Tag Archives: prison life

The Mars Room: Rachel Kushner

“I sometimes think San Francisco is cursed. I mostly think it’s a sad suckville of a place. People say it’s beautiful, but the beauty is only visible to newcomers, and invisible to those who had to grow up there.”

In Rachel Kushner’s The Mars Room, 29 year-old Romy Hall is serving two life sentence (plus an additional six years) for something bad, something she actually admits she did. As the old saying goes, prisons are full of innocent men and women, but in this case, Romy is guilty and now lives out her life at the Stanville Women’s Correctional facility in Northern California.

The mars room

The novel opens very strongly with Romy, being transferred from one prison to another, describing a bus ride “up the valley” It’s two a.m., the women are shackled and counted, and Romy watches the world go by from the bus window. One pregnant 15-year-old is “in the cage on account of her age, to protect her from the rest of us,” but her whimpering attracts the attention of a more aggressive prisoner. This scene sets the stage for the story which centres on society’s outcasts: one woman who murdered her own child, trans Conan, and the novel’s central character, Romy Hall who grew up in the Sunset area of San Francisco. Running wild and unchecked, by age 11 Romy meets trouble; soon she’s more or less a street kid, shoplifting, doing drugs and eventually living in the Tenderloin, working in the Mars Room, a seedy strip joint:

If you showered you had a competitive edge at the Mars Room. If your tattoos were misspelled you were hot property. If you weren’t five or six months pregnant, you were the it-girl in the club that night. Girls maced customers in the face and sent us all outside, hacking and choking. One dancer got mad at d’Artagnan. the night manager, and set the dressing room on fire. She was let go, it’s true, but that was exceptional.

In prison, Romy is surrounded by poor, disenfranchised women–women who’ve had terrible things happen to them, terrible things done to them, and who’ve been altered as a result:

I said everything was fine but nothing was. The life was being sucked out of me. The problem was not moral. It was nothing to do with morality. These men dimmed my glow. Made me numb to touch, and angry. I gave, and got something in exchange, but it was never enough. I extracted from the wallets–which was how I thought of the men, as walking wallets–as much as I possible could. The knowledge that it was not a fair exchange coated me in a certain film. 

The novel, which moves from first to third person narrator, goes back over Romy’s past so that we eventually learn the path that led her to prison but then there’s also claustrophobic prison life. The other prisoners Romy mentions seem types rather than individuals: a masculine looking trans and a “butch security force.” 

Another main character is Gordon Hauser, and while he’s a teacher who works in the prison, there’s also something lost about him. He never finished his PhD, was teaching community college as an adjunct, and ends up teaching in prisons because it’s steady work.  Gordon retreats to the Sierra foothills where he reads Ted Kaczynski.

Romy’s strong voice is not entirely unsympathetic, but I suspect this is because her intelligence is evident :

Something brewed in me over the years I worked at the Mars Room, sitting in laps, deep into this flawed exchange. This thing in me brewed and foamed. And when I directed it–a decision that was never made; instead, instincts took over–that was it. 

Through Romy, the novel tackles some big questions, but ultimately, for this reader, the tale was relentlessly depressing and a rather bludgeoning experience. The novel’s message re: justice for poor females who are frequently victims in various ways, and end up behind bars as fodder for American’s prison system, makes a social-conscience novel which is heavy-handed, one directional, and unsubtle. The correctional officers are fat, stupid, abusive etc. Wentworth, a favourite Australian series of mine, in spite of being occasionally over the top, addressed the same issues, but somehow the intimacy, plot, social issues and moral grey areas were much better defined.

I had a friend, a correctional officer, who told me the women were the ‘worst” and he preferred working in a men’s prison. I thought of him as I read this.

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Help I Am Being Held Prisoner: Donald Westlake (1974)

‘That’s Künt with an umlaut’ explains Harold Künt, the main character of Donald Westlake’s lively, entertaining novel Help I Am Being Held Prisoner, but no matter how many times Harold protests the pronunciation of his name, he’s doomed to be called … well you can figure it out.

