Life Sentences for the New America

Life Sentences for the New America

Tim Keane
Prisons: Inside the New America from Vernooykill Creek to Abu Ghraib.
David Matlin
2nd ed. Berkeley: North Atlantic, 2004.

Tim Keane reviews David Matlin’s Prisons: Inside the New America.

Lori Emerson:

For a related discussion of AIDS, see Harold Jaffe’s essay “Outcast Narrative” as well as Tim Keane’s “Above Us Only Sky.”

Lori Emerson:

By contrast to the model of principled law-breaking, see Tim Keane’s review “God Help Us: A Fury for God” in which he discusses the influence of the imprisoned Egyptian Qutb’s influence on Islamist suicide bombing as a mode for resisting secularist regimes in the Mideast.

Lori Emerson:

Kenneth Saltman’s discussion of Michael Milken’s post-prison foray into the education business is a useful contrast to Matlin’s references to Clinton and Cuomo’s involvement in gutting education initiatives in American prisons.

Lori Emerson:

This issue of autobiography is related to the way in which Jean Genet’s autobiography operates; see Tim Keane’s essay “Entre Chien et Loup.”


Prison-building in the United States and in its Cuban and Middle Eastern colonies is as much a boon for private companies as it is a life-support industry for American members of Congress. David Matlin’s Prisons: Inside the New America shows how the building and operating of penitentiaries is a ten-billion dollar a year boon to the private entity that gets into the booming market. The companies which Matlin identifies have real names that sound like tags from B-movie scripts: “Wakenhut Corrections Corporation,” “HLM Justice,” “Tindell Concrete Products,” “The Dick Group of Companies.”

David Matlin’s book brings before us startling evidence from Prison Inc., like this pitch, a promotion by the “American Correctional Association,” which gleefully reports to potential investors that:

The prison industry continues to grow at an unprecedented rate. With the number of inmates incarcerated in our nation’s prison’s jails and detention rates approaching 1.5 million the need for…new products and services continues to be an industry priority…and unlimited opportunity for your company to profit from this multi-billion dollar industry (61)

So is this sick industry just another example of good old post-millennial free market Republicanism run amuck? Partly. David Matlin’s study is largely based on his many years teaching creative writing in the New York State prison system, and he informs us that it was Democratic Governor Mario Cuomo who, for the ten years leading up to his final 1994 election campaign, supervised a doubling in the number of penitentiaries in New York State and nearly tripled the number of inmates, all while Democratic President Bill Clinton’s 1995 Crime Bill decimated the very prisoner education initiatives in which Matlin nobly served.

So why did an accomplished novelist and poet and native Californian choose to transplant himself across the country for almost two decades to teach in New York prisons?

His private purposes, besides making a living, are left mostly understated, mainly because this memoir, unlike most autobiographies these days, works from the inside out, rather than the other way round. Prisons: Inside the New America is a meditation on a self which finds its own struggles manifest in our wider ones: in writing the book, Matlin seems to be have been drawn, much like Henry David Thoreau, to live out the American writer’s personal struggle with his country’s built-in contradictions. So the book is a rhythmical, readable, call-and-response testimony of facts and anguish. Matlin is not only concerned with the politics of Prison Inc. but also with the ecological place of incarceration in a consumer culture.

To this end he ruminates on and even narrates from the land where our prisons are built, namely, in the “most beautiful countryside in North America,” from a New York correctional facility built on Seneca natives’ land near where “the Genesee gorge fall[s] a sheer thousand feet into swamp, sand bar, and a waiting river that has been eating into this plateau since the final recession of the last glaciers.”

His survey of prison locations extends to his native California, where he lives comfortably in a lush valley surrounded by “Cambrian ridges” in view of the “willows” along “Esopus Creek,” but where he is ever-mindful of other Californian terrain where “163,000 men and women [are] imprisoned” and where the “Border ‘Wall’ [which] extends literally into the Pacific and for detailed miles past Tijuana and on into the dangerous remote deserts where people die by the hundreds, nearly mummifying within hours of their death” (xix).

