Bards behind bars: Literature in a locked-down land

By: William T. Hathaway

prisons

Prisons are one of the few growth industries in the USA today. They are becoming money-making institutions, and profits are rising. New ones are being built and old ones expanded to hold all the new slave laborers being captured. The prison-industrial complex is the epitome of capitalism.

The USA imprisons a far higher proportion of its population than any other country, 730 people per 100,000. As of 2011, its prison population was 2,266,832. (1)

As Glen Ford states:

<blockquote>

“Twenty-five percent of prison inmates in the world are locked up in the USA … African Americans comprise one out of every eight of the planet’s prisoners. …. China is 87th in the world in the proportion of its people who are imprisoned. China is a billion people bigger than the United States — more than four times the population — yet US prisons house in excess of 600,000 more people than China does. The Chinese prison population is just 70 percent of the American Gulag. That’s quite interesting because non-whites make up about 70 percent of US prisons. That means the Black, brown, yellow and red populations of US prisons number roughly the same as all of China’s incarcerated persons. Let me emphasize that: The American People of Color Gulag is as large as the entire prison population of China, a country of nearly 1.4 billion people.” (2)

</blockquote>

The US Incarceration Nation is a world of its own, and the writings of its inmates portray the shadow side, the excluded other of our society. Although ignored by the cultural establishment, prison writing has become a major aspect of working-class literature. Today working-class literature is alive and well and living in prison. “Well” doesn’t mean it’s contented and happy but instead vital and impassioned. And “in prison” doesn’t mean just locked behind bars but also locked into poverty. Some prisons have walls of iron and stone, others walls of economics and racism. It is their efforts to escape from this second prison that get most inmates incarcerated in the first. As Mumia Abu-Jamal said, “I’ve been in prison my whole life.” (3)

The life-constricting pressures in both types of prisons can crush some psyches and produce diamonds of art and wisdom in others. Struggle: A Magazine of Proletarian Revolutionary Literature has been publishing the diamonds (along with some glass) since 1985. Reading it is to rediscover the power of art to give us insights and inspire us to action, an invigorating change from the vapid musings and trivial subjectivity so prevalent these days. By showing us the multi-layered oppression surrounding us and the strength of the human spirit caught within that, Struggle is contributing to a culture of resistance and eventually of revolution.

Some examples of literature in a locked-down land:

Start A Revolution

by Brian S. Chapman

Time takes its toll the brainwashed masses don’t see
everything that’s wrong in our society
I’m a casualty of a drug war you don’t see
at the cost of taxpayers wasting away in a penitentiary
Start a revolution fuck the Constitution
capitalist destruction the only solution
You want to talk about equal rights why don’t you ask Uncle Sam
before he forces a gun in yr hand and ships you off
to terrorize a foreign land
Republicans keep lying while in the streets
are hungry crying children are dying
corrupt city and govt officials the deceit, lies and drugs
while insane long-term for sadistic witch-hunt
prison sentences drug convictions
while the CIA and the feds control the pipelines
of major distributors that feed the convictions
who’s killing who and what’s the reason why
some have to work so hard for next to nothing for someone else
while someone else skates by enjoying the easy life
I could go on and on I’m just another of the oppressed
but what’s the point? doing time in the joint

Time For War

by Clifton B. Smith

Call out the troops
Oil the guns
Let’s play the game once more
There’s a country
Who won’t play ball
So it’s time to go to war!

We may be wrong
We say we’re right
Who cares enough to stop?
We will win
At any cost
Stand back, we’ve bombs to drop.

No real reason
But duty calls
Come now, take your place
By any means
We will defeat them
Leaving not a single trace.

Man the tanks
Scramble the jets
Let’s play the game once more
There’s a country
Who won’t play ball
So it’s time to go to war!

The End Result

by J.D. Barrett, Sr.

Ninety-five degree heat
and one hundred percent humidity
in a South Georgia prison without A/C
make me drip
and as a drop falls on my lips
the saltiness reminds me
that sweat and tears are the same
only tears come through the heart to the eyes
and sweat comes through the heart to the skin
and sometimes you can sweat
even when you can’t cry
and you thank God for it.

A heavy fog settles over me
and there’s no wind to clear it.
I’ve heard that misery
is the stuff of poetry
and I feel I should have volumes
but the reservoir from which I cried
is now no more than dry baked mud
and there’s so much left to cry for.

