Jun 18 2014

Poem of the Day: I Am Human

I Am Human
by Tammica Summers

I am an inmate
The result of a mistake
But I am human first

This is not my fate
The effects make me shake
But it could always be worse

I am real just like you
Even though I wear blue
I have eyes I can see
My soul cries and my spirit is free

I am just as human as you are
It might be a stretch of your imagination
But can you try to reach that far?

I bleed like every human does
And sometimes I cry just because

Some days I have are good
And some days are bad
Some days I wish I could
Have a better life than what I had

I am an inmate
But I am human like you
I am now property of the state
But was once free like you

I am not an animal in the zoo
I am human just like you
When I’m scared I long to be held
And in so many ways I am frail

Man has sentenced me to shame
And put me in this Hell
And branded with this name
That you think you know so well

But do you really know me?
I’ve been conveniently moved from society
Forced into this virtual reality
But until I die I will always be
A human like you — part of humanity

Source: Bound Struggles, Number Seven (Chicago Books to Women in Prison)

May 12 2014

Guest Post: EITHER/OR by Dustin Sherwood Clay

Note from Dustin: I am sending you an essay for your blog. Maybe someone will find themselves in this story and speak up.

Note from Prison Culture: I met Dustin in a class that I taught at Stateville Prison a couple of weeks ago. I received a letter from him a few days ago that included his essay “Either/Or.” I am happy to publish it here. If anyone would like to write to Dustin about his story. He can be reached at:
Dustin Sherwood Clay
Stateville Prison
P.O. Box 112
Joliet, IL 60434

You can also leave your comments below and I will make sure that they get to Dustin.

EITHER/OR by Dustin Sherwood Clay

There was a creek on my block in Bellwood that snaked under the street and exposed itself where lots for homes should have been. It is full two stories down to water level. It’s gated but gates are little hindrance to the thought of adventure. In the daytime the creek held mystery. Both slopes were steep and filled with brush, like most scenes in Jason movies. The thought of white water rafting under streets on the gentle currents of a slow moving creek seemed more exciting than being tall enough for the big boy roller coasters at Six Flags.

rafting David got his hands on a blue hard plastic raft with two yellow hard plastic ores. The mission (and we chose to accept it) was to make sure no parent could see us sneak the raft up and over the gate and ease it down the slope to navigate the great unknown. We were pretty sure the raft was made for one but me, David and my brother was kids. Surely together we couldn’t exceed the weight of an adult. David hid the raft in his garage. My brother and I put ourselves in charge of the ores. We hid them in our living room behind our Dad’s chair. Hiding it in plain sight was not the plan, we actually thought they were hidden.

It was still a few days until the weekend. We agreed we needed a full day to explore the water. Christopher Columbus on the deck of the Santa Maria had to feel like a man with vision. There’s nothing like it, vision makes you find a way out of no way. I can’t even swim but dreams of the water felt like a great escape.

Me and my brother slept upstairs in a split level house next to our baby sister’s room. Our parents took over the guest room downstairs. Sometimes they would fight. Once the police were called. In ’83 domestic violence calls were the shortest investigation ever. If the woman pressed charges the man would be home in an hour minus 50 bucks with that being cause for another ass whoppin. If threat of arrest was realized, but all together avoided, it had a calming effect on the situation. Most times my brother and I didn’t leave our room. But the tones of hostility captured our attention like lassos in Dad’s old westerns. When that hostility flows out of the mouths that speak love to us, my heart drops.

One night we heard the boom of our Mother being knocked up against a wall. This fight was different. The tussling sounded desperate. I followed my brother’s lead. He flew out the bed, down the stairs with me and our baby sister in tow. My father was hunched over our Mother who was crouched down up against the dresser by the door of their bedroom. Dad’s eyes were intense and bloodshot, nose flaring, jaw clenched. His arms seemed even more massive, up in the air ready to strike again with the yellow hard plastic ore in his hands. I froze. I heard my brother screaming for my Dad to stop, my little sister screamed. I said NOTHING.

I can count on one hand how many times I heard my Mother use bad words in my whole life, this day being the first. At that moment she told my father, “You was out getting pussy.” That threw me. My Dad was slapped with rage, swinging the ore as if trying to erase those words from her lips. Mom used her full strength to block each blow while sobbing. A heavy humming sob that seemed to come more through her, than from her, from another dimension. My memory shuts off here like broken film in a projector. Write, missing reel here.

