The Unnerving Presence
“It’s no one’s business what happens here,” one of the kitchen supervisors told me when it became clear that Prison Diaries was becoming a regular feature in the New Haven Independent.
“No, it’s everyone’s business and in the United States we don’t believe in stifling free expression, remember?” I volleyed back. I’ve always believed that. This is a publicly-funded facility and Connecticut taxpayers should know how their money gets spent at 201 West Main Street. Some stories will horrify them. Some will make them proud. Others will just confound them. Wait, why was the C/O hiding in a garbage dumpster?
Regardless of what I report, writing from prison is a bitch. It’s not enough that some personal or institutional intrusion fractures my focus and makes me drift, but my hand hurts because I have to scribble everything. I claw through a 4000-word essay, fingers practically curled. A ridged burl decorates my middle finger where my dime-store pens rest. From writing every day, my tunnel is completely carpal-ed.
For a while, the physical conditions were biggest complaint about prison writing. I sulked when I erased lines of prose to make room for edits. Because I can’t cut-and-paste Microsoft-style, reading one of my drafts is to follow a map and piece together a puzzle. Underlined orders instruct the reader: Insert paragraph A here;” “Go to bottom of page 6;” or “Reverse order of sentences.”
“My writing would be so much better if I could just type directly into a computer,” I lament to anyone who will listen. Instead, I need to mail my handwritten stuff out for transcription.
In many parts of the world, a woman’s expression of thought attracts a range of penalties, ranging from suppression’s slap of the hand to the doom of death. I found an edition of New York Times still intact (because none of the inmates sliced it up for a collage) and one column described how, just to write a Pashtun folk poem, one Afghani woman closes herself off from society, stays inside to write so no one will see what she’s doing. Her father withdrew her from school a year before, after one of her classmates was kidnapped at gunpoint. Writing in secret is her only education now.
In Afghanistan, women must literally ‘phone it in’ when they write; they call a member of Mirman Baheer, Afghanistan’s largest literary society, and whisper their work over the line. Members of the society take dictation of marginalized women’s work and read it for critique at a group meeting or, sometimes, preserve it for posterity when the woman can’t write anymore because she gets caught putting her feelings down on air, the paper of oppression.
I haven’t written in secret but an Afghani woman’s plight isn’t that different from mine; we’re both blocked from completing the task of writing and depend on others to get our work done. Of course, in the Middle East, it’s because she’s under threat of death. Here, it’s because the prison school is subpar and I threaten exposure. Or at least the staff thinks I do.
None of them ever said I couldn’t write or outrightly prohibited me from pitching to editors. Sure, some of the C/O’s make comments, Biff-the Bully-style (from the movie Back to the Future) taunts. One female guard make an overly voluble comment about how no inmate should make any money writing about her at her job.
Another one asked me: “Don’t you think it’s a better idea to stay under the radar?”
“Maybe if you guys allowed me to stay under there, I would have,” I answered.
After one oped came out in the local paper, a real slow-pitch softball on mental illness, hardly a scorcher for the facility, one of them asked me “Bozelko, what did you do?” like it was a huge, irreversible error, an invitation to unintended consequences beyond my imagination.
In this country, the First Amendment is supposed to resolve any dust-ups writers anticipate with the establishment. But freedom of speech will never protect a prison writer like it does a free woman. So far, I’ve used it like I’m character in a movie who’s being pursued by a murderer. I pushed the protection like it was a dresser or a wardrobe against the door to block the would-be perp from following me into a room. But the audience knows that the blockade will slow the pursuit, but it won’t stop it. Eventually, the villain breaks through because it’s a necessary part of the narrative. I knew my story wouldn’t end until I went head to head with a state-imposed media blackout.
“You know about this, huh?” I asked the same supervisor the day after my name was shouted during mail call and I was handed not a letter to the editor, but a letter from the editor, of the New Haven Independent, where only a handful of columns had run. When he remained expressionless, I knew. If it wasn’t him, then it was one of his friends.
The editor cancelled Prison Diaries. Reason? My essays aren’t hard news and his non-profit mission statement states he can publish only hard news that is about New Haven. Since I’m not from New Haven he can’t justify it anymore. These were facts he knew before I risked writing but somehow they mattered now, not then. I don’t know if they called him or…who? The IRS? About the Independent’s 501(c)3 mission statement? It almost seemed too smart a plan for any of them to muster. No one could ever call it what it was: subtle, masterful censorship.
“I guess it’s nobody’s business again, then?” I asked with a little too much sass in my voice. I was courting a ticket. All he could do was shrug at me as my anxiety built while I devised ways to keep writing. From now on, it needs to be secret.
Three Ideas in Justice Reform from March 7 – 13, 2016
A riot broke out at William C. Holman Correctional Facility in southern Alabama over the weekend. The warden and an officer were stabbed and inmates expressed their complaints about conditions by setting fires and trashing the place. That’s not the best evidence that something’s really wrong at Holman, though. The best evidence that something is wrong is the fact that the public could witness parts of the riot because an inmate had a cell phone and taped the events. Considering that no one at all is supposed to have smartphone near inmates, the corruption and problems at Holman can be traced to whomever smuggled the phone to the inmate.
On Wednesday, the United States Sentencing Commission released study results showing the recidivism rate for federal prisoners released in 2005 to terms of probation is about 50% within 8 years. That’s not good, but it’s old data.
Science Magazine published an article that detailed the ways in which scientific evidence – striations on bullets and casings, fingerprint matches – is not as reliable as we think it is and might even need to be tossed entirely. Add in the fact that eyewitness testimony has been proven to be inherently unreliable, I don’t know how prosecutors can prove a case to highly educated jurors, the types who read Science, who know evidence’s limitations. I predict dumber and dumber juries, with thinking people weeded out by questioning them in voir dire about what they read.