Having his last name mispronounced is just one of Harold’s problems. A bigger problem is that he’s serving time in prison for a practical joke that went wrong (you have to read the book to find out what he did).  Harold’s intentions may have been humour, but it’s no joke when he find himself locked up in prison and warned to avoid the showers when the Joyboys are there.

But wait … when Harold finds himself working in prison alongside the Joyboys, they seem like decent fellows and they befriend him. They can’t be that bad, can they?

Think of the idea of An Innocent Abroad, well Harold Künt is An Innocent Inside. Yes he is guilty of a thoughtless prank, but he isn’t a criminal as such. Thrown in with hardened criminals, Harold very quickly gets in too deep, but since his life depends on going along with the programme, he must survive by his wits. After all, ‘Snitches get stitches.’

Help I am being held prisoner

If you like the humorous novels of Donald Westlake, then you will enjoy Help I am Being Held Prisoner from Hard Case Crime. Harold is an entertaining, likable narrator, and it’s fun to go along for the ride in this well-paced blend of crime and humour.

“I think it’s beautiful,” I said.

“You want in?”

Later I would have more than one occasion to give that question deep thought, but at the moment it was asked I considered none of the implications; such as, for instance, the criminal nature both of the act and of my new companions. I was outside the wall, it was as simple as that. “I want in,” I said.

“There’s maybe more to it than you know right now,” he said. “I got to tell you that.”

The tiniest of warning lights went on at the end of some cul-de-sac of my head, but I was looking the other way. “I don’t care,” I said. “Besides, what’s the alternative?”

This is the first of 4 rediscovered novels from Donald Westlake scheduled to be published by Hard Case Crime

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The Wicked Go To Hell: Frédéric Dard (1956)

“It was an eerie spectacle, for the darkness obstructed the rest of the bodies so that the prisoners looked like the heads of fallen angels nailed to a backdrop of night, with their hands for wings.”

Pushkin Vertigo continues to publish some astonishing crime novels, and this is proved once more by a second Frédéric Dard novel, The Wicked Go To Hell which follows on the tail of Bird in a Cage. The Wicked Go To Hell follows the escape of two convicts–one a spy and one an undercover cop. There’s very little down time in this gripping tale, an exploration of identity and morality .

the-wicked-go-to-hell

The novel opens with a bureaucratic scene of a cop named Mérins meeting with his chief while groans of beating and torture taking place next door provide the incongruous background noise to what should be an office meeting. The man being beaten is a spy. He’s been interrogated five times, four times too many, according to the chief, but like many ideologues, the prisoner isn’t breaking. The chief has an alternate plan–he intends to place Mérins undercover in the same cell with the prisoner. They are supposed to buddy up and then plan an escape.

“We’ll lock you both up in the same jail cell… a tough one.. the sort of place that gives kindly old ladies the shivers. The pair of you will escape!

You’ll try to hole up somewhere and you’ll wait. The breakout will be big news. The head of the organization, knowing that his man has escaped, will want to get him back… At some point or other, he’ll break cover…Then, when you’ve got your hands on him…”

He made a chopping motion with the side of his hand. The gesture meant death.

‘Got it?”

The Chief expects that guards will be killed along the way, but hey, it’s all in the name of making the escape look authentic….

 

“Your second problem: the escape… Keep telling yourself, old son, that you’re acting unofficially.”

He repeated the word, spelling it out with great vehemence:

“Un-off-icially! The minute you leave the office I shall disown you! You know what that means?”

Sure I knew. He couldn’t help taking a sly sideways look at me.

“If you run into trouble, I won’t be able to lift a finger to help you, especially since escape won’t happen without breakages…”

The novel then shifts from the first person to the third–two freshly beaten men, handcuffed together, are thrown into a cell by a sadistic warden, where they join a third prisoner, a mute. The two new prisoners, Hal and Frank exchange names, but we don’t know which one is the undercover cop and which one is the spy. Each man expresses suspicion that the other has been planted in the cell as a “stool pigeon.”

Days of beatings pass in the airless, dank, dark prison; nights are full of screams, and then Hal and Frank hear that an execution of another prisoner is planned. They hatch a plan to escape on the day of the execution, and the plan gives them hope, raising their spirits:

They had grabbed it as they would a battering ram-and in fact their idea was itself a battering ram, with which they would try to smash down the gates….

