Month: October 2015

Rapper, Writer, Pop-Cultural Player; Teaching Ice-T

METCALF PPC(240X156)pathLast year I co-edited a volume of essays on the rapper Ice-T with Dr Will Turner from the University of Manchester (Ashgate, 2015). In a recent conversation with Will, he was telling me about the teaching he is currently doing. “Hip-Hop and Hollywood”, convened by Dr Eithne Quinn, is a third-year American Studies module which charts hip-hop’s evolution from a youth subculture to a dominant popular cultural form. This semester, one of the primary texts used on the course is Ice-T’s 2011 autobiography Ice: A Memoir of Gangster Life and Redemption—from South Central to Hollywood (co-written with Douglas Century). I asked Will why he had Ice memoirincluded this text in his workshops on the course, and he said it provides a useful tool for anyone looking to dramatise the key debates that frame hip-hop as a cultural, political and commercial phenomenon. He added that the memoir was a great way to familiarise students with cultural studies approaches more generally. Here he has documented his top five reasons for using Ice-T’s memoir as a teaching text:

  1. Literary Self-Representation

“I’d taken my name as a tribute to Iceberg [Slim], and then it hit me one day—dude is a writer. I thought he was fly because he was a pimp, but I realised that I really admired him because he was a writer.[1]

As a written form, the memoir provides Ice-T with the perfect medium in which to illustrate and reflect on the African American literary roots of hip-hop culture. Throughout, he is keen to emphasise the influence of 1970s pulp crime writers Iceberg Slim (from whom he took his Iceberg Slim bookmoniker) and Donald Goines on his own uncompromising, first-person gangsta rap narratives. This genealogy appears to be a central focus for Ice-T in his later career. In addition to penning his memoir, he has recently published noir crime novels (Kings of Vice [2011], Mirror Image [2013]) and in 2012 produced documentaries that explored the literary nature of rap composition (Something From Nothing: The Art of Rap) and the genre’s debt to earlier African American writers (Iceberg Slim: Portrait of a Pimp).

These ventures reflect the recent emergence of best-selling hip-hop memoirists and authors such as Jay-Z and 50 Cent, and the mainstream success of “Street Lit” urban crime fiction—a genre estimated to consist of anywhere between 50 and 70 percent of total sales at black bookstores in the US. Ice-T’s memoir not only exemplifies these shifts, but illuminates the intersection of hip-hop, autobiography, and (African) American literature. In doing so, it allows students to cut across generational boundaries, and locate gangsta rap narratives within broader traditions of African American literary (and “criminal”) self-representation—a lineage encompassing the abolitionist slave narrative, the Black Power-era memoirs of Malcolm X and Eldridge Cleaver, and the contemporary gang memoir. Similarly, this approach encourages students to challenge conventional binaries between high/low, literary/oral, canonical/commercial culture. Indeed, the rise of the hip-hop memoir and Street Lit provides a contemporary angle on long-standing debates over canon formation and cultural prestige.

  1. Masks and Personas

“Mac was constantly telling me I was cut to make a great pimp, but I also understood that this was part of his game: a pimp will tell you whatever he thinks you want to hear. That’s what they do: they’re masters and wizards of charisma.” (41)

Iceberg Slim movieFrom his 1987 track “Somebody Gotta Do It (Pimpin’ Ain’t Easy!!!)” to the recent documentary Portrait of a Pimp (2012), Ice-T has long traded on his pimp persona. However, as detailed in his autobiography, Ice-T never actually pimped. The closest he came to pimping was in the mid-1970s, while stationed in Hawaii with the US army. Here, he befriended a pimp called Mac who he credits (along with Iceberg Slim’s autobiography, Pimp) with teaching him the talents that define a successful pimp: style, cunning, enterprise. Rather than verifying Ice-T’s pimp persona, then, the memoir presents it as a calculated act of self-stylisation. Following on from Mac’s advice, Ice-T candidly discusses how pimping (at least as it relates to his own public image) is a matter of word over deed.

In this sense, the memoir offers students a highly irreverent examination of hip-hop authenticity. Since the late 1980s, the pimp has proved a highly marketable hip-hop persona—and one that trades knowingly on stereotypes of pathological black urban sexuality. Ice-T’s autobiography foregrounds the performative politics of this brand, offering an engaging take on Frantz Fanon’s theories of racialised power, looking relations, and racial “masks” or stereotypes. Additionally, it can be placed alongside recent efforts by hip-hop artists to frankly examine the contradictions of the pimp persona. Most notably, Kendrick Lamar’s critically acclaimed album To Pimp a Butterfly (2015) offers a deeply ambivalent commentary on both the creative uses and restrictions that such a persona offers the contemporary hip-hop artist. As Lamar raps on “The Blacker the Berry” (a track which directly references Ice-T’s debut 1986 single “6 ‘n the Mornin’”): “You vandalise my perception but can’t take style from me.”[2]

  1. Hip-Hop Synergy

“If there’s any one thing I take pride in—as far as helping this hip-hop game to grow into the empire it is today—it’s the number of firsts.” (215)

Throughout his memoir, Ice-T emphasises his role in hip-hop’s evolution from an inner-city subcultural practice, to a globalised, multi-platform media “empire”. As one of the first gangsta rappers to ascend to mainstream cultural prominence in the late 1980s, Ice-T’s career trajectory not only showcases the growth in popularity of the genre, but its diversification. Among other Law & Order: Special Victims Unitventures, Ice-T has lent his gangsta image to rock music (Body Count), network TV drama (Law & Order: SVU), reality TV (Ice Loves Coco) and Hollywood cinema classed as both “urban” (New Jack City) and mainstream (Johnny Mnemonic). In addition, Ice-T has also engaged in more prestigious forms such as literature, documentary film, and jazz poetry—he will perform Langston Hughes’s Ask Your Mama: 12 Moods for Jazz at London’s Barbican Theatre in November.