Slave To Inmate

by Willie Williams

Packed on a boat, handcuffed and shackled,
Packed on a bus, handcuffed and shackled.

Traveling across waters to strange lands and unfamiliar faces,
Traveling across borders to strange lands and unforgettable faces.

Given names, Master, and a shack with mud floors to live in,
Given numbers, guards, and a brick building with concrete floors and bars
to live in.

Beaten, spit on, and called Nigger,
Lonely, no hope, forgotten, and called Inmate.

The Mulberry Bush (Jeb)

by Roger Gorley

10 to 20 for being addicted to crack
throw in another 5 for being Black
hide the SYMPTOMS to your problems behind a wall
of injust justices who are doomed to fall
right on their face
for what they’ve done to the human race
to the soup kitchen while the getting is good
to see Nelson Mandela free but what about me
and my people who no one seems to see
us begging for food and digging in the trash
canned babies that we can’t afford to feed
us to the wolves who feast on the poor
souls doing time on your three strikes
a blow for the common man
who’s doing 10 to 20 for being addicted to crack
after they tossed in an extra 5 because he was Black…

The Curse

by Bilal Shukr (B. Shelton)

When we were adolescents
Our dreams were so precious
In love with our essence
Our innocence obscured with our penitentiary sentence
To this day in our heart
exist no star-studded place for repentance
Our taxes taken our vote taken
Marginalize us for our past acts
Subtle antipathy because my skin is Black
In vain it is that we labor to transcend
the classification by poor neighborhoods we are trapped-up-in
Success measured by zipcodes
endlessly selling our labor
so we keep popping No-Doze
Generation X touched once twice and three strikes
by the judicial and prison industrial complex
Our plight ambiguous message terse
Ours is a life lived tainted by the Prison Curse

Silent Barrier

by Muzaffar Khan

volatile and lethal and young
they move about the dry path
and stir the summer dust
with their defiant swagger

in the hot, stale air,
ancient eyes scan the false horizon
for the spectacle of death
bodies leaning against a wall,
always watching
missing nothing, waiting

a deep breath taken
amid the summer tension,
prelude to thunder
the great white wall stretching
endlessly
silent barrier
between two worlds,
containing society’s shame

Bellows Fall

by Marek Jagoda

They called me at work
and asked me to meet them at
the police station —
and made a big deal of it anyway —
rough handcuff taunts.

I called her from there and said goodbye —
NO was all she could say.

Our three-month fetus bounced in her belly as
she ran across the bridge trying for one last glimpse or
smell or touch or kiss before I was gone —
and I knew she would do that —
could see her in my mind flying out the door and down the
street across the tracks out onto the bridge spanning
the deep Connecticut, her face tight with the gravity of
loss falling as a sheer cliff face cold, severing
our shared life —

As the car that took me away left town I twisted in
my restraining devices —
and wondered what the agents thought of this man who
contorted in his seat, handcuffed looking back,
to see her, to say goodbye with my eyes, to let her know
one more time that I loved her —
but the timing was not right and we both held
the same empty bridge —
a few seconds apart.

friday night

by Marek Jagoda

in the big room
institution movie
lots of us

unfolded chairs
the backs of heads
and up on high a cube of color
all focused on

in that square of attention
our hero
kisses the girl
and as his hand moves up her shirt
all these heads they twitch

some cough or clear their throats
some suddenly
find a thing more interesting to look at
the window the floor
a piece of lint

some
get so tense they don’t move a muscle
but you can feel their frequency
like a string of glass
stay away

so out of balance
how do we reconcile the loss of love
of intimacy
of touch
in all these darkened orbs before me
what different dramas play

Where I Stand

by Mike A. Slade

At this time, I feel disinclined
to award my appreciation —
to the customs and laws
of the U.S. and the United Nations.
‘Cause I can foresee
these power-struck figures
leading the world
towards even more tragic situations,
of which I want no participation.
Although I was born in Amerikkka I don’t
feel that I’m under any obligation.
Confused by the too few facts,
I lack focus and concentration.
No matter what the media says
I gain no inspiration.
It’s like, I’ve worked too hard to find true facts,
that I’m overdue for a vacation.
Lies are being told to drum up support
with tricked-out simulation,
causing a bunch a hoopla
& false stimulation.
What a terrible nation!
Built off of blood, sweat, tears
and degradation.

