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Fourth City: Essays from the Prison in America

Fourth City: Essays from the Prison in America

by Doran Larson

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At 2.26 million, incarcerated Americans not only outnumber the nation’s fourth-largest city, they make up a national constituency bound by a shared condition. Fourth City: Essays from the Prison in America presents more than seventy essays from twenty-seven states, written by incarcerated Americans chronicling their experience inside. In essays as moving


At 2.26 million, incarcerated Americans not only outnumber the nation’s fourth-largest city, they make up a national constituency bound by a shared condition. Fourth City: Essays from the Prison in America presents more than seventy essays from twenty-seven states, written by incarcerated Americans chronicling their experience inside. In essays as moving as they are eloquent, the authors speak out against a national prison complex that fails so badly at the task of rehabilitation that 60% of the 650,000 Americans released each year return to prison. These essays document the authors’ efforts at self-help, the institutional resistance such efforts meet at nearly every turn, and the impact, in money and lives, that this resistance has on the public. Directly confronting the images of prisons and prisoners manufactured by popular media, so-called reality TV, and for-profit local and national news sources, Fourth City recognizes American prisoners as our primary, frontline witnesses to the dysfunction of the largest prison system on earth. Filled with deeply personal stories of coping, survival, resistance, and transformation, Fourth City should be read by every American who believes that law should achieve order in the cause of justice rather than at its cost.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
This dense anthology of essays locates its foundational stance in “the American prison writer as witness,” and claims that only these voices “can testify to whether the largest prison system on earth doles out punishment in the service or at the expense of justice.” Organized into sections such as “Seeking Peace in Prison City” and “Inside Justice and Injustice,” the collection continuously seeks to directly engage with the daily reality of prison life. The essays cover a range of perspectives and tones—from entitled to remorseful, objective to passionate. Readers hear from a “forty-six-year-old pre-hormone, pre-op, MTF (male-to-female) transsexual,” as well as from “a bread and water vegan.” One prisoner uses writing to uncover the childhood roots of his anger, while a mother who killed the abuser of her children, writes: “Punish me, not my children.” As editor Larson warns, in regards to the grim material, these stories are marked with “the chaotic, dehumanizing, and at times violent experience of prison.” At times, the call to justice cannot help but seem ironic given the population testifying. Overall, the book offers readers a clear view through many windows into this “Prison City.” (Dec.)
From the Publisher

This volume is the first to assemble the voices of that singular metropolis in a manner that serves as a testament to the lives lived by unprecedented numbers of people in cages. Practical, poetic, wise, informed, wounded, alive, in tones of despair and hard-earned hope, they illuminate the arc of everyday life in the world’s largest carceral regime with laser precision . . . This volume should be in classrooms, libraries, bookstores, prisons, and on the bookshelf of every citizen.
—Michelle Brown, Department of Sociology, University of Tennessee, and Book Review Editor, Theoretical Criminology

After decades of exploding prison populations, the Fourth City reaches into every part of America. These stories of its survivors are critical for anyone who wants to understand what mass incarceration has done to this country.
Jonathan Simon, Professor of Law, UC Berkeley

Behind bars there is an alternative social order, and that twisted order has everlasting psychological effects on the person that has to endure/survive a segregated community with little or no rehabilitation. Larson has collected a mosaic of language that helps to explicate the failures and misconceptions of the Prison Industrial Complex in the United States. If it is true that one can always tell the state of a nation by the literature it produces, then the reader of Fourth City most certainly will come to understand what really goes on behind the circular razor wire.
—Randall Horton, poet and author of The Lingua Franca of Ninth Street and Roxbury

This book offers an inside perspective that is unparalleled in its contribution to our understanding of imprisonment. The organization makes sense and offers a valuable framework for this comprehensive treatment.
—Austin D. Sarat, William Nelson Cromwell Professor of Jurisprudence and Political Science and Director of the Mellon Project on Student-Faculty Research, Amherst College

Doran Larson and his team of researchers have compiled the largest collection of contemporary American prison narratives ever recorded. The incarcerated speak for themselves, but their numbers are telling in a more important way. They expose a nation that incarcerates a higher percentage of its citizens than any other country in the world and in conditions that no human being should have to endure. Fourth City gives us an enormous city from hell hidden in our midst and asks, what are we willing to do about it?
—Robert A. Ferguson, George Edward Woodberry Professor in Law, Literature, and Criticism, Columbia University

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Michigan State University Press
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Michigan State University Press

Copyright © 2013 Doran Larson
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-61186-107-5


The Life


The essays in this first section offer an introduction to the life lived every day on the streets of Prison City: a city with its own language, culture, social hierarchies, currencies, and codes of conduct. Each essay peels back the stock assumptions about prisons (about violence, rape, etc.), revealing the human experience that stands behind popular images of prisoners and prisons. Several portray the supportive relationships that incarcerated people wrest from the day-to-day weight of life in overcrowded cages as they attempt to make this life into one worth the name. Each testifies to the fundamental fact from which life in Prison City devolves: this is the life that occurs when personalities as varied, distinct, and multifaceted as those of people on the outside meet the standard operating procedures of a mass-scale prison that takes little, if any, account of the fact that it houses individual human beings rather than numbered bodies.