As a case study, the many-sided career of Ice-T encourages students to map the ways in which popular cultural texts and icons are rearticulated: over time, across cultural boundaries, and across political divides. How can the Ice-T’s persona encompass both cop killer and TV cop? Reality TV star and jazz poet? These questions can be used to frame the complex political needs of hip-hop culture. Firstly, they illuminate the contradictory appeal of the gangsta icon—as both a marginal and a peculiarly middle-American capitalist icon. In addition, these contradictions present students with a case study in Gramscian theories of cultural hegemony. Ice-T’s journey from dissident criminal to household favourite illustrates the way in which oppositional cultural meanings can be absorbed into the mainstream, and vice versa. In this sense, Ice-T’s memoir opens up the forces of containment and resistance that define hip-hop culture, and popular culture more broadly.

  1. Marketplace Politics

“I got news for you, dog, the system is a monster. Sooner or later you’re going to have to learn how to work it. There is no overturning or overrunning the system, you need to learn to manipulate it. Even if you’re a gangster, there is still a system.” (172)

In the summer of 1992, Ice-T became the most talked about rapper in the US when the single Body Count“Cop Killer” (by his heavy metal band Body Count) was the target of a censorship campaign waged by police groups and senior politicians including President George Bush. Later that summer, Ice-T shocked many of his fans when he agreed to the demands of his record company Warner Bros to withdraw the single. Hip-hop magazine The Source promptly labelled this moment the “death of rap.” How could a hardcore rapper like Ice-T capitulate so visibly to the demands of the white political and corporate establishment? In his memoir, Ice-T’s answer to this question is unapologetic and sobering—the system is a “monster” and there is no pure authorial space outside of it.

Ice-T’s frank analysis of the episode provides students with a clear picture of the precarious position of black cultural producers within conglomerated cultural industries. Recent case studies remind us that the “system” is both legal and global in nature. In the summer of 2015, the rapper Tyler, the Creator was banned by the UK Home Office from entering Britain on the charge of provoking his listeners to “terrorist acts” with his lyrics. These examples can be used to illustrate a broader pattern of the capitalistic co-optation and criminalisation of African American expressive forms. Yet they also encourage students to consider the nuances of contemporary authorship; Ice-T’s enduring success, and the stellar rise of hip-hop “moguls” such as Jay-Z and Dr Dre, point to the determination of black cultural producers to carve out a semi-autonomous commercial and creative space within these industries. In his memoir, Ice-T’s frank discussion of his limited authorial agency provides students with a compelling commentary on this dynamic.

  1. Raptivism

“When I talk to kids, I know damn well that if I was broke they wouldn’t give a fuck what I have to say. But they see the success. They want to know how to be successful. That’s the only reason people follow anybody, from preachers to politicians. It’s in human nature to chase success. He did it—how can I do it?” (241)

The PeacemakerOver the course of his career, Ice-T has sought to lend his celebrity to various philanthropic causes including Children United Nations, YOGA for Youth, and LA gang truce initiatives such as Hands Across Watts and South Central Love. However, in his autobiography, Ice-T plays down these organisational or structural approaches to social and political change, endorsing instead a brand of activism centred instead on models of individual “success”. Be it through the writing of his memoir, or his production of the television program The Peacemaker: LA Gang Wars (2010), Ice-T has sought to fashion himself as an inspiring symbol of social mobility, entrepreneurialism, and capitalistic redemption.

This aspect of Ice-T’s career captures a dominant form of “raptivism” that purposefully blurs the line between activism and entrepreneurialism; philanthropy and industrialism. Most visibly, Jay-Z and Beyoncé have lent their public support and commercial acumen to radical movements for social change (Occupy Wall Street) and racial freedom (#BlackLivesMatter). This dynamic has been at once celebrated as evidence of hip-hop rediscovering its sense of political engagement, and criticised as an example of hip-hop entrepreneurs opportunistically looking to develop their brand. These tensions are addressed with characteristic candour by Ice-T in his memoir. It is a text that encourages students to locate raptivism within conflicting traditions of African American protest—Civil Rights, Washingtonian, nationalist. More immediately, it challenges students to consider the limits of (black) political activism in the age of neoliberalism.

Will Turner, October 2015

[1] Ice-T and Douglas Century, Ice: A Memoir of Gangster Life and Redemption—from South Central to Hollywood (New York: One World, 2011): 52. Subsequent references to this edition cited in the main body of the text.

[2] Kendrick Lamar, “The Blacker The Berry”, To Pimp a Butterfly (Interscope, 2015).

Reflecting on Prison: Inside & Out

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As part of my “American Prison Culture” university module, in the final weeks of term we undertake a visit to a creative writing group at a local prison where Russ Litten is the Writer-in-Residence. I want students to ask inmates about the politics and act of writing while incarcerated (a topic which we probe with novels, memoirs and poetry on the course). Moreover, each year the inmates will watch one of the films we study, then they discuss with us their views of that text. Following the visit, students write a 1,000 word reflective piece that contributes to their overall module mark. Students are often uncomfortable writing introspective essays but I explain I would like to hear whether the visit made them rethink any of the core texts on the course (and if so, how / why?).