What keeps Matlin’s wandering narrative so readable are the specific accounts of prisoners with whom he works - prisoners such as “Kenneth,” a veteran who did time in a Saigon army jail for having gone AWOL after participating in the My Lai massacre and now imprisoned for armed robbery in upstate New York in the late 1980s. Matlin introduces Kenneth to the avant-garde verse of H.D., William Carlos Williams, Charles Olson and Robert Duncan, and in these newly opened “fields” of poetics, this inmate finds “a measure for the consequences he’s lived through” and writes “the finest beginning poetry” Matlin has ever read.

Matlin shows how writing bears on the fate of doing hard time: writing is about exercising freedom through one kind of sentence, and prison is about terminating that freedom through another kind of sentence. Or, as Matlin puts it, a written sentence “is as far as a breath can be carried, as a sentence is as far as a life can be condemned.” Take, for example, the horrifying truth that, in March 1993, he found about “200,000” veterans were serving sentences inside American prisons, some of whom, in New York State, under his instruction, compose poetry that, in the tradition of Arthur Rimbaud and Ezra Pound “offers us [readers] no escapable device” (59):

Honor is the

          sight of red-gray matter

                                   sickly falling

                                             in small jellied


          from the waist

                              of a mango tree…

                                                       like opaque snot

                                                                                sliding off

9th century

               China. (58)

He shows his incarcerated students capable of writing exposés as realistic as those of other war veterans-turned-literary-lions such as Norman Mailer or Tim O’Brien, including one autobiography by an inmate whom Matlin identifies as “Nick.” Nick shares with his teacher first-hand accounts of how the US military in Vietnam replaced the soldiers’ M14 rifles (which had “cut [US] troops to shreds”) with M16 rifles so defective that soldiers had to mail order “lubricants, solvents, shoe-strings, WD-40 and insect repellants to clear their pieces” (47).

Matlin’s star student is “Bennie,” an African-American who earns a Bachelors’ degree while serving time. Bennie is paroled only to find that, as a former sex offender, he cannot even rent an apartment from a sympathetic black landlord who calls Matlin to share their resigned frustration about this ex-con’s permanent exile from any kind of home. After all, high recidivism rates (at over 60% over all and a staggering 90% among California’s young offenders) are the built-in pistons of the prison biz.

The conditions inside the various “correctional facilities” where Matlin works reflect the nightmares of the 1980s and 1990s on the outside: battle-traumatized Vietnam vets who have turned to lives of crime, an unchecked and possibly government encouraged AIDS epidemic, the insanity of the failed and failing war on drugs, and the decades-old racial imbalance regarding incarceration, the latter fact most stirring Matlin’s anger.

Matlin doesn’t thoroughly explore the causes of racism in the criminal justice system. But Ishmael Reed’s introduction to the book suggests that someone should, if only because “the majority of those arrested in both cities and rural areas are white; while those imprisoned are disproportionately black and Hispanic” (xiii). Whites are arrested more yet they are incarcerated in fewer numbers. And they are less prepared than blacks for the cell block when they are in it; Matlin cites a New York State study that counted a “2 to 1 ratio of white to black inmate suicides for the year 1989, and a 4 to 1 ratio of white to Hispanic suicides” (67).