This is to awaken
my fellow man!
simply by letting him know —
“where I stand”

Hurricane Rain

by Joseph Lampert

They’re some things people won’t talk about.
They’re some things words won’t explain.
The wind’s blowin’ out of the delta, ma’ma,
Bringin’ the hurricane rain.

The Dutch know how to build dikes.
Everything in America is constructed
By the lowest and/or best bidder.
When the levee breaks, got no place to go.

FEMA didn’t get the big picture.
For days they didn’t get any picture at all,
Except for the ones on TV.
When the levee breaks, got no place to go.

Pieces of the roof came off the Super Dome.
The hurricane had a name like a Russian figure skater,
But there was no ice; people didn’t even have water.
When the levee breaks, got no place to go.

People who drown in a river,
After a few days,
Their bodies swell up, and float away.
When the levee breaks, got no place to go.

Other people
Drown in their attics
In the richest country in the world.
When the levee breaks, got no place to go.

There’s always color in this country.
It’s the color of poor.
It’s the color of racism.
When the levee breaks, got no place to go.

They’re some things people won’t talk about.
They’re some things words won’t contain.
The wind’s blowin’ out of the bayou, ma’ma,
Bringin’ the hurricane rain.

What Will They Be Saying And Doing

by Gregory Gilbert Gumbs

To the people living on the small islands scattered across the more and more flooding globe
As the sea levels slowly continue to rise
Drowning their ancient villages and capital cities, wiping away their important tourist beaches and their productive agricultural lands
What will they be Saying and Doing
As they arrogantly proceed to poison the fragile protective Biosphere with their deadly soup of greenhouse gasses
Catastrophically undermining and inverting its original functioning and design
All the while claiming that it would damage their sacred northern standards of living and their wealthy fat economies
What will they be Saying and Doing
To the already very poor people living in Africa as droughts increase and deepen and drive them on the long march northwards towards a better life in North America and in Europe
What will they be Saying and Doing
As increasing warmth and diverging rain patterns worldwide cause food production to collapse and new diseases and new types of diseases to spread to places where they were unknown before
Creating growing conflicts about the remaining available productive lands and expensive food crops
Forcing more and more people to vote with their feet in order to save themselves and their families
What will they be Saying and Doing
As those who had little or nothing to do with this deepening Biosphere Crime of the Centuries infecting and contributing to other crimes start demanding much more aid or else
What will they be Saying and Doing
Will they really be standing by enthusiastic to hand out not a few thousand resident visas and green
Cards as New Zealand and Australia are already doing to endangered Islanders on disappearing Pacific Ocean Islands surrounding them
But millions and millions of green cards and resident visas to these already highly impoverished environmental victims and refugees of the North’s genocidal Biosphere, ecological, cultural and geographical crimes
As masses of people are forced to leave the beloved places where they have lived for centuries
What will they be Saying and Doing
As nativism, racism and xenophobia continues to spread like wildfire in the North with just a few immigrants among them
Or will they be saying that these already highly excluded and marginalized victims of the widely celebrated and often imitated northern lifestyles should have built dikes and dams like they did
As they arrogantly sail around and around these drowning Islands in their threatening warships flying their flags
Because they could have and should have known that the increasing droughts, the endless rains, the never before seen hurricanes and monsoons and the rising sea waters were coming their way?????

Illegal

by A.D. Winans

She sits alone
in her small hotel room
overlooking a back alley
Six months pregnant
One wash cloth
One Towel
One yellow stained wash basin
Her hope bled dry
An immigrant without
a visa or status
An illegal caught
in a legal trap

She gets up
Heads for the door
Ignores the night managers
ugly whisper

Suspended in silence
Floating face down
in the bowels of the American Dream

Bay Of Pigs

by David Pratt

You could mistake him for an eagle,
the way he soars, the casual grace
as he hangs on the air, and circles,

forty-three years too late
to spy the men who charged ashore
dreaming of death and fornication
and staggered into swamps,
firelights, ambushes, prison cells.

He glides disconsolately down,
brakes, touches ground, folds wings,
stretches a scrawny neck,
shrugs iris black shoulders,
and shakes the ugly small red head.

How cruel, close-up,
is the curved white-pointed beak
that goes for the liver
when it has finished with the eyes,

One solitary vulture.

But
across the Straits of Florida
a million vultures wait.