Other thoughts for consideration in this essay may include: what did they learn from the visit? Was the creative writing workshop what they expected? How did the experience make them “feel”? I stress that there are no set rules for writing this piece as long as they demonstrate that they have carefully considered our visit in hindsight. Predictably, students are generally enthused by the visit, reflected in past module evaluations that have said: “The prison visit was an amazing experience, thoroughly recommend they keep this in the module”; “The prison visit was a unique and fascinating experience”. Both module evaluations and the reflective pieces regularly describe Russ’s leadership along the lines of “inspirational” as well as the availability of creative writing to inmates as “vital”.

As part of the reflective piece I also suggest students should flag if the visit provided them any inspiration for their future career (whether paid or volunteering). In the subsequent week back on campus we receive a talk from a careers adviser, who helps students consider how they may take any interest forward. We are not naively assuming that students may wish to suddenly explore a graduate training scheme for prison officers, nor undertake work in probation. Nor do we presuppose that the prison visit alone has guided a student’s career path. Nonetheless, I am aware that in the past, following the prison visit and careers talk, students have sought roles in not-for-profit and activist areas, whether paid or as a volunteer / intern, as well as teaching and bell hooksin the charitable sector. I hope that even for those students who already have an alternative career in mind, that the visit may open their outlook. My intention is not to convert each student into an anti-prison radical, but to open up lines of thinking and worldviews that classroom discussions cannot always guarantee. Scholars like bell hooks have discussed “new ways of knowing”, and stressed the need for discussions (particularly around race, class and gender) to be extended beyond the classroom.[i] It goes without saying that critical thinking skills are an aspired outcome of further education, and will hopefully serve students valuably in future.

Last year I had a student who voiced concern after the visit that it had been a little exploitative. On one hand, I am slightly surprised that this is the first time the query had been raised given that we discuss at length the “annals of dark tourism” on the course. On the other, I have explained each year that inmates are not required to attend, though as one informed us previously, they are happy to do so for a few hours reprieve from the monotony of prison life. I ask students to prepare two questions each to put to the group (for instance, about the film in question), and I inform them that they need to be prepared to speak up and answer questions themselves (an inevitable one is “What is American Studies?”). Though I aspire for the visit to be a two-way process / discussion, the inmates unavoidably do more talking, whether expressing disdain about the IPP sentencing (of which many of the students are unaware) or describing the day-to-day routine of prison life. I would like to share with you here (with permission) excerpts from the reflective piece of a student who attended a visit last year. Their essay was memorable for the way in which they observed that “In the mismanagement of prison inmates one sees gentle echoes with society beyond the walls, and an opportunity for discourse and improvement.” But moreover, they astutely justified the visit on the grounds that, “The justice system is, after all, a realm of people, and what better way to understand people is there than interacting with them?”

From May 2015:

Our visit to the HMP Humber was a fascinating reminder that the study of theory, literature, and culture is often incomplete without first-hand experience of the topics that they address. Having spent the semester on the outside looking in, the trip provided a rare glimpse of the inside looking out. It appeared the visit provided [these inmates] with an opportunity to vent—and to achieve a degree of catharsis. The fact that we were not party to the system that regimented much of their lives allowed for a candidness one expects is typically refrained from. Although one cannot treat the experiences of these prisoners as indicative of the penal system as a whole, one would do well to deny that their sentiments were reflective of a wealth of issues and themes touched upon during the semester. The fact that only a fraction of them can be reasonably addressed here is a testament to the productiveness of the visit.

FoucaultIn my first assignment—writing on I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang—I cited Michel Foucault’s conviction in Discipline and Punish that, “From being an art of unbearable sensations punishment has become an economy of suspended rights.”[ii] Such mechanisms of control were plain to see at HMP Humber. From different privilege tiers, to the fact that the right to interact with us was reserved for the best behaved inmates, it was clear we were briefly privy to an economy of power in full flow. That one inmate referred to prison as “a city within a city” was telling. Certain tangents concerning minimum wage, representation, and the right to vote would not have been out of place in a typical political discussion.

 That said, the prison ecosystem seemed distinctly isolated from the outside world, though not necessarily from other prisons. Some qualities seem to transcend any one region or period. Like the detainees at Guantanamo Bay, the humble inmates of HMP Humber have their writings vetted before publication. Tobacco enduring as the leading prison ‘currency’ was a surprising revelation, aligning neatly with a number of the works we have examined, The Shawshank Redemption being conspicuous among them. Cut off from the rest of society, the formation of a twisted microcosm in its stead appears close to inevitable—so long as it is kept out of the public eye. I found it interesting that HMP Humber was not one of the destinations listed on the digital schedule at the Hull [Bus] Interchange.

 Private subjugation of the soul was a focal tone of the visit. Foucault posited that during “the Foucault 2150 or 200 years that Europe has been setting up its new penal systems, the judges have gradually… taken to judging something other than crimes, namely, the ‘soul’ of the criminal.”[iii] The imprisonment for public protection (IPP) sentencing system seemed an uncanny extension to this process, maintaining judgement well after conviction.[iv] In one prisoner in particular there were echoes of James Allen in I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang, imprisoned far longer than was initially expected and suffering deeply as a result. The inmates effectively spend their entire sentence and probation period on trial. As each of the inmates testified to, it keeps incarceration on the mind.

