What documents constrain, narrate, or liberate subjecthood?

Black and white photo of Dan Berger
Dan Berger is an associate professor of comparative ethnic studies at the University of Washington Bothell and adjunct affiliate associate professor of history at the University of Washington Seattle. He is a founding coordinator of the Washington Prison History Project (waprisonhistory.org), which is a multimedia archive documenting prison activism and policy in Washington. Berger is the author or editor of several books, including Captive Nation: Black Prison Organizing in the Civil Rights Era, which won the James A. Rawley Prize from the Organization of American Historians, Rethinking the American Prison Movement (coauthored with Toussaint Losier), and Remaking Radicalism: A Grassroots Documentary Reader of the United States, 1973–2001 (coedited with Emily Hobson). Berger contributed an introduction to the new edition of Concrete Mama: Prison Profiles from Walla Walla, and writes frequently for publications such as Black Perspectives, Truthout, and the Washington Post. He is currently writing a book called Stayed on Freedom: One Family's Journey in the Black Freedom Struggle, which is a biography of the long Black Power movement as lived by grassroots organizers Michael and Zoharah Simmons.

The Prison(er) Story

Prison is a disappearing act. All that brick walls and concrete cells and armed guards can truly offer is to confine people. Prison, the journalist Tom Wicker wrote, has “a dual function: to keep us out as well as them in.”1 Yet as every magician knows, disappearance is not the same as erasure. Incarcerated people have repeatedly broached their confinement through communication. Through letters, newspapers, and media-generating events such as strikes and protests—and now, even podcasts—incarcerated people reach an otherwise out-of-reach public. As they do so, they upend the prison’s ontology, which presumes captivity of an unruly and detestable lot. Their narration moves incarcerated people from “criminals” and “inmates” to something resembling personhood. Much as anthropologist Michel-Rolph Trouillot said of the enslaved people of Haiti who shocked the West by their abolitionist revolt, incarcerated people enter “history with the peculiar characteristic of being unthinkable even as it happen[s].”2 The political or empathic subjectivity of incarcerated people remains similarly “unthinkable.” Defined as a criminal, the prisoner cannot be an artist, activist, or rights-bearing subject. Born of necessity, then, the ingenuity of subjectivity behind bars is its refusal of the ideological closure of American jurisprudence.
Wicker, for instance, came to know the prison’s “dual function” as a result of his being a negotiator during the September 1971 Attica rebellion. He saw firsthand how the state’s unwillingness to respect the human rights of people in prison catalyzed a dramatic rebellion, an event which Wicker said “was the first place I have ever seen where there was no racism”—yet one that NY State Troopers put down with murderous rage. The assault at Attica, where police killed twenty-nine incarcerated people and ten guards who had been taken as hostage during the rebellion and gassed and tortured hundreds of others, was followed by an assault on the possibility of Attica. Journalists uncritically printed the false claim that prisoners had castrated their hostages. In surveying the facility afterward a Time journalist observed a “simple but crude poem” that a prisoner had etched into the walls—not realizing that the poem in question was “If We Must Die,” a canonical expression of Black radicalism that legendary novelist Claude McKay had penned during a different era of anti-Black racism, the so-called Red Summer of 1919.3
Incarcerated authors tell a universal story in particular contexts. Because the United States presents itself as the “land of the free,” we are typically more familiar with stories of political repression elsewhere: Nelson Mandela at Robben Island, or Aleksander Solzhenitsyn’s history of the Russian gulag. Yet these narratives echo what has been written by dissidents in Ireland’s Long Kesh, Germany’s Stammheim, in Israel’s vast network of prisons and detention centers—all of which is familiar to anyone who has read the prison archive of (formerly) incarcerated Americans such as Austin Reed, Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, Assata Shakur, Miguel Piñero, Albert Woodfox, Art Longworth, Joy Powell, or so many others. Prisoner writings speak of the monotony, capriciousness, and violence of incarceration. The journalist and former Black Panther Mumia Abu-Jamal, incarcerated in Pennsylvania since 1981, describes prison as a “second-by-second assault on the soul, a degradation of the self, an oppressive steel and brick umbrella that transforms seconds into hours and hours into days.”4
In naming their conditions, incarcerated people speak to the joys and ingenuity they are able to create within and despite the institution. The vibrant print culture of American prisons, especially in mass incarceration’s early days of the 1960s through the 1980s, highlights an entrenched civil society among incarcerated people. Where walls and laws prohibited contact, incarcerated people turned to the written word—and the drawn image—to communicate with friends, family, and supporters. That effort is replicated within prisons in a myriad of subversive communications: the “kite” passed between tiers, the study group that gathers around a text hand-copied and shared within a unit, the game of chess played by two people in solitary confinement shouting their moves to each other on hand-drawn boards.