In "Concrete Carnival," Danner Darcleight assumes the guise of a carnival barker leading a picaresque tour of many of the institutional characters, issues, and themes that follow throughout these pages. His title suggests what results when troubled men are left to pursue their needs and desires inside cement boxes. The dexterity of his prose alone suggests the potential that these boxes contain. Yet in the very exuberance of Darcleight's writing, we sense the effort required to counter the weight of a decades-long sentence to this life.

Once we step off of Darcleight's carnival ride, we get down to sober facts in Michael Beverley's "A Perspective on Prison": a practical explanation of how prison hierarchies work, how position and rank are established, and the consequences of violating prison codes. Beverley portrays a prison run with malign neglect, and in which the incarcerated are free and actively encouraged to create their own systems of violent discipline. Between this essay and Darcleight's, the underlying reasons for the prison's failures begin to emerge: Prisons remain indifferent when not openly hostile to individuals, and official discipline is arbitrary at best.

For many years now, the rate of increase in the numbers of women entering jails and prisons has surpassed the rate for men. Part of the reason may be found in Markeithia R. Reevez's "Inmate Jane Doe." Reevez offers an overview of the unsuitedness for women of prisons and programs designed for the management of male prisoners. Reevez adds more light to our deepening image of the prison's failure to prepare its inhabitants for life back in the free world. We see women given no more motivation not to game the system, or to seriously reconsider their behavior, than when engaged in the lifestyles that brought them to jail. If prisons fail to account for the needs and personalities inside the bodies they hold, Reevez makes clear that this failure is compounded for incarcerated women. She helps us to understand how women are affected by a prison that may be more a cause of, than an answer to criminal behavior.

If men fare badly and women worse in prisons that treat all of their wards as though there were in fact a single, incorrigible "criminal type," the lives of gay and transsexual people surely represent the worst of both prison worlds. Catherine Lynn Quick contributes a telling exposé of the potentially fatal challenges facing such prisoners. In "Transsexual in Prison" she writes of the brutalization and use of gay and transsexual people inside prisons that collude in their abuse. Yet she also offers insight into the unexpected ways that—despite the violent pecking order described by Michael Beverley, the haphazard violence depicted by Danner Darcleight, and the gender myopia decried by Markeithia Reevez—even those marked as weak and vulnerable can offer crucial emotional comfort within this environment. As long as prisons house prisoners according to flat-footed distinctions of biological sex, transsexual and gay people will be horribly victimized inside;2 but Quick also points out that even this policy can be made to yield—and gay and transsexual people should be credited for creating—unexpected benefits when prison staff and prisoners treat each other like the needy people they are. Her essay introduces two others showing that despite fostering dehumanization, Prison City is a place where the inhabitants also manage to discover comfort, friendship, even love. These essays make clear that if incarcerated people are not crushed by the prison, this has much less to do with prison policy or practice than with the resilience of incarcerated people in maintaining their humanity despite the ways prisons work.

Freedom affords us the luxury of letting relationships come or go, often fading simply because sustained contact can prove inconvenient, or relegating these relationships to "liking" another for one's Facebook page. But in a place where a single relationship can offer the spark of hope that keeps one alive, the stakes, rewards, and pain of losing contact are very high indeed. In "Friendship," George Whitham describes what it meant to meet a man with a similarly brutal background, facing similar time, and to develop and lose a depth of friendship that most of us might hope for. Corey John Richardson's "How Some Men Find Love" tells the story of finding love for the first time in prison, and the virtually inevitable loss that concludes prison relationships. In these essays we see again that the prison is the cumulative experience of distinct individuals facing and sometimes meeting the challenge of retaining a hold on their humanity inside institutions that treat humanity as contraband.

We need to attend to what prison writers have to tell us that disrupts self-serving ideas of prisons and those who live there. But popular images of the prison are not entirely misrepresentative. They are simply reductive, cartoon versions of The Life actually lived in Prison City. Jose Di Lenola's "The Art of Aggression" brings home these facts. Prisons are violent places in part because people acculturated to violence live there. They are also violent because prisons do too little—if anything effective—to change the habits, cultures, and desperation carried from the street. The result is that violence spreads like a communicable disease: men and women with no desire to engage in violence must do so in order to secure their own lives and the reputations upon which the quality of those lives will depend for years. And how each person deals with the violence in prison is as singular as his relationship to his own mortality and the circle of friendships, support, and backing he can create. "The Art of Aggression" demonstrates that prison violence involves people weighing their fears against the costs of failing to secure their lives.