[i] bell hooks, Teaching Community: a Pedagogy of Hope (New York: Routledge, 2003): 8. See also hooks, Teaching to Transgress: Education as the Practice of Freedom (New York: Routledge, 1994).

[ii] M. Foucault, Discipline and Punish: the Birth of the Prison (London: Penguin Books, 1991): 11.

[iii] Ibid, 19.

[iv] For more information on IPP, see Matthew Stanbury, “What’s an IPP?”, The Justice Gap, http://thejusticegap.com/2012/03/whats-an-ipp-sentence/ [Accessed 1/10/2015].

On (Not) Painting Prison (week 6)

Though these groups are primarily concerned with writing as an artistic output, it was interesting to consider American prison art this week and the comparisons and contrasts with a different creative form. The class was slightly challenged by a lack of attendance (I know life is complicated and busy) and also by my complete lack of a voice (long story, but it’s amazing how you can get by with gestures). We commenced by showing a short video, available on youtube, entitled, “A Curator’s Reflection on a Decade of Art by Michigan Prisoners”[i]. As we watched a sequence of paintings and pencil drawings,  the narration overhead (by artist Janie Paul), informed us that in 2010 when the video was made, 25% of the world’s prisoners were in the US; one out of every 32 Americans were in prison, on probation, or on parole; and, that 55% of all those incarcerated are African American. We also looked at the gallery available online from the Prison Arts Coalition, an incredible resource for “those creating art in and around the US prison system”.[ii]

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freeimages.com/juliaeisenberg

One participant had done painting themselves during their sentence and confirmed that they had looked forward to it more than the gym and other activities. Reflecting on the paintings from both the Michigan prisoners and the PAC, he commented that “in a lot of the pictures, their lives have been taken away so there’s a lot of gloom” while others are “trying to draw pictures of a better time in their life”. Indeed, sentimentality was a strong theme with numerous paintings of what are presumably portraits of loved ones. We agreed there is a tendency for the outside world to expect paintings of prison life itself from incarcerated artists, much like the popularity of prison films being predicated on a curiosity about life inside. The prisoner himself arguably wants to look outwards and escape from the harsh reality of daily life. Janie Paul helps to explain this: “I believe that some of us reach back for memories that can sustain us and come up with longings […] prison artists forge a way for the soul to find habitation in a place that is inhabitable”.[iii]

Roberts-Blossom-Escape-from-Alcatraz.5
Escape From Alcatraz (1979)

We did ask if any of the pictures viewed were particularly “American” in any way and it was noted that race was an oft repeated theme. But much of the discussion today centred on the benefits of painting while incarcerated. It was clearly viewed as a therapeutic activity which can “bolster your self esteem if you are praised for your work” and can encourage you to “escape from bleak surroundings”, as detailed by Paul and illustrated by Doc in Escape from Alcatraz (discussed a couple of weeks ago). Once again, the docile body was raised, contending that a need to create something for oneself under such restrictive circumstances can be deeply satisfying. I was especially interested to hear that art can serve practical and commercial purposes too. Escape from Alcatraz was again cited because art literally helped the prisoners; they make papier-mâché masks to put in their beds and temporarily hide their breakout.

Moreover, the group offered stories of friends who had realised they had a talent for painting / drawing and sold portraits of friends and families in return for cigarettes; art has economic currency inside. There were also tales of buying paintings to decorate your cell. Russ noted that the “inventiveness and creativeness in prison never ceases to amaze me”, whether sparking a homemade cigarette lighter, or matchstick art. I learnt that matchstick sculptures did not remain small-scale nor solely artistic as you might expect, but matchsticks were used in prison to build TV cabinets and DVD holders. The cover of Russ’s edited collection of writings from inside, Burn, is in fact a photograph of an inmate’s sculpture. An incredible youtube video entitled “Toothpaste and toilet paper Jesus and other prison art” speaks to this inventiveness.[iv]Burn 2

The Prison Arts Resource Project (stemming from the William James Association Prison Arts Project) is a wonderful supply of studies assessing art programs in US prisons, with the general consensus that they are of enormous rehabilitative use.[v]  Yet the future of art in prison in this country seems bleak, a victim of the coalition government’s budget cuts. A Guardian article last year detailed how prison governors have been ordered to slash costs by £149 million annually.[vi] This is despite a report published just a few months earlier by the Arts Alliance which made a strong case for “innovative projects that have a track record of engaging offenders … how music, visual arts and creative writing can support an offender’s journey to a crime-free life”.[vii] The Koestler Trust and other non-for profits continue to fight along these lines. The US has for the most part followed similar trends over the past twenty years, struggling to save the arts in prison. That said, it seems tentative progress may be taking place in certain states. In California, a state with one of the highest prison populations (according to numbers incarcerated per 100,000 adults), the Arts-in-Corrections program has just been reinstated after having its budget slashed in 2003. The AIC receives financial support from the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation to offer singing, theatre, writing and painting classes.[viii]

CW photoFor the creative writing element this week, Russ led us down a logical path of considering colours and brainstorming word association with them. The task was then to take two colours and write a poem engaging with some of the related words. One of the participants had earlier commented that  “you may get bored half way through a painting”, yet writing could sometimes be “quicker”. Indeed, today’s productivity was fruitful and rapid.

[i] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SnpWkYntXmg [Accessed 13 October 2015].