I don’t think I’m spoiling anything to say the men escape, and that’s when the story really begins. ..

Although this is a novel about an escape, the atmosphere is incredibly claustrophobic–running from the dank, stinking cell to the outside world, the desperate men are chased and hunted, and exchange one hell for another.

In common with other titles in the Pushkin Vertigo line, The Wicked Go to Hell is an incredibly clever novel. Author Frédéric Dard deliberately blurs the lines between the ‘good’ and the ‘bad’ guys, stripping them of their identities so that we try to guess which one of the two men is the spy and which one is the undercover cop. All we have to judge them by is their current behaviour–which really is how we should see everyone–not by their uniforms or their status. Both men lose their identities as they become dehumanized prisoners. But then after the escape, we keep waiting for the reveal, and it comes, finally at the end of the wonderful story in which right and wrong blur into escape and survival. While both men begin this journey on opposite ends of the law, there’s a greater morality here in the bonds of friendship, debt and loyalty.

According to the afterword at the end of the book, Dard wrote 284 thrillers. I’m hoping that Pushkin mines this author’s work. The Wicked Go To Hell was made into a film. I’d love to see it.

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translated by David Coward

Original title: Les Salauds en Enfer (1956)

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Eileen: Ottessa Moshfegh

“That is what I imagined life to be–one long sentence of waiting out the clock.”

Eileen, from author Ottessa Moshfegh is a novel that could described in many ways, yet I doubt if any single description would give a potential reader an accurate impression of this book. It’s a crime novel, a bildungsroman, a character study, a story of a dysfunctional family–all these things wrapped into a dark tale of how Eileen, a complicated, repressed young woman, locked into a pathological home life and employed in a job she dislikes, breaks free. After reading about Eileen’s miserable home life, within a few pages she tells us:

In a week, I would run away from home and never go back. This is the story of how I disappeared.

The story is told by a now elderly Eileen who relates a week in her life 50 years earlier in 1964. And here is how this extraordinary book begins right before Christmas in a “brutal cold town” Eileen masks as X-ville:

I looked like a girl you’d expect to see on a city bus, reading some clothbound book from the library about plants or geography, perhaps wearing a net over my light brown hair. You might take me for a nursing student or a typist, note the nervous hands, a foot tapping, bitten lip. I looked like nothing special. It’s easy for me to imagine this girl, a strange and mousy version of me, carrying an anonymous leather purse, or eating from a small package of peanuts, rolling each one between her gloved fingers, sucking in her cheeks, staring anxiously out the window.

Right away one of the book’s themes creeps in: appearances vs reality, and 24-year-old Eileen is quite aware that she’s frumpy, painfully thin, and extremely unattractive. Yet Eileen, who describes herself as “ugly, disgusting, unfit for the world” courts this look by wearing her dead mother’s far-too big clothing. She lives with her cruel alcoholic, widowed ex-cop father–a man plagued with booze-fueled paranoias, in a filthy three-storey colonial, and she sleeps on a cot up in the unfinished attic. With a poor diet, and obsessed with her body functions and their associated odours, she’s become addicted to laxatives in order to produce regular bowel movements.  There are hints that Eileen may be anorexic, chewing sweets to get the flavor before spitting them out as she curls up on a mattress in the squalor of her attic room.

Within a few pages we know that sexually repressed, “always furious,” Eileen toys with fantasies of death and suicide. She imagines stepping out of her house and one of the large icicles “plummeting through the hollow” of her collarbone or even entering “the vacuous center” of her body “like a glass dagger.” But there are other fantasies too–fantasies of escaping her horrible, suffocating home life in the small Massachusetts town.  Perhaps if you saw frumpily dressed Eileen, you’d think, as she suggests, that she’s a “shy and gentle soul for afar,” but that impression would be wrong. Eileen is a hard drinker and a chronic shoplifter. Her father’s constant cruel barbs bounce off her armour and fail to penetrate. She likes books about “awful things–murder, illness, death,” and she keeps a dead mouse in the glove box of the old Dodge Cornet she drives.

eileen

 

