first learned of the prison abolition movement in 2012, when I read Christopher Glazek’s bracing polemical essay, “Raise the Crime Rate,” in n+1, in which he argues that crime has not so much fallen in the United States over the last two decades as much as it has been “shifted” into the prison system itself, where all manner of violence goes unchecked, unpunished, and uncounted. Mass incarceration, Glazek says, is the driver of untold, wanton suffering for not only the incarcerated themselves but for the low-income communities and communities of color from which the vast majority of the prison population hails.
I’ll never forget the feeling I had reading this paragraph for the first time, which now, seven long years later, seems almost commonplace: “America’s prison system is a moral catastrophe. The eerie sense of security that prevails on the streets of lower Manhattan obscures, and depends upon, a system of state-sponsored suffering as vicious and widespread as any in human history. Dismantling the system of American gulags, and holding accountable those responsible for their operation, presents the most urgent humanitarian imperative of our time.”
It was like a religious experience, sudden and blinding, reading that. A shattering. Nothing that I can point to in my background determined that I would respond this way—I’ve never been to prison, and only known a handful of people who have; I’ve never worked in criminal justice, or, up that time, advocated for policy changes outside the generalized realm of electoral politics. This is testament in part to the force of Glazek’s writing but also to his timing. This issue of n+1 came out weeks before Trayvon Martin was murdered in Florida. My own political consciousness and that of my immediate social circle—Left to liberal, racially diverse, grad student to grad-adjacent—began to undergo a shift from the class-based politics of #Occupy or mainstream Democratic liberalism to a sharper emphasis on race, #BlackLivesMatter, and the struggle against white supremacy in all its forms. These two moments to which I was witness and nothing more—a brilliant essay in a lit mag, a horrific real-life tragedy playing out in the media—were enough to catalyze a change in political consciousness. It was an awakening. After Glazek, I turned to Michelle Alexander, James Baldwin, Malcolm X, Frantz Fanon, C. L. R. James, David Brion Davis, Edmund S. Morgan, Edward E. Baptist, reading my way backward through a syllabus of racial injustice in the Americas and beyond.
Standing on the shoulders of those writers, Glazek argues how our prison system developed as the successor institution to slavery and Jim Crow, reiterating the straight line between Emancipation, the Great Migration, the urban riots of the sixties and seventies, and the War on Drugs, which Michelle Alexander first laid out in The New Jim Crow two years before, and which Ta-Nehisi Coates would trace again and again in his work throughout the last decade. Where Alexander marshaled scores of data to advance her thesis, Glazek’s piece moves with the speed and fury of the tract, with plenty of top-line data but also, and more importantly, claims that strike like bolts of lightning and scar themselves into memory: “Once you go to prison, you never really come back,” and, “The US prison system doesn’t need to be reformed—it needs to be abolished.”
I protested with Black Lives Matter in Houston, where I moved to teach after grad school, and my wife and I found some nonprofits and advocacy groups that did criminal justice work. But with books and babies to raise up and full-time teaching loads to manage, neither of us had the bandwidth to devote ourselves much to organizing. I still believed that ending mass incarceration—and anti-Black racism more broadly—was the most urgent humanitarian imperative of our time. But mostly, I felt helpless to do anything about it. Or, more punitively, useless. While my lawyer friends brought civil litigation against police departments and my activist friends hit the streets, I showed up every morning to teach Plato and poetry to college freshmen, a population vastly more likely to benefit from mass incarceration than to be threatened by it. So, last winter, when my colleague, Dr. Stephen Haynes, professor of religion at Rhodes College, asked for volunteers to teach in his “Great Books” reading group program at the state women’s prison, I eagerly raised my hand. Finally, here was a foothold—one small way to bring my professional training and experience to bear on a crisis which had felt, for years, utterly out of my reach.