Read more »

Nov 05 2013

Poem of the Day: Chained and Bound

Chained and Bound
by Marvin X
A song based on how prisoners are brought to federal court “chained and bound”

You got me chained and bound
But you can’t keep me down
I was born to be free
To have my liberty
By any means necessary

Our time has come
Our day os here
Black man stand
Have no fear
Dare to struggle
Dare to win
Then the world
Will be ours again
You got me chained and bound
But you can’t keep me down.

The devil is a paper tiger
He rules with the gun
But there will be no law and order
Until black justice is done
You got me chained and bound
But you can’t keep me down.

Come, My Brothers, seize the time
No more dope, no more wine
No no no/no no no — No!
You got me chained and bound
But you can’t keep me down
Come, My Brothers, break the chains
There can be no peace til freedom reigns

You got me chained and bound
But you can’t keep me down
No, no no/no no no — No!

Feb 14 2012

Prison Culture is Now on Pinterest!

I’m excited to share that Prison Culture is now on Pinterest. Check it out and follow!

If you don’t know much about Pinterest, here’s a basic description from their site:

Pinterest is a Virtual Pinboard.

Pinterest lets you organize and share all the beautiful things you find on the web. People use pinboards to plan their weddings, decorate their homes, and organize their favorite recipes.

Best of all, you can browse pinboards created by other people. Browsing pinboards is a fun way to discover new things and get inspiration from people who share your interests.

I am using Pinterest to organize and share various PIC related images. I am also using it to share other miscellaneous interests. One of my pinboards for example is a collection of images about the PIC. You have seen many of these on the blog and others are new. I will continue to add to this collection over time. If you spot any great images, please e-mail them to me at jjinjustice1@gmail.com. I will include them on the pinboard.

Another pinboard that I have started is a collection of black prisoner photographs. I am just at the very beginning of this process but already I am finding it incredibly interesting. I hope that you will follow Prison Culture at Pinterest.

Feb 11 2012

Poem of the Day: The Bus Ride by Jackie Ruzas

The Bus Ride
by Jackie Ruzas (has been serving a life sentence in Sing Sing, Attica, and presently in New York’s Wallkill State Prison).

The bus travels the thruway from past to future,
I sit by a window somewhere in between
Another trip, another transfer, another prison
At day’s end.

Summer’s lush green mantle covers the landscape
From roadside to mountains far away.
I didn’t know I loved green.
Green, the color of life, so hard to be in winter.
Praises summer for its chance to be.
She had green eyes and black hair.
I had green eyes and black hair.
She wore my ankle bracelet.
I wore her name, Camille, on my garrison belt.
We shared an eclair on a bench in Linden Park.
She took a bite. I took a bite. We kissed in
The middle, so long ago.

The billboard shows a Budweiser face, “America’s Favorite Beer.”
I didn’t know I loved beer.
An eleven year abstinence from the me who helped
Construct the Big Apple from scaffolds in the sky.
My throat recalls the taste of malt & barley.
Two adolescent fingers flashed outside the Tumble Inn
Bar, signaled two quart containers.
A climb over the fence, a dollar passed through
The back window to Tony’s trembling old hand, clinched it.
An hour later the fence was a trap that brought six stitches.

A rabbit! Was it a rabbit I saw scamper through the woods?
I didn’t know I loved rabbits.
His name was Bugs, and I got him from Ol’ Farmer Steve
Who now presses grapes to wine in heaven.
My uncle Jim didn’t want rabbit shit in the cellar,
So Bugs froze to death in the battered doghouse,
While I slept snug in my child’s cocoon.

I didn’t know I loved bus rides.

— Attica/Sing Sing ’83

Jul 15 2011

Poem of the Day: Easy to Kill by Jackie Ruzas

The door,
I can see its molding if I scrunch in the
left corner of my cell
and peer through the bars to my right.
Each morning I awake
one day closer to death.

The prison priest, a sometime visitor,
his manner warm, asks
“How are you today? Anything I can do for you, son?”
“Is it just that I’m so easy to kill, Father?”
His face a blank, he walks away.

Play my life back on this death cell wall,
I wish to see my first wrong step.
To those who want to take my life,
show me where I first started to lose it.

1975, Madison County Jail, Wampsville, New York

Source: Doing Time: 25 Years of Prison Writing. Edited by Belle Gale Chevigny.

Of Irish and Lithuanian stock, Jackie Ruzas (1943) grew up in Queens. At parochial school, “I received both an education and bruises from the Grey Nuns.” Turning 16 at Aviation Trades High School, he was invited to quit or be expelled. He joined the ranks of construction workers. “When the sixties brought protest, alienation, and drugs, I joined those ranks as well. It all led to a final curtain on a sunny autumn say in October 1974, when a confrontation between a state trooper and myself resulted in his tragic death.”

