Month: November 2015

What prisoners think of prison movies

Please see a piece I wrote for The Conversation website recently:

What prisoners think of prison movies



Stanley “Tookie” Williams and the Politics of Reading / Writing in Prison (week 7)

Blue rageWilliams was the co-founder of the infamous Crips gang who educated himself on death row and authored a number of books before being executed in 2005. His series of children’s books resulted in several nominations for the Nobel Prize for Literature. As the discussion suggested this week, the case of Williams reveals fascinating viewpoints towards reading and writing while incarcerated. Each participant had been given a copy of Williams’s adult memoirs, published as Blue Rage, Black Redemption in the US and just Redemption in the UK, that charter his transformative journey from violent young gangbanger in a hostile social setting, through education and reform, to respected author who addresses
the root causes of crime.[i]

The death penalty was assigned to Williams in 1981, the first year of Reagan’s office as president. redemptionHis punishment represents the shift from liberal sentencing towards a wave of legislation that promised to “get tough” on crime. Indeed, he notes in Redemption that, “California’s criminal judiciary was handing out death penalties like government food stamps in a depression” (262). Moreover, ”Death row is constructed for punishment and execution, not reform” (294). The group were keenly aware of these dynamics, that death row arguably does not permit a full transition into a reformed character. Yet they contended that instead of challenging his redemption, his position on death row made his self-education and authorial achievements even more worthy and respected.

When starting to turn his life around, Williams contends that “I didn’t know why I was driven to study” (245).  This reinforces the higher or spiritual state of redemption that we have discussed in previous weeks. We acknowledged that a number of people may write in prison for sheer escapism, yet Williams wrote with a clear purpose: to dissuade young people from a life of crime. By the final pages of the memoir, it is implied that by occupying himself with study, and life in prisonsubsequently conveying anti-gang, anti-prison messages to young people through his books (deemed “successful” if judged by the quotes inside his book sleeves), writing had “saved” him. Despite his doomed status, he could commit his redemption to print, putting right what he had done wrong by turning his negative experiences into positive resources. Throughout Reagan’s two terms, not only did harsher penalties become standard (particularly for African Americans as a result of the so-called “War on Drugs”) but prison library budgets were cut and creative writing programmes were axed. We discussed how in the face of such adversity Williams’s publications were ever more revered, and his act of writing became a politicised act.

Russ noted that similarly in the UK today only a handful of Writers-in-Prison are left at prisons from an initial network of 20.When Russ himself was a WIP, his instructions were simply that prisoners should not glorify crime. However this raises queries when creative writing is arguably easier when your subject is something you are familiar with. We wondered whether writing about kids bookscommitting a crime, then being compelled to show remorse at the end, suggests you are somehow “writing to order”. Perhaps this also implies that writing is still seen by the authorities as some kind of penitent act  for the incarcerated (“I am so sorry…”). We introduced the concept of the literary canon, and the fact that prison writers, particularly those with little formal schooling, have traditionally been excluded from the canon, suggesting the canon is “white”, “safe” and “middle class” (a double bind for Williams who was not only a prisoner but also African American). Yet the group were adamant that it was simply “wrong” not to consider incorporating such authors.

We then moved away from the act of writing itself, to consider the act of reading instead.  Discussions of the prison libraries where participants had served time revealed that true crime AmericanPsychoBookbooks tended to be the most popular (despite the fact that prisoners were discouraged from writing about it!). Does this speak to prison governors and management who think reading at any cost is imperative? We wondered whether Williams’s adult memoir had the potential to be “dangerous” if not read in full; the book is a conversion narrative that relies on the reader consuming both the violent first half, and the apologetic and redemptive second section. Russ noted that the controversial novel by Bret East Ellis, American Psycho, was catalogued in one of the prison libraries where he had worked, yet inmates had not been permitted to watch the film adaptation because it had an 18 rating.[ii] Once again, this arguably speaks volumes about how reading is still considered to be a valued and pedagogical activity.

To shake things up in the creative writing section today, Russ brought along some “story cubes” and the group were challenged to write a story using “an arrow”, “a sunflower”, “a block of flats, story cubesand “a fire”. The creativity and inventiveness of the group never cease to amaze me (e.g., a character called “Arrow”). We were also introduced to the idea of “six-word stories”, a phenomenon that is supposedly linked to Ernest Hemingway being challenged to write a story in just six words and producing: “For sale, baby shoes, never worn”.[iii] We were reminded that in many ways creative writing is founded upon “what ifs”; what if this / that had happened to that baby? We spent the rest of the session brainstorming six word stories and collectively filling in the gaps.

[i] Stanley “Tookie” Williams, Blue Rage, Black Redemption: A Memoir (Pleasant Hill, CA: Damamli, 2004) and Redemption: From Original Gangster to Nobel Prize Nominee (Preston: Milo Books, 2004).

[ii] Bret Easton Ellis, American Psycho (NY: Vintage Books, 1991).

[iii] Josh Jones, “The Urban (Legend) of Ernest Hemingway’s Six Word Story,” Open Culture, 24 March 2015, [Accessed 27 October 2015].