There’s also what Eileen calls the “death mask,” the expression she wears to hide how she really feels, and it’s also what she recognizes in other people–especially the young offenders at the juvenile correctional facility for boys where she is employed as a secretary of sorts. The prison is run with a religious bent, so the boys, many of whom look like sad angels, are forced to read the bible and are punished for masturbating by being thrown in “the cave.” Just as Eileen moves through the motions at home, she goes through the motions at work, noting the broken-hearted mothers who visit, and the damaged boys, the youngest is 9, who shuffle through the system. Some of the young prisoners are guilty of horrendous crimes against family members, yet Eileen acknowledging, in retrospect, that she was too self-focused for empathy, mostly likes the inmates. In spite of her inexperience, she understands that many of the boys wear the same “death mask” as she does; that they too have perfected the art of hiding their thoughts, their feelings, their real selves. One prisoner in particular, Leonard Polk, a boy who murdered his cop father, catches Eileen’s attention:

There was a strange bounce in his step. His face was bright and relaxed, and serene in a way that no other boy’s face had ever seemed, a loose reservedness which I found myself admiring. He looked pleased, impenetrable, and cold as though nothing could ever disturb him, and yet still as innocent as the silent creature I’d seen earlier touching himself absentmindedly on his cot in the cave. I searched for something in his face, anything his mask of contentment might betray, but there was nothing. He was a genius in that sense–a master. His was the best mask I’d ever seen.

Eileen’s main interest at work is a former inmate, the brawny guard, Randy, and while Randy seems oblivious to this mousy girl, she sneaks peeks at his crotch, tries to catch a whiff of his sweat, and spends nights and weekends stalking him, parked outside of his apartment.

In spite of Eileen’s measured, calm voice, this tale is tension packed. We know that something bad happens; we’re just waiting for that catalyst, “her destiny” to appear. …

What’s so beautiful about Eileen’s story–a story about escape, crime and survival are the moments when she injects comments into the narrative as she looks back on her old life, says goodbye to characters in the story she never saw again, and mulls over the person she used to be.

Funny the things one remembers. I spent most Sundays holed up at home or driving to and from Randy’s house while my father was out communing with god or whatever he thought he was doing at church.

What happened in X-ville was just the beginning of Eileen’s journey and that experience was often bitter:

So you seem what came after this story ends was not a direct line to paradise, but I believe I got on the right road, with all the appropriate trips and kinks

Eileen seems to be a book that divides opinion. Many reviews on goodreads state that readers never liked or felt close to Eileen. While for me, this was never the point, I have to say that I felt the opposite. Ottessa Moshfegh’s skillfully woven narrative takes us into Eileen’s intriguing, dark, complex mind, and Eileen doesn’t spare or excuse herself while categorically refusing victim status. As a character, shaped by her environment, she makes sense, and in a ‘what if’ sort of way, it’s easy to predict what Eileen would have become if she’s stayed trapped in X-ville.

You know you really love a book when you create reading opportunities. I’m still thinking about this book which will end up on my best-of-year list, so it’s highly recommended if you like an extremely dark read full of twisted and unpleasant characters. Eileen has been compared, justifiably, to Alfred Hitchcock, and I’ll go one further and say that Eileen should appeal to fans of Patricia Highsmith. In Eileen, crime isn’t seen as a prelude to punishment, or a tool in the battle between good and evil; it’s seen as a liberating event. And that’s wonderfully, remarkably twisted.

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Notes from a Dead House: Dostoevsky Part II

Dostoevsky’s Notes from a Dead House  is a philosophical work. While it’s an intense, incredible read, it’s also, due to its basic thematic format, a surprisingly accessible–and by that I mean it’s not as extensive or as heavy as Dostoevsky’s multi plot later works: Demons or Crime and Punishment. One of the book’s themes is the impact of punishment on human nature, and since Dostoevsky spends some time detailing the crimes and circumstances which have sent men to the camp, this is also a document of social criticism.

So here’s one of my favourite scenes which talks about Orlov “the famous brigand,” a “runaway soldier.” There are many former soldiers mentioned by Dostoevsky as inmates of the prison and they’re there for various things ranging from hitting an officer to killing one. Anyway Orlov, a man whose fearsome reputation precedes him, sticks in Dostoevsky’s mind as seen through the thinly veiled disguise of his narrator Alexander Petrovich Goryanchikov, a former nobleman sentenced to the Siberian prison for 10 years for the murder of his wife. Orlov is about to be punished.

