Anna Karenina in a Somalian Prison
For the last six weeks, I've been spending many of my nights and weekends working on a forthcoming project from a group I just adore adore adore. It's a collection of narratives that touch on the many aspects of solitary confinement in correctional facilities around America. The stories are gut-wrenching and gripping, immensely powerful, and I can't wait to see them in print.
I was 18 when I walked into Riverbend Maximum Security -- nobody can enter or exit a correctional facility without remarking on the coldness and loudness of steel doors opening and closing -- to meet Gary Pickle, and for the next three years, I'd visit him. Man. The things we'd talk about (perhaps one of the better classrooms I ever stepped in?). He was abruptly transferred one day, then I found out (only last year, actually) that he had died in some anonymous Tennessee prison, his life sentence -- as was always going to be the case -- bearing witness to his final, locked-away breaths. I still have the draft of a book about his life that we worked on together. One day, I think, I'll do something with it -- his story is not one that will go unheard.
In law school, the best class I took was Capital Punishment. We talked about cases I still remember, and we read writers like Hugo and Wilde -- their early condemnations of a system that should be condemned as brutally today, with acid and vitriol. Inhumanity is inhumanity.
When I worked in the Texas Legislature, I spent a great deal of time on a bill that was to reform the Texas Juvenile Justice Department. And, like, most every attempt at prison reform, it was watered down and, in the end, made only a few clerical changes. Gun-toting representatives and county judges and prosecutors were reelected -- like they often are -- on the shoulders of outcomes like these: "tough on crime" (a wonderfully fraudulent subset of fear-based campaigns) is a difficult mantra to overcome.
Today I'm less hands-on, leaning on eyes and my ears and my pen a little more. I have just joined arms with an organization that pairs you with an inmate on solitary confinement, which means I now have a pen-pal -- and for someone who adores letters, I'm so eager to write (type, maybe?) one.
You must read Ta-Nehisi Coates' essay (his entire most recent book, preferably) on mass incarceration -- indeed, without it, no conversation about modern incantations of segregation and racism is at all complete. You must watch 13th -- perhaps my only visual recommendation of the year (and, incidentally, the reason I officially have a Netlfix account now). And lastly, you must listen to this podcast: two men, solitary confinement in Somalia, a beautiful beautiful love story, and Anna Karenina.
Just one more thing: I think it's worth saying that it's very much ok to tear up on the subway.