Much of what I knew about prison I knew only from books and television, which is of course, by design. Glazek’s essay draws the link between antebellum slavery and the modern carceral state in a number of ways, but one way he leaves that link implicit is the notion of strategic invisibility. This is, at bottom, a public relations strategy. As the rapid modernization and wealth accumulation in European societies from 1600–1800 depended on the distant and unseen atrocities in Caribbean sugar fields, so has the rapid gentrification and nose-diving crime rate in America’s urban cores depended on the removal of those cities’ black and brown populations to hellish gulags upstate, all accomplished in the name of justice. The result is that we who are the beneficiaries of this system, we who have no traffic with the criminal justice system outside of mass entertainment, we who walk the streets of Bushwick or Houston’s Third Ward or Uptown Memphis feeling safe and secure, do so without the slightest sense of what that “security,” such as it is, has cost others. And that cost is so high, so morally intolerable, the only way it can proceed unimpeded by public outcry is to keep it out of sight, which of course compounds the evil underway. Because when you remove a segment of the population to a fortress far away where no one can see in or out, Glazek notes, this “dehumanizes an entire class of human being and permits nearly infinite violence against it.”
“The prison staff is above the law; the prison inmates, below it. . . . America’s prisons are its blind spots, places where complaints cannot be heard and abuses cannot be seen. Though important symbols of bureaucratic authority, they are spaces that lie beyond our system of bureaucratic oversight. As far as the outside world is concerned, every American prison functions as a black site.” When I read this in 2012, it was so persuasive on its face that it didn’t occur to me that some people do, in fact, get to go in and see, and then can come out to inform the rest of the world what they saw—not members of congress or journalists or people who could most effect change at a policy level, unfortunately, but rather lawyers and medical workers and chaplains. And people like me.
“Don’t expect Orange is the New Black,” Steve told us as we prepared to make our first trip up to the euphemistically named Women’s Therapeutic Residential Center. Right, I thought, that’d be silly. Only a silly person who gets their knowledge of the world from Netflix would expect real prison life to be anything like Orange is the New Black—zany, quippy, tender, uproariously profane, punctuated but not defined by brutal violence, in other words, wildly charismatic in the way only TV shows can be.
Our first visit would be an introductory session to the semester, a chance for new faculty to meet the students and preview the material we’d be bringing to our allotted sessions. Seven Rhodes professors had signed up to teach, but it was a Monday evening in February and only three of us, plus Steve Haynes and our undergraduate TA Madison, a sophomore of remarkable poise, had schedules that allowed us to make the trip. We crammed into Steve’s hatchback after classes were through and took Highway 51 north out of Memphis, passing through Frayser before entering the rural sweep of western Tennessee. We drove an hour and a half through the forbidding cotton fields and darkening woods of #MAGA country until Steve slowed in the fast lane and hung a sudden left onto a road I hadn’t even seen until we were on it. Looming over the turnoff was a billboard reading in its sickly green light, god is in control. Since I was in a car with two theologians and an expert on early Christianity, I asked if this was indeed the case. No one answered me.
One hilly, winding, two-lane road dead-ended onto another, and we had not seen so much as a telephone pole in thirty miles. “You see how they stick these places as far from civilization as they can,” Steve said. “And they’ve been doing that for a long time. Across the road from WTRC is the old Fort Pillow State Prison, built back in the thirties.” Steve explained that Fort Pillow was the site of a garrison built on the Chickasaw Bluffs by Confederate troops during the war to control access to the Mississippi River. In 1864, Nathan Bedford Forrest—Confederate general, first Grand Wizard of the KKK, and namesake of the Mississippi county I once lived in for three years—had taken the fort back from Union troops in a battle that would become one of the most notorious of the entire Civil War. The Union troops consisted in part of the 6th US Colored Heavy Artillery and the Memphis Battery Light Artillery—two regiments predominantly made up of former slaves. Forrest’s troops won the battle decisively and the Union forces surrendered. And then came the massacre. “[A]n indiscriminate slaughter,” said a report by the congressional subcommittee that investigated the incident. “[P]ut to the sword in cold blood,” said the New York Times. But it was Forrest’s own description in a cable to his superior three days after the action that puts a fine point on the matter: “The river was dyed with the blood of the slaughtered for two hundred yards. The approximate loss was upward of five hundred killed, but few of the officers escaping. My loss was about twenty killed. It is hoped that these facts will demonstrate to the Northern people that negro soldiers cannot cope with Southerners.” The Battle of Fort Pillow was, in the words of historian Richard Fuchs, a mass lynching.