One summer day rumor spread through the prisoners’ wards that in the evening the famous brigand Orlov, a runaway soldier, was to be punished, and after the punishment he would be brought to the ward. Waiting for Orlov, the sick prisoners affirmed that he was to be cruelly punished. They were all in some agitation, and, I confess, I also awaited the famous brigand’s appearance with great curiosity. I had long been hearing wonders about him. He was an evildoer such as few are, who put his knife cold-bloodedly into old people and children–a man with a formidable strength of will and a proud consciousness of his strength. He pleaded guilty to many murders and was sentenced to run the gauntlet. It was already evening when he was brought. The ward was dark, and candles had been lit. Orlov was nearly unconscious, terribly pale, with thick- disheveled, pitch-black hair. His back was swollen and of a bloody blue color. The prisoners tended to him all night, changed the water for him, turned him from side to side, gave him medicine, as if they were caring for some near and dear one, or some benefactor. The very next day he came fully to his senses and paced up and down the ward a couple of times! That amazed me: he had been so weak and exhausted when he arrived in the hospital. He had made it at one go through half the total number of rods he was sentenced to. The doctor had stopped the punishment only when he saw that to continue it threatened the inevitable death of the criminal. Besides, Orlov was a small man and of weak constitution, and what’s more he had been worn out by being kept on trial for a long time.

The narrator is extremely curious about Orlov and contrasts him with another brigand:

I can say positively that I have never in my life met a man of stronger, more iron character than he. Once, in Tobolsk, I saw a celebrity of this kind, the former chief of a band of brigands. He was a wild beast in the fullest sense, and standing next to him and not yet knowing his name, you sensed instinctively that you had a frightful creature beside you. But for me the horrible thing in him was his spiritual torpor. The flesh had won out over all his inner qualities so much that from the first glance you could see by his face that the only thing left in him was one savage craving for physical gratification, sensuality, fleshy indulgence. I am sure that Korenev–the name of this brigand–would even have lost heart and trembled with fear in the face of punishment, though he was capable of killing without even batting an eye. Orlov was the complete opposite of him. This was manifestly a total victory over the flesh. You could see that the man had limitless control over himself, despised all tortures and punishments, and had no fear of anything in the world. You saw in him only an infinite energy, a thirst for activity, a thirst for revenge, a thirst for attaining a set goal.

Drive is of course one of the human characteristics under observation. Some men will kill without compunction for very little gain while others are provoked or stretched beyond endurance before a crime is committed.  Dostoevsky’s narrator (clearly a very thinly veiled Dostoevsky) makes his observations about these two brigands: both very frightening, violent individuals–but one is an example of the triumph of the spirit over the flesh. We see Dostoevsky marveling at Orlov, and finding much to admire in spite of the fact that Orlov is a murderer.

notes from a dead houseDostoevsky is clearly fascinated by the subject of murder & what drives a person to commit this extreme act, yet at the same time, he realizes that one murder cannot necessarily be compared to another, and this is illustrated by the story of Baklushin, one of the many unforgettable characters in the book. Baklushin’s crime was a crime of passion; he murders an annoying German who’s about to marry the woman Baklushin loves.  Another murderer, Gazin, “a terrible creature,” would torment and then knife children “with enjoyment.

