Prison is a place steeped in mythology, from the outright lies about it politicians tell to promote their “crime-fighting” policies to the propaganda prison officials print in their periodicals to justify its raison d’être; even prisoners, in their writings, contribute to this mythology.
In No Man’s Land, Fielding Dawson’s twenty-first book, a short, provocative novel, this mythology is addressed head-on. Through the eyes of Francis Robinson, a poet who is teaching a special class in playwriting at Snagg Prison, a mythical place that could be any maximum-security prison in the United States, we are taken deep into America’s heart of darkness. As Robinson goes “deeper into the labyrinth” to get to the School Block and the classroom where he will teach, he comments that it is dark and that he sees very little. Despite not being able to see much, he could hear the prison talking. It “had a voice of its own: well over a century old, its voice sonorous, on a wavelength outside my own. It had an added grating, dungeon echo that seemed to follow wherever I went, inside my ear yet inside its walls.”
Prison walls do talk. The corridors, as well as the cells, are overcrowded with the ghosts of prisoners’ past. These “ghosts” cannot tell their stories, but they can tell them to the people who walk the prison’s corridors and are confined in its cells, with the hope that they will tell them. This is not to say that everyone hears the voices. One has to really listen, and it is self-evident that Dawson is a good listener, that he hears what the walls whisper, what the ghosts give voice to, and what his students say, for he has taught writing in prison since 1984. For this reason, even though he is an “outsider,” he speaks with the voice of a prisoner in the know and is considered an “honorary convict.” As an honorary convict, however, there is a price Dawson must pay, the awful price of knowing that our prison system is not what it proclaims to be; and it is far worse than we can even imagine. With this knowledge he must do something, to write about it, at least, to debunk some of the myths.
Robinson’s descent into the mythical Snagg Prison, and it is a descent, is worthy of Dante. In fact, the walls quote the poet’s famous line: “Abandon hope all ye who enter me!” Robinson, though, has hope, the hope of the word, its power to reveal and transform. Armed with copies of the first ten pages of August Wilson’s The Piano Lesson (“for a sample of format”), and a copy of Hamlet, this hero, who is by no means a young idealist at 60 years of age, enters the labyrinth to do battle with and to strike a blow at the monster the prison system has become. He enters the classroom to demonstrate to the prisoners that there is drama in their lives, that their lives in prison are tales worth telling. The prisoners, of course, are reluctant. One states that he does not want to write about the reality of prison life. He lives it every day and absolutely hates it. This is a problem because, despite his best intentions, Robinson has some hard-learned notions about prison and prisoners and playwriting. (Maybe there “wasn’t any plot in prison life,” as one prisoner has told him.) Perhaps the main problem is that the prisoners themselves have become mythological creatures. In addition, they are men whose lives are so meaningless they live fantasy lives to escape the reality of prison. But the show must go on and it does and the drama unfolds. The prisoners write and act the parts of their play, which is tentatively titled, “In the Dungeon.” They easily fall into character, not because they do not know of any others, but because they are imprisoned in a larger than life drama in which they, as well as the guards, are mere pawns.
Though brief, this is an ambitious novel, tackling the major problems our prison system is beset with: overcrowding, despair, double-bunking, violence, AIDS, anger, racism, the lack of “rehabilitational” programs, the end of college-level instruction and education, the exploitation of prisoner labor and the willingness of politicians to throw so much money at the prison system.
There is one critical flaw in the book: a gratuitous prison rape of a “new young kid,” even though it takes place, so to speak, off-stage. How often has the public heard about prison rape? So much one would think it is commonplace. Granted, at one time it was a big problem, especially in some Southern prisons. Indeed, Wilbert Rideau and Billy Sinclair, the famous prison editors of The Angolite, wrote an expose on this entitled, “Prison: The Sexual Jungle,” published in the November/December 1979 issue of their magazine, for which the pair won the prestigious George Polk Award. More than twenty years later, prison rape is not the problem it used to be, yet far too many people still see it as such, perhaps including Dawson. To debunk this myth, this reviewer conducted an unofficial survey, asking twenty prisoners (who have been in all the maximum security prisons in New York) with an average of twenty years in prison if they had witnessed or knew about a prison rape. All told, only one had witnessed forcible oral sodomy; all had heard about at most one such rape; none of this happened in recent memory. Watching OZ, the critically acclaimed HBO prison drama about a mythical prison of the same name, however, one would think otherwise. (In one episode a raped prisoner’s ass is tattooed. His rapist tells him, “Now your ass belongs to me!”)
Notwithstanding the above, No Man’s Land is a quick but thoughtful read. Granted, it is a polemic against the prison-industrial complex, but this does not detract from its power. In fact, this makes it a must-read. Indeed, because the monster the prison system has become has spread its tentacles far and near and is currently holding approximately two million people and counting, and because astronomical amounts of taxpayers’ money is being spent (read “wasted”) on it, almost anything half-decent informing people about prison as it really is is a must-read.
The problems of crime and imprisonment and recidivism may seem complicated, but there are some simple solutions: increase the availability and use of alternative sanctions, award the states with incentive grants for reducing recidivism instead of keeping people imprisoned for longer periods of time, as the federal government currently does, and make the education of prisoners a priority.
Snagg Prison is like the Labyrinth designed by Daedalus, the great, legendary Greek architect, a place of confinement from which escape was thought to be impossible. Once inside, one would go endlessly along its twisting paths without ever finding the exit. But there was a simple solution: all one had to do was take a ball of thread, fasten it at one end to the inside of the door and unwind it as one went on. One could accomplish one’s mission and then find one’s way out by rewinding the thread. Can we find our way out of the No Man’s Land of the prison-industrial complex, of prison expansion and sentences seemingly without end just as easily? As Dawson demonstrates through Robinson, one does not have to be a hero in the classical sense to stand up to the monster and help people escape from a seemingly hopeless situation.