“Well, here we are,” said Steve. Above us and off to our left was the deserted structure of Fort Pillow Prison, a long, low dungeon pressed into the hilltop. Over its peak, through the tree line, we could see a patch of sunset and it was, without hyperbole, the strangest sunset I have ever seen—a radiated pink, like raw infected flesh, and it was only there in that lone spot of sky, right over the old prison, through those black trees. Gawking, we creeped alongside this otherworldly scene, and took a right.
The West Tennessee State Penitentiary is a large complex split into three adjacent compounds—a maximum security site for men, a mixed site of max and medium units also for men, and a third site that houses both the men’s minimum security and the WTRC facility for women. We followed Steve through the humble processing area, then began our walk through the innards of the prison. Used to carrying satchels overstuffed with books and file folders of notes, we felt oddly unequipped and unprepared, having handed over our bags and emptied our pockets of everything but drivers’ licenses, and even those we relinquished midway to a guard manning an infrared scanner that read the stamps on our wrists.
Most of the trek was outdoors, from one fortified building to the next, and I was surprised by how much space there was. Like any prison in America, WTRC has too many bodies and not enough beds, but not because there’s no place to shelter them. Out here in the rolling dark nowhere of western Tennessee, emptiness reaches out on every side. Through three locked gates, down one concertina-wire corridor only wide enough to pass single file, across several sweeps of deserted yard, and at the end of a long series of shuttered outbuildings, we made it to our classroom without yet having seen a prisoner. And it was, in fact, a classroom, scattered with old cookbooks, chewed pencils, recently abandoned work booklets, a volume of Webster’s dictionary.
We set the room up seminar style, pushing the tables into one big rectangle, and then the outer doors buzzed and the voices of the women, shouting and laughing, filled the hallway. They poured in like teenagers on the day before summer break, about twenty of them, claiming seats around the table, already bantering with Steve and boldly eyeballing the new and awkward faculty around the table. We didn’t know what to do with ourselves so we smiled at them dumbly and waited to be spoken to. I saw a broad assortment of ages and races, white, Black, and Latinx, from a wide-eyed country girl in her early twenties to the silver-bunned woman in her seventies whose dignified air was not lessened by the walker she used to maneuver the crowded room.
Steve got things rolling in an easeful demeanor that was not noticeably different from his persona on campus. Some of the women were back for their third or fourth straight year in the program, unwilling to relinquish their seats in class. Roughly a third were attending for their first time. When Steve asked them to say something about what they wanted to get from the class, the same few notes were sounded again and again. It’s amazing to read these books from thousands of years ago and realize people were going through the same kind of stuff then that I’m going through right here in this place; and, from the returning students, Y’all treat us with respect, talk to us like we’re real human beings, like we’re capable of intelligent thought. And most frequently of all: Y’all don’t realize how rare this is in here—the chance to simply think out loud with other people, and to have profound conversation. And they told us, breaking out in laughter over what did get regularly talked about in there: It’s a lotta bullshit. A lot of bullshit. They were a group of people whose minds had been systematically starved for years, in many cases for decades. Our gathering together around the table represented an oasis.
The main event that first evening was the distribution of the books. Midway through our session, a correctional officer hauled in a box and as the women circled around it like an open chest of treasures, Steve lifted up a copy of Robert Fagles’s translation of Virgil’s Aeneid, its gilded cover shining bright as rubies. “As always,” Steve said, “these copies are yours to keep,” and he began passing them down the line one by one. Each student made herself a proud tower: The Handmaid’s Tale. The Oxford World Classics Qur’an. Three Theban Plays. The New Oxford Annotated Bible. Animal Farm. It was an entrancing, deeply moving scene, watching them claim each precious book and add it to their pile, and I couldn’t stop thinking that it shouldn’t have been. There was no reason, none at all, for them to have been deprived of real books in the first place.