For all its attention to statistics, Matlin strives less after traditional sociology than the pursuit of a philosophical critique of a republic at risk. His book is written in the acknowledged tradition of French writers from Alexis De Tocqueville to Michel Foucault who, like Matlin, explore the consequences of imprisoning bodies on its “free” citizens’ behalf. In turn, he shows how that collective contract turns jails into emblems of social necessity rather than what they are, disgraces to a healthy democracy. It’s a situation which Matlin claims intensified in the U.S. during the Cold War which made citizens “cold…like Ahani in Blake’s terrifying book….’unbodied’ and ‘parted’ in our civil conception of ourselves.” (43)

The abstraction and the objectification of those incarcerated in political and media languages encourages “the evaporation of a civic vision” and propels the ongoing prison-building boon, a process which, owing to US occupations in the Middle East, has spread internationally. Matlin describes the former architect of the Iraq invasion, Paul Wolfowitz in 2003, proudly “inspecting the refurbished jail cells of Abu Ghraib,” the most famous “correctional facility” on earth outside of Guantanamo Bay. And Matlin eerily and convincingly compares Abu Ghraib to Fort Marion prison in Florida built not of stone but of “coquina” for the incarceration of Apache, Kiowa, Cheynne and Arapho native Americans in the late 1800s, who faced death by either yellow fever and tuberculosis and/or the guns of white imperialists dead-set on “ ‘methods for the solution of the Indian problem’ ” (130).

Writers within prisons is hardly a new story, even in the U.S. But the intersection between these two kinds of sentences is revealing. In the 1840s, as much opposed to slavery as he was to the Mexican War, Thoreau spent a single night in jail rather than pay his taxes. From that laughably simple sentence he formulated far more complicated sentences about principled law-breaking as a model for human progress, writing sentences on disobedience which partially guided Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. decades later as they found themselves in and out of jail while they led their respective liberation movements. They too wrote from prison.

And what would such prophets of liberation write, or even do, today, after reading Matlin’s disturbing facts? Like the reality that “between 1985 and 2000 the Nation’s spending on ‘Corrections’ increased by 166 percent compared to a 24% increase in higher education”? And how to respond to a U.S. government that today collects federal taxes in no small part to finance the construction of new and newer prisons from California to New York, from Maine to Cuba, from Afghanistan to Mesopotamia?

Matlin’s book offers few solutions beyond his crucial instigation that his readers recognize what our politicians are doing to make prisons a lucrative commodity at our expense.

One progressive bright spot he cites is the ongoing success of educational programs in prisons despite Clinton’s drastic federal cutbacks. He also alludes to the recently striking success of Missouri’s juvenile detention system in driving down recidivism rates, a model now being examined to fix California’s abysmal justice system.

Ultimately, though, the rest is up to us as free citizens who are now aware that “2.1 million” of our three hundred million fellow citizens are now locked up (that is, one-quarter of the earth’s entire inmate population is locked up here in America). They are quarantined almost invisibly from our view in the recesses of American wilderness while, mostly in cities, we remain under the siege (or the spell) of politicians with their “will to hatred and panic soaking”-rhetoric and their (and our) “affirmation[s] of prison as cultural and historical monument” (87), all of which helps government-contracted corporations get rich and underwrites our “security” - a circumstance that is most definitely a physical force.

It’s a physical force Thoreau himself pinpointed over 150 years ago when he not-so-passively advocated the resistance of a misguided US government that “never intentionally confronts a man’s sense, intellectual or moral, but only his body, his senses. It is not armed with superior wit or honesty, but with superior physical strength. I was not born to be forced. I will breath after my own fashion. Let us see who is the strongest.” (127).

Put another way, Matlin puts before us the words of Joseph Brant, a Mohawk “warrior and diplomat” who tracked his life sentences against the physical force of the U.S. government long before Thoreau, resisting and writing against an American penal system that shatters the religious pretense of its very culture: “I had rather die by the most severe tortures ever inflicted on this Continent, than languish in your prisons for a single year…Does then the religion of Him whom you call your Savior inspire this spirit and lead to such practices? Surely no. It is recorded of Him a bruised reed He never broke.”

Works Cited

Matlin, David. Prisons: Inside the New America from Vernooykill Creek to Abu Ghraib. 2nd ed. Berkeley: North Atlantic, 2004.

Thoreau, Henry David. The Portable Thoreau. Ed. Carl Bode. New York: Penguin, 1947.