Though charged with a capital crime, a jury spared him a death sentence; he is serving “an exile of twenty-five years to life.” He earned a G.E.D., but says he is mostly self-taught, “with a twenty-four year addiction to the New York Times.”

“I realized many years ago that writing provided me with a sense of flight to anywhere I chose to travel. I could leave my cell without sirens in my ears and dogs on my heels. Over the years I have tutored in classrooms in every maximum security prison in this state, and nothing gives me greater satisfaction than being part of an inmate’s journey from illiterate to literate.” He is organizing to restore college programming to Shawangunk Correctional Facility.

His poems have appeared in Candles Burn in Memory Town and Prison Writing in 20th Century America.

Jul 13 2011

Malcolm X and the Making of Prison Revolutionaries…

Don’t be shocked when I say that I was in prison. You’re still in prison. That’s what America means: prison.” – Malcolm X

Two books had a profound impact on my political consciousness. One of those books was “the Autobiography of Malcolm X.” It was sitting on my dad’s shelf when I picked it up for the first time at 11 or 12 years old. I was never the same. I just finished Manning Marable’s new book about Malcolm titled “Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention.” I read the book with the eyes of a grown woman instead of the eyes of a pre-teen. I am even more admiring of Malcolm now because I am more comfortable with complexity and nuance. I know that my touchstones are not perfect; that they are human and therefore fallible.

I was particularly interested in the chapter of Marable’s brilliant biography that focuses on Malcolm’s incarceration experience. One of my writing projects is focused on how prison has been perceived in the black American imagination. As part of that, I am immersed in prisoner writing of the 60s and 70s. I want to encourage anyone who is interested in our current mass incarceration epidemic to go back and read the work of American prisoners of that period. You will be in for a major education.

Many incarcerated people of that era were connected to the Black Arts Movement. Malcolm X was an inspiration for many of the artists and prisoners of that era. They made the case in their writing as Malcolm had that prisons and the police were tools to oppress and dominate poor people and people of color. Malcolm’s radical critique of the criminal legal system was itself inspired by Marx and Gramsci. Later other participants in the Black Arts Movement would also be inspired by Althusser’s essay “Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses”.

Writing in 1970, Zayd Shakur, the deputy minister of information for the New York State chapter of the Black Panther Party, echoes Malcolm’s contention that “America means: prison” as he makes the case that life in prison is an extension of life in our communities:

Prisons are really an extension of our communities. We have people who are forced at gunpoint to live behind concrete and steel. Others of us, in what we ordinarily think of as the community, live at gunpoint again in almost the same conditions. The penitentiaries, as they call them, and the communities are plagued with the same thing: dope, disease, police brutality, murder, and rats running over the places that you dwell in. We recognize that most of the militant-dissatisfied youth are off in the penitentiaries. Eighty percent of the prison population is black, brown, and yellow people. You look around and say, “what happened to my man. I haven’t seen him for a long time,” then you get busted, go to jail, and there he is. Prisons are an extension of the repression. In these penitentiaries are the Malcolms, Cleavers, Huey P. Newtons, Bobby Seales and all other political prisoners. Now the inmates are moving forth to harness their own destinies. They’re not relying on lying, demagogic politicians to redress their grievances. Of course, the courts didn’t redress their grievances in the first place, so there’s no sense in relying on them either. There’s very little difference between the penitentiaries in California and those in New York, New Orleans, Alabama, or Chicago. It’s the same system — America is the prison. All of America is a prison where the people are being held captive by the real arch criminals.”

I came across an interesting interview by the Liberated Guardian (L.G.) of two prisoners who had recently been released from Attica in March 1972. There were many interesting and important insights that the former Attica prisoners shared but I wanted to highlight one particular section of the interview. A former prisoner identified as Joe responds to the following question posed by the L.G.: “Do you think it’s true what George Jackson says, that the best of our kind are in the San Quentins and the Folsoms?”

The conditions produce revolutions. They don’t just happen. You can take Rap Brown. You can take him out of the ghetto, he can talk all the revolutionary bullshit he wants to, but nobody’s going to riot cause the people got their basic needs met. But he says that same thing in the ghetto and the people will react cause he is serving their needs now: showing them who’s the enemy and how they can go about meeting their basic needs. So it’s the conditions that produce the men that are leaders of the society or push the society to a higher stage of development. The George Jacksons, the Malcolm Xs, the Stokely Carmichaels, even myself. We are all products of society that we live in. And once you become aware of certain things, we say now wow, now you dig society, you got to go forth and change your conditions. Once you become hip to what’s going on, you’re going to want to change it.