For the rest of that evening, our new students peppered us with questions, and conversation flowed easy. A woman named Rebecca—this essay uses pseudonyms for the women of WTRC—who looked like a real estate agent, was eager to hear about my wife’s collection of short stories, which Steve had mentioned, and I promised to bring them copies the next time I came. After Steve told them that I was a poet, Yolanda, a funny and charismatic young Latina with a star tattoo on her cheek, demanded that I recite one of my poems, which out of embarrassment I did not do, until my next visit, when I read aloud from one of the several I brought for them. Phylicia, a rail-thin woman with a minister’s voice who tended to hold forth in paragraphs, only wished to hear about Professor Kenny Morrell, another of our colleagues who had been teaching at the prison with Steve since the outset of the program. He was beloved by all the class regulars, to the degree that this woman, Phylicia, had made a Kenny Morrell sock puppet, much to the amusement of her classmates. Kenny had been unable to attend that evening because of a family obligation, but when assured that he’d be leading the next three classes on the Aeneid, the women, and I do not overstate this, cheered. (I learned later that Phylicia was herself a writer, and that not only had Professor Morrell once agreed to read a play she’d written, he’d taken her handwritten manuscript and had it professionally formatted, printed, and bound as a proper script for the stage, which he then, to her complete amazement, presented back to her. Thus, his honorary sock puppet and unimpeachable status in the eyes of those women.) It was a joyful, invigorating two hours, and it ended too soon.
There was one problem. When I saw them passing around the text I’d be teaching, the Three Theban Plays of Sophocles, it was in a different translation than the one I’d ordered. This sounds like a small thing, but it isn’t. I had asked for the volume I always teach with—the lucid modern English of, once again, Robert Fagles, but what was traveling around the table was an edition I’d never seen before. This was Oedipus the King and Antigone in a nineteenth century translation by Sir George Young, and when I flipped through a copy I was stricken to find it was rendered in lines like this: “Thou aweless villain, ready to adduce / specious invention of just argument / from every case, why this attempt on me?” Sir George Young had rendered Sophocles in Victorian blank verse, convoluted and ornate as a bad Shakespeare imitation. It would be tedious and obscure for the strongest readers and incomprehensible for the weakest. There was no way they’d be able to read this. I could barely read this. If I gave this to my freshmen back at Rhodes, they would roll over and play dead.
“What’d you think?” Steve asked us as we made our way back out through the gauntlet.
I thought they were zany, quippy, tender, uproariously profane. In the crosstalk and hubbub, in the backstories of these women I would learn later from my colleagues, in the atmosphere of the prison itself, there were suggestions of brutal violence. In other words, it was exactly like Orange is the New Black.
Each professor took their own weeks of the semester’s run, and mine began three weeks later in late winter. This time, when Steve, Madison, and I took the last turn onto the prison road, we saw that same phenomenal pink sunset through the tree line of Fort Pillow. There and nowhere else. The exact same one. Like some eternal judgment from the gods.
I wanted to spend part of my first class doing a table-read of the play, and so this time I was permitted to carry in a file folder full of photocopied packets of the Fagles edition. Even if they weren’t able to get very far in that fusty old Victorian translation, we’d at least be able to talk through a few scenes of this version in real-time. But when the buzzers sounded and the women streamed in from the hallway, they were excitedly jabbing their fingers at me, waving Sir George Young’s edition around in the air, and shouting over each other. “This book?! Oh my god, this book. This is the craziest shit I have ever read. We’re gonna have an argument about this book!” As any college professor will tell you, this is the reaction we dream our students will have when we assign some classic work of literature, and it never, ever, happens. Translations be damned. I could have given them a version in ancient Coptic and they would have spent those weeks devouring it all the same.
With the first block of class time I gave a mini-lecture on Greek tragedy, its origins in dance and ritual sacrifice, its political and cultural centrality in Athenian life. And then we dove into Oedipus the King. Oh, did we dive in. In ten years, I have never taught a livelier, more animated, more emotionally committed class.
“We need to talk about this mother,” said Phylicia, before I’d even asked a question. Like nearly everyone around the table, Phylicia was burning to talk about Jocasta, queen of Thebes and the wife/mother of poor unwitting Oedipus. When I teach this play to freshmen, they often can’t see past their perceived villainy of Jocasta, finding her monstrous for her original crime of sending baby Oedipus off to his death in the mountains in order to thwart a prophecy. But that’s not where the women of WTRC focused their attention.
“See, I think she knew who he was all along,” said Yolanda, to nods and murmurs of agreement. This was a take I had never heard before.
No, no, went my academic’s reflex, the play doesn’t work unless Jocasta too is in the dark about who her husband is. The true identity of Oedipus is hidden, from his wife, his subjects, and himself, until it is all too late. That belated recognition is what makes the play a tragedy. But these students, many of them mothers who knew plenty about guilt, and suffering, and the devastating potential of hidden knowledge once it comes revealed, refused to accept this basic fact of the play.