[ii] http://theprisonartscoalition.com/gallery/ [Accessed 13 October 2015].

[iii] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SnpWkYntXmg [Accessed 13 October 2015].

[iv] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QNak20E9OrA [Accessed 13 October 2015].

[v] https://www.arts.gov/sites/default/files/Research-Art-Works-Oregon-rev.pdf [Accessed 13 October 2015].

[vi] Alan Travis & Steven Morris, “Prisons governors ordered to cut costs by £149m a year”, The Guardian, 29 April 2014, http://www.theguardian.com/society/2014/apr/29/prisons-ordered-cust-costs-149-million-a-year [Accessed 13 October 2015].

[vii] See Tim Robertson, “Arts in Prison”, The Guardian, 25 November 2013, http://www.theguardian.com/culture-professionals-network/culture-professionals-blog/2013/nov/25/arts-rehab-crime-criminal-justice [Accessed 13 October 2015] and Arts Alliance, Reimagining Futures, https://www.artsincriminaljustice.org.uk/sites/default/files/Re-imagining_Futures_Research_Report_Final.pdf [Accessed 13 October 2015].

[viii] See the official AIC website for more information, http://www.cac.ca.gov/initiatives/aic.php [Accessed 13 October 2015] as well as

Shawshank; Can Hope Set You Free? (week 5)

When teaching The Shawshank Redemption, I have yet to meet a student who is not (initially) enthused with it, while my mother regularly cites it as a way of “tackling life”. The Turning Point group this week were similarly ardent in their reviews, calling it “amazing” and claiming that “even if you have seen it before, you always want to sit and watch it again”. But what is it about this movie that originally flopped at the box office before making its breakthrough on video and, over twenty years later, still regularly puts it in the top lists of best ever films, despite not purporting to show “reality”?[i]

No one was aware that the film was based on a Stephen King novella, Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption. Within minutes the group were submersed in a detailed discussion of how exactly we define the “redemption” in the title of both book and film. One participant contended that it was “Something you have done in the past and feel sorry for it”, while another argued for the word’s explicit links with Catholicism. We concluded that there were in essence two definitions. On the one hand redemption is the act of being saved. But on the other, it is the way in which you may sacrifice something in return for something else (“redeeming a shawshanksupermarket voucher!”). There was also a mini debate about the differences between redemption and forgiveness; perhaps “one is holy and comes from a higher place, while the other is spiritual but on ground level”. To some degree this is shown in the film’s poster with Andy holding assuming a Christ-like position in a baptismal rain. And certainly there is a sense of redemption (or “karma”, “divine justice”) in the exposure of the corrupt warden and freedom of the wronged inmate. But there was no consensus as to who exactly is redeemed in the film; is the notion of redemption “available” to all the prisoners in Shawshank? Or is the film’s universal message of “hope” aimed at saving the viewer from a more metaphorical imprisonment?

Though redemption was a key concept underpinning both novella and film, we explained a number of the most evident changes made between the two. It was agreed that the film made no reference to Red’s heinous crimes (like the book does) in order to ensure the likeability of key characters. Films have a box office to consider after all. Moreover, Brooks was made into a bigger character in the film in order to reveal the dangers of becoming institutionalised. Simultaneously however, we noted the elements of the “prison genre” that remained in both written and filmic forms, such as a smart protagonist. And while referencing genre, we noted a number of the likenesses between Escape from Alcatraz (studied last week) and Shawshank. The group were particularly intrigued by the idea that prison movies (and indeed books) often contain an older character who cares for a pet. It was suggested that if you show kindness or friendship in prison it can be exploited. However, being kind to a pet in a movie can reveal personality without being abused by other human beings. In this way, prison movies may subtly touch upon reality (not in terms of owning a pet per se, but the potential manipulation of kindness).

Starred upThe film was praised for capturing the “utterly terrifying” moment that you arrive in a prison for the first time, “when you hear that bar slam and sit in your own room crying” (along these lines, if you haven’t seen the UK prison film Starred Up, then it is well worth watching!). And in discussing the “reality” of the narrative, one participant agreed with Red’s statement that rehabilitation is “just a made up word”. He elucidated that it is technically a lie to say you are completely reformed; “you can plan on being good, but you never know what is going to happen in life”. Another contributor agreed that “once you are in the system, it’s so easy to remain there”. While it was clear that the film’s unrealistic moments were overlooked in favour of its “feel-good factor”, certain moments were flagged as being implausible, primarily the “laughable” distribution of beers for the roof workers.

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freeimages.com/colincochrane

There was also some conversation about hope being unfeasible. The famed tag line of The Shawshank Redemption is “Fear can hold you prisoner. Hope can set you free”. We continued our debate from last week concerning “docile bodies” and revisited the notion that “there are some things you can’t take from a man in prison, and one of them is his thoughts”. Another participant continued that hope is “something the system can’t take away from you – if you have hope in your head then it makes you less of a prisoner”. There was some agreement that if you don’t have hope, then you have “nothing”. However it was concurrently noted that hope “fucks you up” in some circumstances. Once again, we returned to the IPP prisoners for whom hope may be “no friend” and whereby you “can’t allow yourself to hope”. In week one we probed the American Dream and returned to it again here to suggest that the concept is predicated on hope itself. As we moved on to creative writing (with an emphasis today on metaphors and similes), Russ asked the group to write a poem about “what is hope?”. As food for thought, he read a poem from his edited collection, Burn: Writing from Inside by the Writers of HMP Humber (published by Hull-based Wrecking Ball Press in 2015). The title of the verse is “Hoping”:

Hope is an exit

When you’re stuck in a hole

Hope is a light

Deep down in your soul

Hope is a dream

When you’re sleeping away

You wish not to wake

You’re enjoying your stay

Hope is an angel

That you don’t want to touch

If she flies away

The pain is too much

So we hide from some hopes

They seem so far away

But my angel of hope

Will come back some day[ii]

[i] It currently ranks number one on the IMDB and number four for Empire magazine. See http://www.imdb.com/chart/top and http://www.empireonline.com/500/96.asp [Accessed 7th October 2015].