That evening, already in the dark, before they locked the barracks, I wandered near the fence, and a heavy sadness fell on my soul, and never again did I experience such sadness in all my prison life. It was hard to endure the first day of imprisonment, wherever it might be: in a prison, in a fortress, at hard labor. But I remember being occupied most of all by one thought, which afterwards constantly pursued me during all my life in prison– a partly insoluble thought, insoluble for me even now: about the inequality of punishment for the same crime. True, crimes cannot be compared with each other, even approximately. For instance, two criminals each killed a man; the circumstance of both cases are weighed, and both end up with the same punishment. Yet look at the difference between the crimes. One, for instance, put a knife into a man just like that, for nothing, for an onion; he came out on the high road, put a knife into a muzhik, and all the man had was an onion. “Look, man! You sent me out to rob: so I put a knife in a muzhik and all I found on him was an onion.” “Fool! An onion’s a kopeck! A hundred men–a hundred kopecks. There’s a rouble for you!” (A prison legend.) But another killed defending the honor of his bride, his sister, his daughter from the lust of a tyrant. One killed as a vagrant beset by a whole regiment of pursuers, defending his freedom, his life, often dying of hunger; another cuts little children’s throats for the pleasure of it, to feel their warm blood on his hands, to enjoy their fear, their last dove-like trembling under his knife. And what then? They both go to the same hard labor. True, there are variations in the length of the sentences. But these variations are relatively few; while the variations in one and the same crime are a numberless multitude. For each character there is a variation. But suppose it’s impossible to reconcile, to smooth over this difference, that it’s an insoluble problem–sort of like squaring the circle–let’s suppose so!

But murder isn’t the only crime under scrutiny here. The narrator notes how one man steals from him–even though he likes him–just because he can. There are others, according to Dostoevsky’s narrator who “are simply destitute by nature.” The narrator explains these “certain strange persons, placid and not at all lazy, who are destined by fate to remain eternally destitute.” In prison, these types pop up to offer their cheap services, and as they exist on the bottom rung of humanity, they are misused and underpaid. Another type noted by the narrator are those who “are born with one idea, which unconsciously moves them here and there all their lives; so they rush about all their lives until they find something they really want to do; then they are ready to risk their necks.” Illustrating that some crimes are committed under a unique set of circumstances, he notes that one man who killed his “superior for striking him,” will “lie down so unprotestingly under the rods … as if he acknowledged that he deserved it.”

The narrator also describes daily life in the prison along with its complicated economic system (from the moneylenders to the invalids) and the significance of alcohol. Prison life–a life that teaches patience–has its highs and its lows. Christmas is a particularly poignant time for the prisoners, and at one point, the prisoners put on a play. The importance of work is also scrutinized:

It occurred to me once that if they wanted to crush, to annihilate a man totally, to punish him with the most terrible punishment, so that the most dreadful murderer would shudder at this punishment and be frightened of it beforehand, they would only need to give the labor a character of complete, total useless and meaningless … if he were forced, for instance, to pour water from one tub into another and from the other into the first, to grind sand, to carry a pile of dirt from one place to another and back again–I think the prisoner would hand himself after a few days, or commit a thousand crimes, to die rather than endure such humiliation, shame, and torment.

The narrator observes the often irrational lengths men will go to “to put off the moment of punishment,” the kindness of the doctors, how the prisoners’ verbal altercations rarely escalate into violence, how some prisoners live for the next alcohol binge, and how “blood and power intoxicate.”  While Dostoevsky’s observations about human nature are incredibly detailed, he is never clinical; he never forgets that the prisoners–in spite of the many degradations of their living conditions–are beings whose humanity must be recognized.

Even the much hated major loves his poodle.

Translated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky

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Notes from a Dead House: Dostoevsky Part I

The narrator of Dostoevsky’s Notes from a Dead House is Alexander Petrovich Goryanchikov, a former nobleman now serving a ten year sentence for the murder of his wife. This is a very thinly sketched fictional narrative for Dostoevsky, and the entire spousal murder never really convinces. It exists, as translator Richard Pevear explains, as “a mask for the censors: the notes of a man serving a sentence for a common-law crime were more likely to be passed for publication than the notes of a political criminal.”

In Lermontov: Tragedy in the Caucasus author Laurence Kelly argues that 19th century Russia literature was one of the only avenues for social protest for the times, but that criticisms had to be obscured or layered with double-meaning–even then it was still dodgy. Dostoevsky had to tread very carefully with Notes From a Dead House. This was a book that couldn’t be seen to be social protest, and yet when describing the conditions and punishments, there’s a clear strand of questioning the underlying institutional and loose judicial philosophy at work. Yet even more than the underlying expose of daily life in a prison camp in Siberia, Dostoevsky’s target here is the examination of human nature: how human nature suffers from imprisonment, how we endure punishment, the nature of guilt & sin, and significantly how imprisonment causes some to revert to their basest selves while others overcome their venal passions. Notes from a Dead House is Dostoevsky’s seminal work and one which contains all the themes of his later novels. Interestingly Dostoevsky never finished Netocha Nezvanova, the novel he was working on when he was arrested, and this implies a ‘before and after’ mindset.