“A mother could never, ever, fail to recognize their own child,” said an older woman who looked at me with the intensity of any Theban seer. “You’re a man, you don’t understand,” she said. “It’s not possible. Even if she only knew him as a baby, she would recognize him.”
“She knew,” Yolanda said. “Oh she definitely knew.”
Preparing for the class, I had guessed that they would be most drawn to the conflict between Oedipus and Creon, the questions of authority, punishment, and justice, which their scenes squaring off against each other make vivid. But whereas my young students back at Rhodes dismissed Jocasta as a cartoon villain, the women of WTRC seemed to inhabit her with their imaginations. They related to her so deeply they thought they knew her better than Sophocles did.
They understood the title character too, how all his attempts to outrun fate only brought him another step closer to fate’s fulfillment. Some of them saw his bloody moment at the crossroads in starkly personal terms. “That happened to me,” Yolanda said, making the class, for once, fall silent. “What I did for fifteen minutes on one day changed everything about my life. Changed the before and changed the after.” She shook her head. “Forever.” Or, as Sophocles has it, “Now, in this one day . . . all the griefs in the world that you can name, all are theirs forever.”
Last winter, I sat around a table with twenty women for a few hours each week to talk Greek tragedy, and virtue, and justice, and shame, and suffering, and though there was a powerful kind of intellectual intimacy to those hours—we never had a guard present—it was not the kind of intimacy that would permit the revelation of the sort of truths Glazek talks about, the gritty details of violence and everyday horrors that a show like OITNB tries to dramatize. I was not in a position to learn about the deprivations, abuses, and injustices particular to life at WTRC. But other truths were revealed. How people in prison understand that one experience—a fateful sliver of a single day—can change everything, and how that understanding shapes and intensifies their suffering. How a mother does not stop yearning for her child after they’ve been separated even if her own sense of guilt threatens to destroy her will to live. How plastic is the mind, after long periods of relative starvation ready to pounce with ferocity and brilliance on the hardest questions of human existence, if only given a chance to be heard by others.
Our little program—a non-degree granting course of study that is supported by Rhodes College but still working toward accreditation—owes its existence to the labor and perseverance of Dr. Stephen Haynes. As rehabilitative a function as one can argue such a program serves, neither the Tennessee DOC nor any prison in the state offers anything like it. Steve had to haggle and glad-hand our way in, past skeptical bureaucrats and disinterested wardens. No one in a position of political power in Tennessee—that is, no elected Republican or appointee—gives a shit about restoring the human right of a literary education to the prisoners of this state. In neighboring Mississippi, advocacy groups like the Jackson-based Big House Books have gone to court on a continual basis to win back the right to even distribute works of literature inside the state’s prisons. This is not only a problem in the Bible Belt. The ACLU has been busy of late fighting similar bans in Washington, Pennsylvania, and New York. Let no one tell you our prisons are “black sites” because of some accident of history, mismanagement, or administrative neglect. They are that way on purpose. Politicians and prison officials seek to empty them of educational resources and they fight to keep them that way because they do not think prisoners deserve anything else.
Admitted into the black site, we came to know in the flesh what prison abolitionists speak of in their tracts. People serving thirty-five to life for mistakes they made as teenagers. People becoming grandmothers and great-grandmothers without ever having known their children. Women locked away for decades because they sold or used or carried drugs that richer, whiter people use, sell, and carry everyday and everywhere with impunity. Women locked away for life for defending themselves against violent men. But beyond the injustices of their individual trajectories through the system, we also saw their undiminished humanity, their warmth and humor. Minds that were alive and supple and hungry as any bright-eyed eighteen-year-old with the privilege to sit in our classes on the gorgeous campus of Rhodes College, if not more so.
It is good that we can bring what Glazek calls “ordinary ethics” back into this space, and for a few hours a week restore the human right of reading and interpreting literature, examining the self and the world in the company of other minds. This is what we, as college professors, know how to do. And it matters a great deal to these women, in this place, at this time. It is nowhere near enough.
“Serious Work” is part of our weekly story series, The By and By.
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