[ii] Russ Litten (ed.), Burn: Writing From Inside by the Writers of HMP Humber (Hull: Wrecking Ball Press, 2015): 63.

Discussing & Describing “Freedom” (week 1)

Commencing fieldwork is simultaneously exciting and terrifying in equal measure. When months, if not years, of planning have gone into dealing with grant bodies, ethics, authorities, as well as ground-level preparation for the groups themselves, the pressure is high. Despite some scheduling hiccups, the opening session left me happy as to what future path the course may take. Indeed, in this initial group, the contributors were eager to meet one another, united in their enthusiasm for the Turning Point project. My fears that no one would want to talk were soon forgotten (replaced by a realisation that it is easy to digress!), and their enthusiasm for discussing America set a precedence that I hope will be repeated in all 24 weeks.

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No one in the group had ever been to the US and there was some early discussion as to whether they were permitted with criminal records (in fact, if you have been convicted of certain offences you are ineligible to travel under the Visa Waiver Program). Yet they all had much to say when asked what sprang to mind when they thought of the country: “corruption”, “rap”, “guns”, “burgers”, “the Statue of Liberty”, “New York City”, and “terrorism”. Moreover, when asked about their understanding of the American Dream, they responded immediately with “freedom, it’s the land of the free”, “no problems” and “paradise, your own bit of land”. There were some problems in grasping the idea that freedom is written into the Constitution. That is to say, not difficulty in understanding the existence of national charters, but problems in accepting that a country in which liberty is so deeply enshrined in the psyche and official statutes, that it could then be responsible for problematic wars, native American slaughter, slavery and gun violence.

Though participants were less familiar with notions of Manifest Destiny and American Exceptionalism, they were quick to identify the potential dangers and benefits inherent in both. As a result of the preliminary discussion, two points sprang to mind that are worth flagging. Firstly, I was interested that nearly all participants made regular references to film; they continuously drew parallels with events or topics in Hollywood movies seemingly as a point of reference for “real-life” issues. (Perhaps we primed them to talk about film in our introductory comments, though we did also explain that we would be studying prose, music etc.) Secondly, in line with the idea that America may be exceptional in a number of ways, their perception of the US prison system was that it was much harsher than in the UK, for example with stricter sentences and more “predators”. Certainly, one person in the group noted that they would likely have received a life sentence long before now if they lived in America. I am interested to see if both these dynamics remain in play throughout the upcoming weeks.

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I have had a couple of colleagues ask me why I am advocating a creative writing element to the group, rather than merely conducting focus groups that generate discussion on American society and culture. In short, I think the creative component assists in encouraging participants to return week on week, but more importantly, it has a proven effect on reducing re-offending. I have observed Russ’s previous work as a Writer in Residence at HMP Humber and the positive engagement from participants was plain to see. The therapeutic power of reading groups for prisoners is well-documented; scholars argue that such meetings are important for acquiring practical skills and life-awareness aptitudes. Similarly, creative writing in prison has been linked, even in small ways, to sparking longer-term goals of redemption.[i] Though the plans for the project were amended slightly and we are now working with a group of ex-offenders rather than prisoners themselves, it is our hope that this project may instil a passion for thinking and studying that may, in similar ways (skill development, critical thinking etc) reduce reoffending. It could be argued that such opportunities are similarly valuable to those who have recently been released and are now service users at centres such as Turning Point. If participants are led to write about their reflections of America – alongside any personal or other topic they may wish to document – it may still provide me with materials for analysis.

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So as we moved from the discussion into the creative writing in this first session, Russ asked everyone to take a few moments to individually brainstorm any words or phrases they associate with the concept of “freedom”. Though some hesitated that they might be judged on what they produced, we were quickly reminded that “the great thing about creative writing is you can’t do it wrong”. While more than one participant noted the classic American image of the “open road”, there were also several references to nature in some forms as well as laws (or lack thereof). In the course of these blog posts I don’t want to over share the writing we produce as we are already planning an edited collection of works. That said, I feel compelled to impart the very first poem written collectively by the group, entitled “Freedom”:

To walk alone but to stand together

Down the boulevard of opportunity

Walking through any kind of weather

To the land of hope and liberty

——–

Fresh air and sunshine all around

No laws, no weapons, no discrimination

Feeling safe together on the same ground

Everyone becoming just one nation

[i] As this project started evolving in my mind back in 2012, I read a piece in The Guardian about the Writers in Prison Network. The co-director noted in the article, “It’s pretty simple. There are 87,000 people in prison today. A handful will be coming out on a street near you soon. Would you like them better or worse than when they went in?” Just a few days ago, new research published by the Ministry of Justice suggested that “offering people in prison opportunities to aspire to further their education makes them less likely to re-offend on release”. See Hazel Davis, “How writers in prisons empowers inmates,” The Guardian, 13 September 2012, http://www.theguardian.com/social-care-network/2012/sep/13/writing-workshops-writers-in-prisons [Accessed 1/10/2015] and the Press Release on the Prisoners’ Education Trust website, 10 September 2015, http://www.prisonerseducation.org.uk/news/government-research-finds-prisoners-aspiring-to-education-re-offend-less-on-release [Accessed 1/10/2015].