Prison has always generated an intense print culture, which is embedded in a series of subterranean communication networks inside a given facility, between different facilities, and across prisons and the outside world. This print culture and attendant communication networks are crucial records of feeling, experience—and policy. In letters and newspapers, incarcerated people record the daily rhythms of constraint. They chronicle, as legal theorist Colin Dayan put it, “how legal rituals make and unmake persons.”5 Indeed, their testimonies often showcase how incarcerated people work to establish a personhood that the government would abrogate. Their commentary is attuned to the building blocks of life: food, housing, sex, jobs, the law, and all the barriers or bridges to human connection.
Prison itself looms large in such testimonials, but it would be a mistake to assume that these narratives are records of prison alone. For even inasmuch as they catalog incarceration they describe a large social world. As incarcerated people write and draw and create themselves into being they refuse the erasure prison seeks to accomplish. Repeatedly, consistently, prisoner testimonials tell us who we are as a society. Particularly for the United States, where incarceration functions as something of a religion: the country that, for decades, has had the world’s highest rate of incarceration; the country where 70 million have criminal records, but only 14 million belong to unions; the country where one in two adults has had an immediate family member incarcerated; the country whose tradition of family separation stretches from before its founding to the present day. Prisoner writing and creation depict the society that has made incarceration and its attendant cruelties so prevalent.6
The print and visual culture from prison has been deeply embedded in diverse forms of resistance, which is why prison officials fear it so. Prisoner writing has called attention to abuses and has politicized people—incarcerated or otherwise—about the function of prison, both of which have helped spur protest. But print culture has also been a survival strategy incarcerated people use to maintain connections to each other and their family or supporters where other forms of resistance are prohibited.7
All of these dynamics have been thrown into particularly bitter relief during the COVID-19 pandemic. As the pandemic hit, several reports documented that carceral facilities—prisons, jails, and detention centers—are not designed for social distancing. Yet even with a few modest releases, no municipality has engaged in the kind of widespread decarceration needed that public health requires. In the Prison Policy Initiative evaluation of “state efforts to prevent COVID-19 deaths behind bars,” the highest grade any state earned was a D-; most got F+.8 Incarcerated people staged dozens of rebellions to sound the alarm at state neglect.9 So long treated as a metaphorical disease on “society,” incarcerated people have been generally abandoned to a literal disease—and one that can only be transmitted into the closed world of confinement by staff. As with so many things in the history of incarceration, California proves exemplary of national trends: the Golden State could not control its wildfires in part because the incarcerated population that typically serves as firefighters was either too sick from COVID-19 or under lockdown quarantine to prevent its spread.10
The story from prison is the story of literature itself: We are all, each one of us, bound up in a web of mutuality. The question is whether we choose to recognize it—and what do we do as a result?
1 Tom Wicker, “Foreword,” in H. Bruce Franklin, ed., Prison Writing in 20th Century America (New York: Penguin, 1998), p. xi.
2 Michel-Rolph Trouillot, Silencing the Past: Power and the Production of the Past (Boston: Beacon Press, 1995), p. 73.
3 Wicker and TIME both quoted in Dan Berger, Captive Nation: Black Prison Organizing in the Civil Rights Era (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2014), pp. 148, 149
4 Mumia Abu-Jamal, Live from Death Row (New York: Harper Perennial, 1996), pp. 53-54.
5 Colin Dayan, The Law is a White Dog: How Legal Rituals Make and Unmake Persons (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2011).
6 Joshua Dubler and Vincent Lloyd, Break Every Yoke: Religion, Justice, and the Abolition of Prisons (New York: Oxford University Press, 2019); Dan Berger and David Stein, “The Criminalized Majority,” Black Perspectives July 21, 2017, https://www.aaihs.org/the-criminalized-majority/ ; Laura Briggs, Taking Children: A History of American Terror (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2020).
7 Berger, Captive Nation ; Emily Thuma, All Our Trials: Prisons, Policing, and the Feminist Fight to End Violence (Champagn: University of Illinois Press, 2019); Sharon Luk, The Life of Paper: Letters and a Poetics of Living Beyond Captivity (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2017).
8 Emily Widra and Peter Wagner, “Evaluating State Efforts to Prevent COVID19 Deaths Behind Bars,” Prison Policy Initiative, June 15, 2020 https://www.prisonpolicy.org/reports/failing_grades.html
9 Dan Berger, Ryan Fatica, and Duncan Tarr, “As Coronavirus Spreads, Prisoners are Rising Up for Their Health,” The Appeal , April 27, 2020 https://theappeal.org/prisoners-protest-coronavirus-health/ .
10 Kevin Stark, “Coronavirus Pandemic Sidelines California’s Inmate Firefighters,” KQED , July 29, 2020, https://www.npr.org/2020/07/29/896179424/coronavirus-pandemic-sidelines-californias-inmate-firefighters .