by Doran Larson
Reviewed by Dyan Neary
If the mark of a democracy were determined by how a nation treats its prisoners, the United States would certainly be among the most tyrannical systems of government in the world. In Fourth City: Essays From the Prison in America, Doran Larson has compiled several dozen compelling firsthand accounts of prison life into the largest volume of such stories ever published. Larson, who teaches creative writing at Hamilton College as well as in maximum-security prisons, invites us to question why the United States incarcerates more of its citizens than any other country, with a corrupt legal system that primarily functions to penalize the most disenfranchised of them.
The personal essays in this anthology serve as a powerful and necessary counterpoint to the grisly stereotypes so often propagated in film and television, and casts as fully realized identities the nameless statistics offered by news media and State departments. It is high time, Larson contends, that we let those incarcerated document their own experiences, rather than screenwriters who have never served time doing the talking for them. Since prisoners are sequestered and isolated from society, it is perhaps easy to ignore the inhumane treatment of the 2.26 million people living in conditions one writer here declares unfit for animals. Larson seems to be asking whether, by virtue of ignoring the problem, we condone an ineffective system that often constitutes cruel and unnecessary punishment for its captives—and maintains a national recidivism rate of 67.5 percent.
Dedicated to “all Americans who bear numbers for names,” the collection is separated into sections by content. From “The Life,” we learn about hierarchies and codes unique to the Department of Corrections and the prison culture it creates. A pervasive theme of these stories is having to endure the constant threat of violence: Danner Darcleight writes about watching a fellow inmate slice another man’s face open with the lid of a tuna can during his first week in prison, while Jose di Lenola describes how his fear of aggression is quickly converted to a habituation to violence as he faces off against a notorious gang after unwittingly provoking one of its members.
The collection is made stronger by the fact that its writers not only reflect a diverse and interesting cross-section of many of the fifty states, but because they are acutely proficient storytellers, with prose that is alternately haunting and sad, insightful and evocative. Undergirding the anecdotes themselves is a call to action and to compassion for an all but forgotten population.
Some stories contain humor or even a sense of hope. The section entitled “Seeking Peace” chronicles the many and varied ways that inmates have found acceptance, spirituality, or positivity in the dark, lonely, sociopathic world they inhabit. Diana Waggy recalls meeting Sarah Palin while she was still governor of Alaska and visited to speak to the women about their “God-given destiny.” Waggy jokingly tells a corrections officer that she will shake Palin’s hand and say, “Hi, I’m one of the people you want to kill with the death penalty.” The essay takes a surprising turn when Waggy finds Buddhism and a friendship with one of the volunteers who frequents the prison to lead meditations, and concludes, “One thought causes something, which leads to something else, which leads to a victory or a meltdown, depending on which direction we’re going.”
Yet somehow, even those essays that end on such a note are suffused with a sense of despair, as the grim reality of being confined to a place where loneliness takes on bewildering new proportions is difficult to escape. In “A Renaissance,” Stephen Whetzel explains what it means to become institutionalized after years without contact with the outside world, though he ultimately finds solace and hope through pen pals. He develops a particularly close friendship with one woman who writes to him for seven years, until the death of her son leaves her so stricken with grief that she is unable to continue their correspondence.
In “Family Life,” men and women illustrate the pain of being away from their children, while “Community Activists” chronicles inmates who become increasingly politically aware as a result of incarceration, and now work toward prison reform from inside. Robert Saleem Holbrook writes about being remanded to fourteen months in solitary confinement without charge after publishing his observations of institutional racism.
This collection is titled “Fourth City” because, if combined into one area, our incarcerated citizens would form the fourth largest metropolis in the United States. Their accounts are a shocking testament to the “recycling of human misery” of which Larson speaks, and comprise a necessary document of what are ultimately just a fraction of the inhabitants of a city that cannot be found on any map—or, as one of the writers here aptly calls it, “a shitty, diet-cola version of the world.”
Dyan Neary is a freelance writer and documentary filmmaker from New York City. Her work has appeared in Elle, the New York Times, GO, In These Times, Zmag, and the Indypendent, with a focus on human rights, health, and environmental issues. She has worked as a staff writer for the Earth Times and Conference News Daily, providing on-site coverage of international United Nations summits. She is currently a graduate student and teacher in the English department at Florida State University, and is working on a novel.