The Chain Gang in Animated & Live-Action Films; Slavery Continued? (week 2)

Much of this session was a history lesson of sorts. I recently discovered a conference paper delivered in 2000 by the wonderful prison literature scholar, H. Bruce Franklin, entitled “From Plantation to Penitentiary to the Prison Industrial Complex”.[i] In today’s group, we undertook the first half of this journey and will subsequently work through the twentieth century to culminate in an examination of the contemporary PIC in the final class of term. We opened by playing the Sam Cooke song “Chain Gang” (1960), mentioning it reached high on the billboard chart despite its bleak content. Someone was quick to note that a contestant on The X-Factor at the weekend had sung a Sam Cooke song (“A Change is Gonna Come”) and we briefly explained his importance as a key figure in the black civil rights movement.

Last week’s group suggested that participants were up to date on contemporary events in

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the US. However it quickly emerged today that there was a lack of knowledge surrounding specific histories of the US, in this case slavery. (This is not a critique, more an observation that perhaps speaks to educational opportunities available to them).  Indeed, while most had a basic understanding of the institution of slavery itself (garnered for several from watching 12 Years a Slave and Django Unchained), today we proffered more details about the fundamental differences between the North and the South and the Civil War that I hope will put the group in good stead for future discussions. Looking back at my notes, I wish I had unpacked further the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution that forms the crutch of Franklin’s discussion in his conference paper. We noted that this Amendment abolished slavery, but I should have detailed that the very same Article wrote slavery in to the Constitution for those who were criminals.[ii] The Black Codes of the Southern states ensured former slaves were regularly branded as “criminals” for oftentimes nonsensical reasons. Many convicts were subsequently leased for work, or moving into the twentieth century, many served on chain gangs.

When we asked the group what, if anything, they knew about chain gangs in the US, one person noted “Black Americans building roads, railroads”. Someone else added that “white Americans thought they still owned blacks” and were “making money, didn’t miss a trick to make money”. They were hence a little surprised when the protagonist from this week’s key text was white, the movie I Am A Fugitive From A Chain Gang (1932). When we tried to probe further as to why the group thought chain gangs may have received significant public support at that time, they found it difficult to move beyond race. Russ astutely suggested that they think in terms of how the UK public perceive prisons and they were quick to respond “that prisoners have it too easy”, “that prisoners should do something worthwhile”. This is of course reinforced by the visibility of the chain gang in the movie considering the public do not normally get to see inside prisons themselves.

download - chain gangFollowing another brief history lesson on the context of I Am A Fugitive (the Stock Market Crash and the ensuing Great Depression), we explained that the movie helped to turn American public opinion against the chain gang. So we questioned their experiences of watching so-called “socially conscious” films, with participants concluding that a “good” Hollywood film would entertain as well as educate.  Films that floated into the discussion at this point included Blood Diamond, Hotel Rwanda and 12 Years A Slave. We also considered whether to be truly “socially conscious”, a film needed to enact actual change, as in the case of I Am A Fugitive or the British Cathy Come Home by Ken Loach (a 1966 BBC television play about homelessness which encouraged the establishment of the charity Crisis).

This led us into debating whether animation cartoons should similarly ever be political, or whether they even have the “right” to be political given their predominant reputation as children’s entertainment. This line of thinking was fueled by the 1930 Mickey Mouse cartoon, “The Chain Gang”, of which we watched a brief clip.  My colleague at the University of Hull, Dr Amy Davis, is one of the world’s leading experts on Disney. I asked her whether she knew if the cartoon had received any scholarly attention and she informed me, “to my knowledge, it’s received little more than a couple of sentences here and there” (if anyone finds anything to the contrary, please do let us know!).The-Chain-Gang-mickey-mouse-11421696-300-222

As a slight digression from the chain gang, it was interesting that Amy explained the cartoon’s brief references in larger works about animation history and Disney are predicated on the fact that “the bloodhound in it was the first appearance of what would become Pluto. It also shows the beginning [of a move] away from characters who, essentially, are black bodies with white masks, which had been a staple aesthetic in character design since the early 1920s”. But back to the question of “social message cartoons being educational” and the group had no consensus of opinion. Part of their enthusiasm for I Am A Fugitive clearly stemmed from its origins as a true story (the life of Robert Burns), a far cry from an animated cartoon. We did however lapse into a slightly meandering conversation about the politics of the Lego movie (I have not seen this and so cannot comment, but a quick google supported the film having an anti-business ethos) and The Magic Roundabout.[iii]

As we moved into the creative writing segment this week, Russ explained the concept of “green light thinking”. In other words, when you have “white fright looking at the blank page before you, you start with a phrase and go on from there, writing continuously whatever comes into your head for five minutes”.  Russ contended that what we oftentimes want to write about is buried in our subconscious, and that this exercise serves as means to release that material. We were assigned the incomplete sentence, “It’s good to be free because…”. I actually did this exercise alongside the others (looking back on my notes, I drifted into an anti Bush-style rant about a society where we are not divided into “us versus them”) and realised it would be useful to deploy this in my own academic writing for when I’m having one of those days…

[i] H. Bruce Franklin, “From Plantation to Penitentiary to the Prison Industrial Complex: Literature of the American Prison”, paper delivered at the MLA Convention, December 2000: http://andromeda.rutgers.edu/~hbf/MLABLACK.htm [Accessed 21 September 2015].