Anyone who has read any part of Karl Marx will recognize the underpinnings of Marxist theory in this response. What I find particularly interesting about both of these passages is that both suggest that there is no real difference between political and nonpolitical prisoners. They also illustrate quite clearly the type of intellectual work that was happening in the late 60s and early 70s inside and outside of prisons. They suggest what we miss when we isolate prisoners from the broader society.

At the same time that conservatives were shifting the criminal legal system towards a “law and order” focus, the culture of American prisons was becoming more radical. This is a seemingly contradictory phenomenon of the 60s and 70s. One has to ask whether the increasing political and cultural engagement of American prisoners of the 1970s can be reinvigorated in the 21st century. It seems that we need a revival of prison revolutionaries in order to turn the current tide of hyper-incarceration. We should probably heed Louis Farrakhan’s words once again echoing Malcolm’s: “All of us are in prison. Those locked up are merely in solitary confinement.” Put another way, the liberation of those of us on the “outside” is distinctly linked to the liberation of those behind bars.

For more background on the nexus of arts and politics in prison, read Lee Bernstein’s book “America Is the Prison” which I wrote about several months ago.

Feb 13 2011

Voice from the Inside: Malcolm Braly Describes the Predictability of Prison Life

Interior of San Quentin Prison (1950s)

Malcolm Braly spent almost 17 years in several prisons including San Quentin and Folsom State for various burglary convictions. He wrote three novels while incarcerated. After he was released from prison in 1965, he wrote On the Yard, False Starts: A Memoir of San Quentin and Other Prisons. The following is an excerpt from False Starts which describes his incarceration experience:

The hardest part of serving time is the predictability. Each day moves like every other. You know nothing different can happen. You focus on tiny events, a movie scheduled weeks ahead, your reclass [reclassification by the prison staff], your parole hearing, things far in the future, and slowly, smooth day by day, draw them to you. There will be no glad surprise, no spontaneous holiday, and a month from now, six months, a year, you will be just where you are, doing just what you’re doing, except you’ll be older.

This airless calm is produced by rigid routine. Custody doesn’t encourage spontaneity. Walk slow, the Cynic says, and don’t make any fast moves. Each morning you know where evening will find you. There is no way to avoid your cell. When everyone marched into the block you would be left alone in the empty yard. Each Monday describes every Friday. Holidays in prison are only another mark of passing time and for many they are the most difficult days. Most of the outrages that provide such lurid passages in the folklore of our prisons are inspired by boredom. Some grow so weary of this grinding sameness they will drink wood alcohol even though they are aware this potent toxin may blind or kill them. Others fight with knives to the death and the survivor will remark, “It was just something to do.”

Feb 05 2011

A Prisoner Says Farewell to Solitary Confinement – Writing by Lee Savage

By Josh MacPhee

My friend Gary shared some excerpts from prisoner zines that were published in the Utne Reader last year.   I was particularly moved and somewhat overwhelmed by the words of Lisa “Lee” Savage who wrote a farewell letter to solitary confinement just before her eventual release from prison:

Dear Lowell CM Unit,

Over the past two years of being trapped within this “hellhole,” your behavior modification (human mortification) chamber, I have written many formal letters against you to your conceivers—the DOC administration, and I’ve penned several articles to inform prisoners and “free world” citizens of your insidious plans to destroy my mind and any chance for a productive life once I am freed from your chokehold. But today is the first time I’ve ever written to you personally and I have many things to say, so bear with me as I’ve had to bear with you every minute of these past two years while locked in your solitary confinement….

First, despite your lies, the stories you would tell me that I will never leave you, I could never leave you and within you is truly where I belong and you were just “trying to help me” become a proper woman, I AM leaving you. I’ve completed my penance and within a couple of days, I will walk out and not look back. I know you find this hard to believe and I can hear you saying, “You’ll be back. You’ll come home to me ‘cuz I’ve taught you to bring yourself back into my walls.”  Don’t be so confident and sure of yourself or your ability to twist my mind. I think you already know I am different from the others you’ve courted and caged before me.

I admit the first time we met and you took me in 6 ½ years ago, I was quite naïve and rather weak in my physical, mental and emotional states. Yes, you definitely had control and I was at your mercy, which I never received any, regardless of how I begged and pleaded with you to stop beating me, to stop hurting me, to stop breaking my heart and PLEASE just let me hold onto ONE LITTLE HOPE. You never ceased in your cruelty and I responded the way you wished, like a feral animal lashing out at any and all human contact. I’ve never felt so ashamed, so helpless, but I found the answer to your abuse…it would end, everything would cease to exist, even me. I would escape you by hanging myself, my spirit would fly free, this I would gladly pay for with this shell of flesh and bone.