As the reader works through these first essays, s/he will begin to learn the language, the recurrent challenges, and the structures that bind this archipelago city into one massive accumulation of singular Americans. This segment offers seven first steps inside Prison City: a place that we may begin to think and speak about and thus reconsider in ways that reflect the prison we have built and filled, rather than the one we have invented to comfort ourselves with images of how unlike "us" "they" are. Here we begin to see how the largest of any nation's gathering of incarcerated people actually live from day to day, on the tax dollars every free-world reader pays to keep the lights on in Prison City.



Step right up to the show that never ends ... come inside, come inside ...

'Tis quite a ride, this life inside. One of the scariest shows on earth. A carnival of the bizarre in a fairground of bars and steel, bricks and concrete. Save for the sporadically flickering fluorescents, there are no flashing lights, but we have our bearded women, games of chance, and hustlers lurking around every corner. The rides are painted in institutional grays, browns, tans, and greens; their scariness warranted, their destination nowhere good. The bells don't indicate a winner, but alert us—losers to a man—when we're to be counted, leave our cells, when to return; sometimes they signal a dangerous breakdown in the established order.

Our admission fee is paid in years. In lieu of ticket stubs, rap sheets condense all the victims robbed or raped, hurt or killed into a burst of penal code. We pays our money, we takes our chances.

I'm your carnival barker, a hooker with a heart of fool's gold. You, reader, are a townie, a citizen strapping in for this ride of mine. Mind you, my peers don't fully accept me; they sense that I came from the right side of the tracks. But the world makes little distinction among us. So you see, I don't belong, yet I do belong here.

I'll lead you around, try to keep you safe, introduce you to the oddities. I speak the language, know how to move. But I try to believe that it's all a ride that ends in eighteen more years if I'm a lucky boy and I retain a tenuous grip on my sanity, which is the best I can do. So don't look for a through line. Like the rest of us, you'll have to take it day by day, scene by scene. Since I'll be your guide, you can call me Odi.

Enough talk, let's begin. Keep your arms inside the ride at all times. Don't make any sudden moves and I'll return you in one piece, scout's honor.


I went to chow on Sloppy Joe night. The sloppiest Joe in the state, slopped over undercooked fries, served in a cavernous mess hall half-filled with two hundred diners.

After eating, my group was lined up at the exit. The large exit door swung open as we held our spoons at the ready to toss into the bucket upon leaving. We were just about to be given the Go! command when a fight broke out in one of the sections still eating. The door slammed shut, and with it our chances of getting out without a headache.

We're ordered up against the wall; our escort officer unsheathes his nightstick and runs toward the melee. Fights in the mess hall have the potential to turn into riots in the mess hall, so the ten ridiculously outnumbered cops treat it with called-for seriousness. Our escort officer, a huge country boy reliving his high school football-glory days, subdued—nay, sent flying—the fighters with a running tackle. And then things took a horrible turn.

A newly minted sergeant panicked and gave a signal to the officer in the gas booth. Forty feet overhead three slots opened to disgorge three spinning canisters of teargas that dropped to the floor and bounced.

The mess-hall tables were enveloped in a sinister cloud. Time compressed. Memory spooled: Fire Academy when I was a seventeen-year-old volunteer firefighter: an ex-Navy SEAL lecturing us on things gaseous after our stay in the smoke room: Your first reaction to tear gas is to rub your eyes—avoid doing so at all costs.

The gas stung every pore of my recently shaved face; my eyes and mucous membranes felt like they were being seared raw; tears and snot streamed uncontrollably. But I didn't touch my face. I was more worried about the screaming throng of flailing inmates running in my direction, for we were standing in front of the exit. This way to the giant egress, folks.

A sympathetic door suddenly swung open, my two friends and I linked arms, and we ran out into the corridor. To our left were bars, to the right a wall of cops three deep, all holding nightsticks that would randomly swing out for our heads. Straight ahead an open door led to an evacuation yard. We made for this door while I cringed against a headshot, then poured down the couple of stone steps into the welcome fresh air.

I turned and saw an old man who had tripped down the steps and lay helplessly on the ground as others stepped on or over him. I ran and grabbed the oldster. Got him away from the steps and kept dragging him, using a cross-body carry that I'd never attempted out of water; then a flood of inmates, the mob proper, burst through the door. Out of the crowd's reach, I brought the old man to his feet and shouted, "You okay?!"