[ii] See the authenticated text of the Constitution on the website of the Government Printing Office: http://www.gpo.gov/fdsys/pkg/CDOC-110hdoc50/pdf/CDOC-110hdoc50.pdf [Accessed 21 September 2015]. The Thirteenth Amendment states, “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States…”

[iii] See for example: “The Politics of Little Bricks”, The Economist, 22 February 2014, http://www.economist.com/news/united-states/21596982-you-can-make-what-you-it-politics-little-bricks {Accessed 21 September 2015]; Noah Gittell, “The Lego Movie: Further Evidence of Will Ferrell’s Subversive Genius”, The Atlantic, 12 February 2014, http://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2014/02/-em-the-lego-movie-em-further-evidence-of-will-ferrells-subversive-genius/283739/ [Accessed 21 September 2015].

Escaping from Alcatraz and (Screen) Writing Reality (week 4)

This week at Turning Point we thought about the actual act of screenwriting, and the mechanisms at stake when writing / directing a prison film. Of course there is far more to films screenwritingthan meets the eye; I am guilty myself of regularly overlooking the screenwriting process and I was reminded in Monday’s group that no matter how thoroughly we think we know a text, there are always different ways of studying / teaching it. I use several films on my “American Prison Culture” university module in order to look at specific representations of incarceration – whether the death penalty or the “docile body”. In our week on The Shawshank Redemption, we read the original Stephen King novella and consider the differences at stake between a written prison narrative and its filmic form. And when we scrutinise Dead Man Walking, we read powerful excerpts from Sister Helen Prejean’s firsthand account upon which the film was based. Yet in my mind they magically convert from short story / memoir into film and I offer little consideration for how they came into being.

Our key text this week was the Don Siegel / Clint Eastwood epic, Escape from Alcatraz (1979). We opened the conversation by explaining the popularity of Alcatraz as a sightseeing attraction, and the concept of “dark tourism” (for further information on this see the IDTR).[i] The group brainstormed other potential tourist sites that may fall under this category and cited Auschwitz, Ground Zero, the Tower of London and the London Dungeons among others. However one participant noted different “degrees” of dark tourism, suggesting that if we were to close Auschwitz to visitors, we “run the risk that it may happen again [through ignorance]” while by contrast in terms of Alcatraz’s history, “those people made a choice to do [bad] things.” Someone else contended with regards to Alcatraz, that it’s like “stopping to look at a car crash whereby we just cannot help ourselves”; our curiosity is ignited by its “isolation, its darkness […] and the unknown.” If it’s the unknown that fuels dark tourism in prisons, then it could be argued that it is also the unfamiliarity of incarceration to many that sparks our interest in prison films.escape

Though an American movie is seemingly far removed from a British TV show (despite both being made in the 1970s), we used the opening scene from Escape from Alcatraz, as well as the first episode of Porridge, in order to deliberate what may be generic in terms of filmic prison narratives. The group astutely concurred that there tend to be certain “stock” characters that appear repeatedly with various contributors identifying “the vulnerable one”, “the wheeler dealer”, “the prison rapist”, “the older friend” and  of course, “the central protagonist who is often very intelligent”. We are introduced to these people one by one in the opening minutes of Escape from Alcatraz despite relatively little dialogue in that time. Russ flagged the fundamentals of “good” dialogue in a script before participants undertook their own screenwriting exercise: that it should either reveal someone’s character or, move the plot along. Yet it was simultaneously noted that a look or action (rather than dialogue itself) can be sufficiently loaded so as to inform the viewer of a character’s intentions. Indeed, it was observed that the main protagonist, Frank Morris (Clint Eastwood), is treated like a slave by the doctor who searches for head lice and rotting teeth, and then the guards who parade him naked along the corridor.

porridgeWe moved into talking about how prison films may “fall down” in terms of realism, and I thought about this in depth following the session. With his own experiences in screenwriting, Russ explained that “in film, dialogue has got to be realistic which is not the same as being real.” Certainly, in real life people leave stilted gaps in their speech or talk over one another and this is problematic in film. But are questions of realism particularly challenged when it comes to the prison film? The group noted the lack of background noise in Escape from Alcatraz as being flawed, as was the way in which Morris was left alone with the governor in their initial meeting (with the governor even turning his back on this supposedly dangerous prisoner). Moreover, the group were in agreement that prison is oftentimes boring with little happening. But boredom does not make good movies! And this is where Porridge again joined the conversation; Russ asserted that the talent of the show’s writers was evident in the way that they took a commonly banal situation, and made it interesting and funny.

[i] For further information on “dark tourism,” see the webpage for the Institute for Dark Tourism Research (IDTR) at the University of Central Lancashire: http://www.uclan.ac.uk/research/explore/groups/institute_for_dark_tourism_research.php [Accessed 28/9/15]. Also this article in The Atlantic is fascinating when considering the boundaries of what is classed as “dark tourism”: Debra Kamin, “The Rise of Dark Tourism,” The Atlantic, 15 July 2014, http://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2014/07/the-rise-of-dark-tourism/374432/ [Accessed 28/9/15].