.”

What are you going to do now? Are you going to let somebody languish? Where’s the humanity? You get stuck in this loop. They killed somebody so they don’t deserve any humanity. Well, you know what? I disagree. If everybody is defined by the one worst thing they ever did, nobody would have the chance to grow. It’s impossibly dark and stupidly negative, to lock people into one scene in their life. But that’s what mass incarceration has done. Hundreds of thousands of people are locked in a hopeless cycle.

Maybe 10 years ago you sold a lot of marijuana to someone and because of the war on drugs you get to sit and do next to nothing in a prison. I met a guy at our jail last year who is doing 5 years for barely 5 ounces of crack. You could hold it in your hand! But it’s five years of his life. There’s no rationality to this.

Love—in the civil rights, Fanny Lou Hamer/Septima Clark/Martin Luther King sense—is rational. It’s a response to the injustices you see in the world. When you see an injustice, you don’t make it worse by ignoring it. You go in there and you try to correct it. The movement to mass incarcerate some of our most vulnerable, struggling citizens is a loveless, cruel and irrational movement. It’s truly thoughtless and nobody has to claim responsibility for it. That’s the evil genius of it. It’s starting to shift a little bit now, but we locked ourselves into a loveless, cruel way of imagining justice.

All of the books you’ve recommended are stories about people reflecting on their lives and finding love through writing and reading other people’s stories. You’ve told us a lot about what prison literature is and the people who write it. But why should the public read prison literature?

There are a lot of reasons. One is that when you open yourself up to someone’s story—anybody’s story, but especially somebody who has been through a horrific experience, a Shaka Senghor, for example, who has been through a difficult childhood, a violent life as a young man and structural poverty, racism and the violence of the crack wars—when you see them overcoming it all, through the most heroic methods (what Senghor calls ‘atonement’) it’s inspiring. Why wouldn’t you want to be inspired?

Why would you keep reading prison writing? To become more aware of the many ways in which the people who come into the prisons are the same people that we have always known. Jimmy Santiago Baca’s Chicano: we’ve all known Latinos in America. We’ve known African Americans like Shaka Senghor. We’ve known Muslims like Malcolm X, we’ve known women like Barbara Parsons Lane (who won the PEN award in Wally Lamb’s book): women who have been abused and suffered through addiction.

We’ve known these men and women in our lives. Most times we care about them. If it’s our neighbour, for example, who is being physically abused by her husband, we become concerned about our neighbour. We have a harder time becoming concerned about somebody whose life we’ve never known because they live in a different city or they’re a different race. How do we become more compassionate? How do we develop the incentive to care about the neighbour that we don’t know?

“The movement to mass incarcerate some of our most vulnerable, struggling citizens is a loveless, cruel and irrational movement. It’s truly thoughtless and nobody has to claim responsibility for it. That’s the evil genius of it”

Why do you read? I read so I can learn. Some people just want to hear what they already know affirmed. I read to learn, I want to know about the lives of people that I’ve never heard about before and I want to see if there’s a way that we can imagine a better life for everybody. I don’t like seeing Chicanos like young Jimmy discriminated against, because he was. I don’t like knowing that he couldn’t succeed in school, that he didn’t have a family that knew English that could support him, that he was beaten too much to feel confident. That even when he had opportunities to have father figures and mentors (because his own father was never around in a consistently positive way) that Jimmy could not accept the love of his white teacher, who tried to help him. I need to know that. I think we all need to know that. I think we all need to have some empathy that the young Chicano who seems to be cutting up in school and has now joined a gang is facing pressures that you don’t have to face, and you should care about what he’s facing. You should care because if you don’t care, it’s going to get worse for everybody.

Some people think you’re on your own, you’re raised by your bootstraps or not at all, you sink or swim, it’s all on the individual. We have a culture of individualism in America. We used to have more of a culture of collective responsibility but it sort of died in the 1970s. You go back and you read your Malcolm X or your Assata Shakur and you remember the Black Liberation Army or the Black Panthers, and you realize there was a time when we dared to think that the community could face up, that we didn’t have to incarcerate our way out of our social problems.

We’ve lost a great deal of that. We’ve ceded that territory. The state has given up its responsibility and we’ve allowed corporations to come in there. So the corporations do the work programmes that exploit prison labour. The private, evangelical, corporate churches come in and do the education ministry.

But where are the rest of us, who don’t necessarily believe capitalism is an unfettered good? Or that evangelical Christianity is the only way? Where is higher education? Where are the progressive churches? Where are the citizens? They’re all there, just not to the extent that they could be. If you’re in any of those categories you can read prison literature and realize that they need me! I can contribute! If I don’t go volunteer, I can work with a group on the outside that does. I can contribute to their cause. If I’m more of a political activist and want to do legislative reform I can get involved in trying to change the laws so that we don’t send so many people to prison.

So there are a lot of ways you can get involved and there’s a lot of ways that the literature can inspire you to do it. People should become more curious about what they don’t know and see if they can become part of the solution.

Interview by Jimmy Cloutier

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David Coogan

David Coogan is an assistant professor in the English department at Virginia Commonwealth University. He is co-Director of Open Minds, a collaborative partnership between the Richmond City Sheriff’s Office and Virginia Commonwealth University. He has been teaching writing workshops at the Richmond City Jail since 2006.