"Si, si. Gracias, mi hijo."

"De nada, viejo."

He held tightly to my arm and looked up at me with rheumy eyes. "Gracias," and some more in Spanish too fast for me to understand.

Then I noticed his shaking hand going for his face.

I grabbed it and leaned my face close to his. "No, uh, no toca sus ojos."

Nodding and attempting to smile, he said in heavily accented English, "Yehs, ohkay, ohhh-kay." Holding his arm, I escorted him to an amarillo crew of Latin Kings and left him in their charge.

The sun was beginning to set; underfoot the ground was muddy in spots, with islands of old snow. There were guards with assault rifles on the rooftops, one of whom aimed playfully down on us. A stiff wind blew. A flashback to a war I'd never been in.

My friends and I huddled close for warmth and, at my urging, found an available spot against the wall. The trigger-happy camp guards were three stories straight overhead. Our position was moderately safe. The hours passed in relative silence, the cold and tear gas residue putting a serious damper on an otherwise rowdy bunch.

It grew dark. No one knew how long we'd remain outside. We watched the corridor windows. An hour passed. Then two. My face stung, my extremities were numb. I kept my hands under my pits. The three of us each took turns being the warmer middleman.

It was nearing nine p.m. Judging by the flurry of activity in the lighted hallways, our stay was drawing to a close. Guys dropped shanks and used their dirty sneakers to surreptitiously bury them in the mud. I was surprised to see how many guys were packing.

Some four hours after the shit hit the fan, the door opened and a bullhorn announced that we'd be called in by company. Naturally, my company was one of the last to be called. Never have the hallways been more inviting; the heat was a pleasant welcome, even if the fluorescents were harsh on inflamed retinas. Dull-eyed and stiff, we walked through a gauntlet of angry cops. We filed past a nurse who was accompanied by a sergeant, and were asked if we needed medical attention. The sergeant's glare might as well have been a recorded message: You really don't want to request medical attention.

Down another hallway, we stripped for cops who checked us for weapons and marks of having been in a fight. I shook as I got dressed, not entirely from the cold. In my cell ten minutes later, I removed tear-gas infused clothes and threw them all in a plastic bag. Then I filled my sink with cold water and washed the pain away as best I could.

Managerial statistics was the bane of my existence junior year. Paying no heed to the law of averages, I never go to dinner on Sloppy Joe night.

It was my first week in prison. Granted, I'd done a year in county waiting for the media to die down and move on to their next murderer of the month so as to cop out in peace. Then there was reception, where I was officially brought into the state prison system: stripped, deloused, shaved, assigned a number, IQ-tested, physician-prodded, warehoused until a suitable home could be found for me. I was in reception for six months before being transported to the place that would be my home for a couple of decades. Eighteen months earlier I was, as they say, a free man, and, as we say, one could still smell the street on me.

This was my first week; I was double-bunked in a cell designed for one. At eight a.m. I came out for breakfast and waited on the company with the rest of the guys. Turning around to address someone, I saw a tall Black kid with wild eyes, his hair twisted into tiny braid-like offshoots, slowly walk up behind a guy called Moonie, nonchalantly withdraw a jagged tuna-can top, and rip Moonie from the corner of his mouth backwards, stopping at the ear lobe.

This isn't really happening.

Moonie's earlobe dangled precariously from a piece of twisted skin. His Black flesh parted ungracefully, the white cheek meat splayed open to the world, the blood flowing. (So much blood from cuts to the face.) All the idle chatter ceased as Moonie mechanically walked a few steps and grabbed the handle of a metal mop wringer sitting nearby. The two now square off, the kid with his bloody can top, Moonie with his cudgel. This isn't the movies; there's no hooting and cheering. We watch quietly, pretending (at least me) not to see anything. A cop sits on a desk on the other side of a gate, twenty feet away. It's the morning and he's probably hung over, but I can't believe he lets this behavior go on.

The boys bob and weave, no strangers to this bellicose dance. The blood pours into Moonie's mouth; the reptilian brain takes over, swings the wringer straight for the opponent's face. Whoosh, it misses. The kid has parried well, and with a hungry grin he now looks to move back in, to tag the other side of Moonie's face. The kid advances, but Moonie draws on reptilian strength and delivers a sick-sounding blow to the kid's head. The kid's knees give a comical shake, he falls backwards, his head hits against a metal tray slot welded to the front of a cell.

Excerpted from FOURTH CITY by DORAN LARSON. Copyright © 2013 Doran Larson. Excerpted by permission of Michigan State University Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

Doran Larson is Professor of English and Creative Writing at Hamilton College in New York.

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