notes from a dead houseIn April 1849, Dostoevsky was just 27 years old when he was arrested for ‘revolutionary activities’ and his involvement in the Petrashevksy Circle. He was charged with reading and circulating a letter written by literary critic Belinsky and also of “attempting to set up a clandestine printing press.” Tsar Nicholas I, considered the most reactionary ruler of Russia, did not tolerate anything he considered radical intellectualism, and his rule was marked by extreme censorship and a network or spies and informers. But back to Dostoevsky and his fellow Petrashevksy Circle members who were arrested, imprisoned and then suffered a staged mock execution before being shipped off for their various destinations. Dostoevsky was stripped of his status as a nobleman, given a sentence of eight years of exile and hard labor in a prison in Omsk, Siberia to be immediately followed by compulsory military service. The sentence was later commuted to four years and in 1854, Dostoevsky served as a private in Kazakhstan.

As translator Richard Pevear states, Notes from a Dead House was the first published account of life in the Siberian hard-labor camps. It initiated the genre of the prison memoir.”  But in addition to the book’s significance for that particular genre, the book also marked a shift in Dostoevsky as a writer. Dostoevsky formed Notes from a Dead House from notes gathered during his four years of imprisonment and rather than a novel, the book takes a more thematic approach with sections which cover the celebration of Christmas in the camp, a play performed by the prisoners and the elaborate distribution of alcohol amongst the inmates. Throughout the book, Dostoevsky, struggling with health issues, and recovering from the initial shock of being flung into the company of murderers, brigands and thieves, clearly shows an overriding fascination with human behaviour. There is no other way that Dostoevsky could possibly have written this book without the first hand exposure to a Siberian prison, for it’s here, amongst the prisoners, in this human crucible, that Dostoevsky is exposed to the psychology behind crime, punishment, sin and guilt.

more to follow…

Translated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky

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Bending the Bars by John Barker

“News came through that a con on C wing had been murdered by screws in the block beaten to pulped pulp then hanged to cover it up, a suicide story. It seemed too cynical to be true. I knew screws could be brutal but this was too much, all my deepest fears congealed.”

In the 1970s, a group called the Angry Brigade claimed responsibility for a number of actions in Britain–including the bombing of the home of employment minister Robert Carr. After other bombings, arrests took place followed by the longest conspiracy trial in the history of the British legal system. At the conclusion of the trial of the Stoke Newington Eight (this refers to the eight people eventually tried for conspiracy and weapons possession) twenty-three-year-old John Barker received a ten-year sentence for his role in the Angry Brigade. Deemed a Category A prisoner–A Danger to the State, Barker was locked up and rotated through several British prisons. After completion of seven years of this sentence (1971-1978), Barker was released. Bending the Bars is a collection of essays covering those seven years inside.

The book is not a memoir in the strictest sense. This is not a chronological account of day one forward until release–although the book does end with Barker walking out of prison. Instead this is a collection of essays highlighting some of Barker’s experiences in prison. Barker states that “the cops had framed an guilty man,” so there’s no self-pity–but there is a strong analysis of exactly what it’s like to be caught in the net and tossed into a system that attempts to manage and control Barker and his fellow cons. In spite of some very hard times, in the foreword, Barker states that his “time inside was the golden age of such prisons…. Since that time we have endured Mrs. Thatcher, Michael Howard and Tony Blair, all keen on punishing people who are not ‘Hard-working families who play by the rules’ as Blair put it. Prison is almost exclusively for working class people who do not ‘play by the rules’.”

Barker argues that prison is “like an experiment in social control” with a purpose under New Labour “to destroy what remains of collective solidarity amongst cons.” Indeed Barker cites many examples of protest solidarity amongst prison inmates, and it’s clear that to the Barker and his fellow cons, they had to stick together. The sense of unity amongst cons prevails–from Barker’s contacts with the Irish prisoners to the odd con rumble, but the cons attempt, for the most part, to retain the sense that their collective situation and condition warrants solidarity. Indeed it’s quite clear that when the cons stand together, they are at their strongest. In-fighting and the odd snitch weaken their solidarity, and tension and frustration erode friendships at times.