It would come to pass: I hang, I die, I’m free.

Fate has a way of placing its hands on the steering wheel of life though and I was revived and brought back to you. It was that anger that helped me live until EOS.

You know, I can’t believe I’m being so civil to you and not ranting.

Yes I can believe it. I’ve changed in this second time I’ve spent so unwillingly with you. I swore that this time, I wouldn’t allow you to destroy me, to steal my life no matter what you did to me. Somewhere along the way, I found that I wasn’t a victim. I would be a survivor, a fighter. I would see my son again. I would enjoy a summer day, a cool winter night or the spring rain. I would bask in the sunshine with my lover. I would defeat you, beat you at your own game, and teach others how to survive and fight you.

There were days, many days in which my strength and hope waned, days when I would fight the guards just to FEEL, to KNOW I am ALIVE, I am REAL. The pain was real, the suffering was real and through all the mental and emotional anguish I held onto that burning rage I had inside and I became a “soulja,” a trained reconnaissance soulja, an urban guerilla who was ready for your warfare on whatever level you chose to fight.

When there was no attack on me, but on my captive sisters, I fought for them. I had to guard and protect those who didn’t understand your tactics. After all, that is “how you roll”—to besiege and then sequester the innocent, the unsuspecting. Isolated, they are then abused and returned to the free world shell-shocked. These are my sisters. I couldn’t just turn a blind eye or a deaf ear, even if it meant that I put myself in the line of fire, targeted.

I admit you are quite the formidable adversary. That is why your reach has grown and now no one is safe from you, not even your conceivers and your capitalist grantors. I’m quite sure you’ve deceived them into believing that you will not bite the hand that feeds. Won’t they be surprised and horrified when even they become trapped within you…

But, as your reach continues to expand, so does my network—my allies, the grassroots guerillas who support my resistance.

Funny, you fail to realize that, even while locked within you, deep in your bowels, my army of one is multiplying. Many armies of one are joining to become an army of many, who will foster and implicate the prisoner resistance movement and who will bring this hidden revolution to light.

I am leaving you and I know you are angry at this, but you see, I am ANGRIER and I MUST take this fight where your scary ass doesn’t want me to—to the streets. For it is outside of your walls that this revolution is about to explode. I will take it to the everyday common hardworking folk, the masses of overworked and underpaid who are your targets, so they no longer remain blind. I will take it to the uncertain and educate them, give them weapons to fight you. I will take it to the elitists on their pedestals and knock them down.

This is a war all right, a war for human rights and I will not allow you to take any more children from their families so that you can train them to become statistics of recidivism. You will not destroy my people. You will not destroy my family. For as much as you hate those you harm, I love them 100 times more.

My visionaries are beside me, inside me, speaking their truths.

My revolutionary sisters and brothers are everywhere, learning their truths.

Abolition has begun and it will not stop now.

I will not stop until all are free.

And this, Lowell Correctional Institution, is such a Savage Reality.

Until there are no more death chambers, I will fight.

Your Ex-Hostage,

(Lisa) Lee Savage

Lee was released on August 1st,  and continues the struggle from the outside.  To contact her, write to her at:

PO. Box 5453
Gainesville, FL 32627-5453

The following is a very good article from the same issue of Utne Reader that provides a tour of prisoner zines.  If you are interested in prisoner writing, you will find this very informative.

Jul 19 2010

Cell Block: Artist Andrea Slocum Responds to the PIC

One of the greatest joys that I have is that so many people from across the country have been so supportive of our work. We have the best volunteers and supporters out there. People are really committed to eradicating youth incarceration and to dismantling the prison industrial complex.

When one of our incredible volunteers decided to organize an art show and fundraiser for us, he put the call out asking that artists send us their graphic responses to the PIC. One of those artists from New Orleans, the incomparable Andrea Slocum, sent us this amazing drawing called “Cell Block.” She did so even though she had been in the hospital in the week prior to the deadline. Mad props and thanks to Andrea and all of the other artists supporting our work. Without art, we can’t create social change.

If you are in Chicago on August 28th, come to the opening event for Art against Incarceration, at Many People’s Church, 1505-07 West Morse from 7:30 to 9:30 p.m. I hope to feature many more incredible visual representations on the PIC in the coming weeks. Stay tuned!

Cell Block by Andrea Slocum