Cast into hell we look upward for a way out.From the poem “Humbled” by Stephen (159), adult incarcerated writer in Parchman-Farm Mississippi State Penitentiary
The above line from Stephen’s poem alludes to Milton’s line in Paradise Lost: “Long is the way and hard, that out of hell leads up to light”. For the writers anthologized in Vox Press’ Mississippi Prison Writing (2021), journaling forges a path towards light, albeit uncertain.
The collection features the writing of 26 incarcerated souls. Ten of them are women. Most appear to be over 50 and patients of clinics and infirmaries of Parchman-Farm Mississippi Penitentiary in northwestern Mississippi.
Though the editors offer no foreword, a reader infers that the writing has originated from homework given in writing classes where the assignments range from daily journals to thoughts, feelings, meditations, and poetry on prison life. For the 240 pages of this volume, a reader is interned with these writers. Eighteen of them are pictured with blank, uneasy expressions and eyes that burn into the reader like a candle flame.
Glimmers into their “free world”, or pre-prison, lives are extinguished by violent decisions, most of which a reader is spared hearing about in detail. This works from an editorial and legal perspective so that a reader can focus on the writers’ core humanity without being subpoenaed.
Understandable gripes about daily indignities blot many of the pages; from these, however, raw and unadorned insights emerge from each writer into the nature of the penal system and the natures of the men and women whom that system ensnares. It is a system that, according to these writers, is defined by poor living conditions, injustice, a constant threat, and rare opportunities.
The abysmal living conditions alone seem enough to break the spirit. Confirming and expounding on John Oliver’s exposé “Prison Heat“, the collection’s first writer, Roger, describes the prison as sweltering and overcrowded with 120 men housed in a dormitory built for 60 (12). To compound the problem, the food quality is low, and the medical care is poor. Two of the prisoner journals report sicknesses before ending abruptly.
Despite the sicknesses, the power outages, riots, and lockdowns, many of the incarcerated writers observe the dullness of prison life.
“Dull, dull, dull,” writes Larry (63).
“Actually, it’s hard to really detail events,” Kenneth admits (113). He describes the challenge of staying lucid in the senseless banality of daily prison life. “Everyone just sits around and watches everybody and everything fall to pieces” (115).
Another writer, Stephen, quips “Free World people just can’t comprehend the ticking of the daily, weekly, or yearly clock” (147). Reported reductions in prison programs due to funding cutbacks perpetuate the slow dolor of incarcerated life.
Besides desperate living conditions and boredom, inmates must overcome a myriad of other stressors in order to survive with some shred of sanity intact. “The dormitory pulses like a living organism ready to devour the unsuspecting”, Roger writes (12).
Some threats are external.
“In prison, you must keep your eyes wide open,” Kenneth describes. “There’s always some game coming from all directions. From east, west, the north, and the south. So, in order to be able to see the game coming at you, you have to keep your eyes as well as your brain wide open” (115).
These games come in the form of gang predation—a threat that inmates evolve various strategies to overcome. Roger becomes a writ writer, or jailhouse lawyer, offering his services assisting inmates with appeals and court documents in exchange for his safety and gang neutrality (12). Stephen, who authors a kind of “How-to-Survive-Prison for Dummies”, endorses his strategy of keeping to himself (152). Another writer, Arthur, responds in a more classic way: beating up someone so others know not to mess with him (131).
The psychological pressures, however, require more nuanced approaches if they are to be survived, as they are unrelenting and inescapable. “Constantly I’m warring with my inner self”, Kenneth writes (115).
Stephen effortfully maintains a “Free World” mindset, keeping an institutionalized mentality at bay. “I strive to keep the mindset that I’m just a resident passing through” (151), he writes. It’s no easy task as hurts and losses from inmates’ non-incarcerated lives continue to haunt them.
One young man, rare in this collection comprised mostly of prison elders, gives sarcastic apologies in a passive-aggressive screed, between the lines of which is a sense of regret and powerlessness. For another writer, Edward, lingering grief from the loss of his loving father affects him deeply; he is tortured by how that loss intensified his infatuation with street life, crime, and the spiral of destruction that led him to prison (238).
It’s clear from the collection that not all inmates can endure the inner war. Roger, for example, in his closing essay, denies the effects of childhood trauma on him, insisting that he was a rough-and-tumble kid and that crybabies need to toughen up (23); then, on the page, he decompensates into a terror state in which he sounds confused and tormented by profound injury.
The harrowing quality of incarcerated existence is compounded by the persistent and heartbreaking presence of injustice.
Patricia, for instance, was sentenced by an all-white jury to a 50-year sentence for a non-fatality crime, which confirms the rampant national crisis of racial prejudice in sentencing well-documented in works like The New Jim Crow (2010) and Just Mercy (2014)
Another writer, Linda, documents a lifetime of child abuse and subsequent misdiagnoses (225). Her writing underscores Bessel Van Der Kolk, M.D.’s warning in The Body Keeps the Score (2014) of over-diagnosing when it would be more parsimonious and humane to treat the underlying trauma at the root of behavioral and cognitive problems.
Perhaps the greatest injustice revealed in this collection is ultimately outside the prison.
Particularly for incarcerated African American writers, there is a parity between the horrors inside and outside. Patricia describes her life being pimped out by her husband as worse than her life behind bars (102). Another African American writer, Trevor, details that ten of his family members were crammed into a small house and how he had to go to school with only one shoe on (177). “One person’s Hell is another person’s Salvation”, Larry admits (66), considering the unexpected provisions offered on the inside that were not available to all on the outside.
While the religious rights of all are not universally respected, as Roger’s writing documents, religious classes offer comfort and intellectual stimulation for many of the prisoners. Even Roger, a practicing Jew, becomes a licensed Christian preacher for the sake of pursuing ecumenical studies.
The scraps of self-esteem found through prison education are miraculous and a product of partnerships forged between teachers and incarcerated writers like Lori:
These (writing) classes are desperately needed; the average inmate has between a third and seventh-grade education. But the classes are not only educational; they offer a psychological benefit as well. They are a mental release for thoughts and emotions in a controlled environment, especially when true mental health counseling is missing for the mass incarcerated (88).
Whether strident or tentative, the articulations preserved in this collection offer readers a chance to see those our society works mightily not to see. In a passage reminiscent of Folsom Prison Blues, Kenneth looks out a prison window and writes:
The people driving these vehicles have no idea I’m watching them travel up and down the highway, as I’m looking out the prison window. Everybody is going about their lives, and when they’ve finally reached their destination, be it home or wherever, they still won’t know I saw them driving by while I was looking out the Prison Window and yearning for my freedom (109).
Here Kenneth is looking out for us all in a way, as is Vox Press. By making incarcerated people visible, they promote our transformation into more conscious, empathetic, and thoughtful citizens regarding the conditions of those inside our prisons.
With admirable insight and cogency, authors in Mississippi Prison Writing respond to their teachers’ prompts about the good things of prison. This prompt assumes that prison can be good and corrective and indeed the writing in this collection documents how a person can become more themselves despite the awfulness of being locked up. However, as has been described, a strong counter-narrative runs throughout this volume of minds fraying in a system that unjustly stresses individuals to breaking points.
The collection that begins with Roger writing about the pointlessness of life sentences, ends with Jennifer in her essay “Wicked Blessing” asserting that prison can be a “blessing in disguise” (244). But a reader, recalling the book’s beginning, is left wondering if perhaps these blessings of prison could be a little less wicked.