A Haiku You Can Read at the Barricades

by Michael Ketchek

Anne Frank’s diary
would you hide an Arab
in your attic?

Emulating the Dinosaur

by Michael Shorb

Here’s a bright idea let’s
emulate the dinosaur
they did so well for
such a long time
first we can be
huge and green
armed with depleted
uranium teeth and laser
eyes able to see a stolen
hubcap from a satellite
we’ll strut around tearing
forests down and draining
wetlands as we go we’ll
suck petroleum from
resurrected Cambrian bogs
like a giant predator
sucking seagull eggs we’ll
shoot or imprison anyone
who gets in our way
maybe photograph them
nude and hooded
have a laugh at their
shriveled genitals
put them in a pile
like logs in a jungle clearing
we’ll eat the best food
from the highest branches
live in the choicest
corners of the swamp
every night the crowded sky
will bend and ripple
from our fearsome
electronic cries.

Your Country

by Steve Bloom

‘Tis of thee I sing, land
of pilgrim’s proud mythology, Ellis-Island
fairy tale of welcome-mat for all.

Overturn a stone or three
on which your palace has been built
and I’ll show you ancestral skulls,
cracked and broken — if not
ground, while still alive, into a dust
so fine that no forensic anthropologist
can name your victims now.

My grandmother was born millennia
before your human sea arrived, thrived
in harmony with the forests,
meadows, hillsides until one day
soldiers set her teepee blazing.

Grandfather did not enter through
a golden door, was flushed instead
from the putrid bowels of a ship — one
link in the slave-chain which still
binds your world together, although
you find this hard to comprehend.

My mother, lured from Asia
with the promise of employment, was
undressed when she arrived, locked up
in a room, kept for your enjoyment —
until, bored one day, you sliced
what was left into tiny pieces, tossed
them away, imported my sister.

It was darkness, not your lady’s lamp,
that guided my father from lands
where human beings of the wrong kinds
are born, so he might cower for more
than one lifetime in your fields and orchards.
My aunts and uncles appealed to you, but
were sent back to the death camps and, when
a few returned after the war, emaciated,
pleading now, you dispatched them again
to make your fight with the Arabs their fight
with the Arabs, proving thus that the Hebrew race
could learn the art of killing well enough to be
accepted into your polite society.

My cousins, nieces, nephews, children,
still enter by stealth, or not, work
wherever you choose to avert your eyes:
sewing clothes for you, harvesting
and preparing food for you , making sure
you do not choke on your own excrement — and so,
“from sea to shining sea,” the right kind of people
can spend time humming favorite tunes
of liberty and justice for the favored few — one nation,
under whatever god might be deranged enough
to bless this America.

Meanwhile I will wait until, one day,
the angry eyes emerge from every
fruited plain and mountainside,
compelling you to look, for once — I mean
really, really look (for once) — at your nation’s
contributions to the world. And if you are
in luck on this particular day they will
be extracting merely dreadful retributions.

No, do not glance over your shoulder. Watch
the face in the mirror, because, ” ’tis of thee,
of thee I sing.”

Doing Time In Folsom State

by Arvan Washington III

Sleep slips away like tendrils of fog
before a Lompoc Valley breeze, a morning
sun dawns upon another moonless night.
I amble aimlessly, wandering twisted corridors
inside a convoluted mind seeking the solace
of an earthly slumber, yet find myself lost
amidst the wreckage of yesteryear: a Bermuda
Triangle existence where disappearing smiles
vanished without ever leaving a trace
upon a heart hardened by aloneness.
The passage of time mocks me as I search
for my truths, though I dread their discovery.
Thus, I find comfort in lies: origami constructs
of paper figurines dancing in the funeral pyre
like marionettes dangling from a hangman’s noose.

For more, scroll down their site: http://www.strugglemagazine.net/

Notes:

1. US Bureau of Justice Statistics

2. Black Agenda Report, August 30, 2012, http://blackagendareport.com/content/us-worst-police-state-world-%E2%80%93-numbers (last visited 7-12-2012)

3. Socialist Viewpoint, July/August 2012, p. 78

*

William T. Hathaway’s new book, Lila, the Revolutionary, is a fable for adults about an eight-year-old Indian girl who sparks a world revolution for social justice. Chapters are posted at www.amazon.com/dp/1897455844. A selection of his writing is available at www.peacewriter.org.

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