I just got out of a lecture by Doran Larson, a professor at Hamilton College (the lecture was at the University of Houston-Downtwon). He is promoting a new initiative, the American Prison Writing Archive. He has edited and published a book of prison writings, Fourth City: Essays from the Prison in America.
I purchased his book afterward and so I have no idea what I have in my hands now. He said the writings are a chronicle of life inside the largest prison system in the world, a system that has a population larger than Houston, the fourth largest city in the United States (hence the title of the book). This is not a book about innocence, but about human suffering. It is also, as he said, a chance for prisoners to be seen as something other than their crime.
It's a true and terrible thing that we tend to define people by the worse thing they ever did.
Believing in grace, I need these stories to remind me of the humanity behind every awful action we're capable of perpetrating. Perhaps you do, too.
The online archive is a site for the essays that couldn't fit in the book. As it's brand new, they're hoping for volunteers from across the nation to help transcribe the scanned essays, so the essays are searchable. Not that I need one more thing to do, but I hope I'll be able to help do at least a handful of essays. If you're interested, you might want to contact Dr. Larson, which you can do from the American Prison Writing Archive site.
This being Holy Week, of course, I flashed upon the arrest of Jesus---although sadly his incarceration was too brief for him to take up pen and write anything. But Paul did, when he was incarcerated. There are others. Last century saw some significant writings from the incarcerated Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Martin Luther King, Jr. There is a grand tradition among Christians (and other relgions) for writing from prison.
Of course, we tend to think of all those men as innocent. Again, this book is not a book of innocence, but of suffering. The American prison industry is huge, larger than any other nation on earth, much larger than other nations we tend to think of as being under a police state.
And we treat our prisoners poorly. The other reason Dr. Larson named this book Fourth City is because he said there was, across the nation, a similar culture exposed in each letter, a language with it's own idioms, an internal logic for how to move through the culture. Our prison system is, for all intents and purposes, the ultimate urban sprawl, spread sea to shining sea, a city of corruption and violence.
Did you know prison officers have a lie expectency of 59 years? They die young not from violence, but from hypertension and related disease. It's not only the prisoners who suffer.
It seemed fitting to hear this lecture on the Wednesday of Holy Week. It seemed fitting I pass a tiny bit of it on to you.