The first essay Early Days: Brixton covers Barker’s “comprehensive tour of misery”–his initial adjustment, his boredom, and the realization that in prison you can’t control even a tiniest detail of your own life. Everything is subject to routine–when you get up, when you go to bed, and Barker describes the feeling of power prisoners experience when they execute a seemingly minor act of independence. On the receiving end of the system, Barker recognized that “a sadist in the Home Office” dreamed up many of the conditions inside the prison (Derrick Jensen’s book Welcome to the Machine goes into the subject of prison design in some length). Barker’s argument that some sicko had to have had a hand in designing the prison and its systems of control is a point made repeatedly throughout the book–from the petty humiliations, the “shit parcels,” and the sweat box. On one occasion, the prisoners are ordered to make a large number of prison beds for Saudi Arabia, and on another occasion, the cons gather to watch a film that just happens to have a death row, execution sequence. “Asylum mode” cube shaped cells at Long Lartin Prison seem designed with a clinical interest in isolation in mind, and Barker wryly notes that he “could do without the deluxe shitting service but did not want to live in a box.” In this regimented, depersonalized and isolated world, with privacy stripped away, small kindnesses carry great weight.

The thing I found most surprising about the book is that Barker’s sense of humour prevails. In spite of confinement, in spite of losing someone he loved, he conveys moments of joy, and relates many amusing conversations amongst the prisoners. For example, in the chapter Manoeuvres, Barker recalls a conversation about Pavlov–a touchy subject given the situation. One con enrolled in an Open University course on behavior proceeds to defend Pavlov as a man who “was just describing the facts.” Barker answers: “But the facts as you call them came out of a set-up. The dog didn’t need the fucking bell to eat his dinner.” In another chapter, a con “had this thing about spaceships.”

Bending the Bars comes across as a remarkably honest, direct and unpretentious record of some of Barker’s experiences. This is not an account written by a cynical, hardened, angry individual. Instead, Barker comes across as an accepting individual who learns to cope with imprisonment, who fights depression and despair. He notes guards who seem to have some sort of standard of behavior and guards who are just sadistic and have an unhealthy enjoyment of their jobs. Included are some fascinating observations about the Irish prisoners, and this brings up the issue of hunger strikes. Barker includes his thoughts on the hunger strike as a tactic and notes that while he was willing to join such a motion in solidarity, “we didn’t believe in it as a tactic because it seemed to assume that the other side were ultimately humane people.” I’d never thought of it in those terms before.

The book makes it clear that the notion that prison is supposed to ‘rehabilitate’ inmates is ludicrous. It’s all about punishment, power, and control–although Barker did get to make a few pillowcases. On another note, I wish the book included some sort of glossary. I was able to infer meaning into some terms used, but in other cases, I had no clue what some words meant.

On an aside note, and to reiterate Barker’s observation that “prison is almost exclusively for working class people who do not “play by the rules” Z Magazine January 2008 pp. 23-24 included the “Prison Challenge Quiz.” If you haven’t seen this and are interested in the subject, get your hands on a copy. Anyway, question 12 asks: Which crime will get a stuffer sentence?

a. embezzling $5,000,000
b. stealing a doughnut.

In case you made the mistake of using common sense to gauge your answer, I’ll include the answer; it’s b: stealing a doughnut. A man pinched a doughnut. This was shoplifting, but pushing a shop worker in the process turned the incident into armed robbery. That would normally have netted a 5-15 year sentence, but a prior record could bring a sentence of 30 years to life.

The million-dollar embezzler, on the other hand, an Enron conspirator pled guilty to helping himself to more than 5 million. This landed a 6-year sentence but good behavior could shave off 2 years.

If you are interested in reading more about The Angry Brigade, I recommend Anarchy in the UK: The Angry Brigade by Tom Vague and The Angry Brigade: The Cause and The Case. Britain’s First Urban Guerilla Group by Gordon Carr.

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Filed under Barker John, Non Fiction