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Fourth City

Essays from the Prison in America

Edited by Doran Larson

Publication Year: 2014

At 2.26 million, incarcerated Americans not only outnumber the nation’s fourth-largest city, they make up a national constituency bound by a shared condition. Fourth City: Essays from the Prison in America presents more than seventy essays from twenty-seven states, written by incarcerated Americans chronicling their experience inside. In essays as moving as they are eloquent, the authors speak out against a national prison complex that fails so badly at the task of rehabilitation that 60% of the 650,000 Americans released each year return to prison. These essays document the authors’ efforts at self-help, the institutional resistance such efforts meet at nearly every turn, and the impact, in money and lives, that this resistance has on the public. Directly confronting the images of prisons and prisoners manufactured by popular media, so-called reality TV, and for-profit local and national news sources, Fourth City recognizes American prisoners as our primary, frontline witnesses to the dysfunction of the largest prison system on earth. Filled with deeply personal stories of coping, survival, resistance, and transformation, Fourth City should be read by every American who believes that law should achieve order in the cause of justice rather than at its cost.

Published by: Michigan State University Press


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p. C-C

Title Page, Copyright Page

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pp. i-vi


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pp. vii-x


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pp. xi-xii

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Introduction: The American Prison Writer as Witness

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pp. 1-10

Fourth City: Essays from the Prison in America presents the widest sampling to date of first-person, frontline witness to the human experience of mass incarceration in the United States. Pushing back against the monstrous caricatures of prisons and prisoners in popular film and television, these essays offer direct engagement with life as it is lived every day by the American citizens held...

Part One. Life on the Streets of Prison City

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The Life

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pp. 13-53

The essays in this first section offer an introduction to the life lived every day on the streets of Prison City: a city with its own language, culture, social hierarchies, currencies, and codes of conduct. Each essay peels back the stock assumptions about prisons (about violence, rape, etc.), revealing the human experience that stands behind popular images of prisoners and prisons. Several portray the supportive relationships that incarcerated people wrest from the day-to- day...

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Ticket In: The Shaping of a Convict

Julius Kimya Humphrey, Sr

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pp. 54-58

“Boy . . . what’cha doin’ back there?” “Nuttin’ mama,” I yelled in response to her call from the living room that also served as her bedroom. This was an arrangement made in 1961, when I was four years old. In a jealous rage, my father shot my mother several times one night at a club, leaving her paralyzed and with two options: she could either lie in her bed or sit in her wheelchair. Unfortunately for my siblings and...

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Coping with Life in Prison City

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pp. 59-85

The next two clusters of essays—“Coping with Life in Prison City” and “Seeking Peace in Prison City”—may seem so closely related as to collapse into one. But in allowing them to do so, we would fail to appreciate the important difference between the labor required to survive life inside, and efforts to give that life some meaning. The life inside Prison City may be different...

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Ticket In: Lessons in Stupidity

Steven King Ainsworth

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pp. 86-89

How does a criminal find value in his life? Is it the lesson he can give about stupidity? Or is it in some other niche that he serves his fellow man? Am I to remain a pariah? Perhaps you should decide after perusing this bit of personal history, which I offer for your benefit. I first entered the California state prison system in 1968 at age twenty-three with an indeterminate...

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Seeking Peace in Prison City

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pp. 90-108

Despite the extraordinary challenges inside Prison City, every man and woman here wants to do more than simply survive their time inside. This collection of essays is called “Seeking Peace” because every author has managed to find ways to do just that—to discover through meditation, religion, art, or other practices, a way to push back against the predictable hostility of the...

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Ticket In: The History of My Gambling Addiction

John H. Schmidt

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pp. 109-111

Going back as far as I can remember, my first encounters with gambling occurred when I was about seven or eight years old. I bet horses at Delaware Park with my dad. I also bet horses at Brandywine Raceway with my mom. But I remember playing the football tickets with my dad on the weekends the most. I’m not sure which one was first of these three activities, but I...

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Family Life In and From Prison City

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pp. 112-137

We consistently fail to acknowledge that conviction and imprisonment, while perhaps bringing comfort to the direct and obvious victims of crime, sets off another series of victimizations—of the families and loved ones of the men and women sent to jail.1 From the inside, no matter how well incarcerated people cope with life in prison, and no matter how many moments of peace...

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Ticket In: The Mentality of an Incarcerated Criminal

Rahasheem Brown

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pp. 138-142

The mentality of the criminal is acquired at a very young age, in most cases. This is why a pre-sentencing investigation (PSI) report goes back to your parents’ history, the history of your siblings (especially if any of them were incarcerated or in trouble with the law), and so on. There were role models in the ’hood (neighborhood) from which I hail, very few of whom had never been incarcerated. Even fewer had never committed a crime in my presence. When I was...

Part Two. The Rules of Law, Policy, and Practice in Prison City

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Inside Justice and Injustice

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pp. 145-175

Assuming a grasp of the lifestyle, culture, and psychological challenges of life in Prison City as documented in part 1, part 2 deals with institutional policy and practice: in the administration of prison justice, basic civic functions, mental and physical health care, and prison and reentry programs. A fifth section offers a venue in which prison community activists describe their efforts...

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Kite Out: Fifteen Years since Inception

Brandon Martinez

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pp. 176-178

It’s been fifteen years since inception, locked down here in the department of correction. I must say it’s been a horrific ordeal indeed. Started out just a young buck in my teens. Had no idea what tragedy I had imposed upon myself, and family would ultimately suffer right along with me, from my absence. Looking back on my former days, I wish I could turn back the hand of...

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Civic Dysfunction and Its Critics

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pp. 179-216

From their perspectives inside different state-sponsored neighborhoods of Prison City, the writers in this section offer critical assessments of the civil dysfunction of a city that, after thirty-five years of expansion, housed one out of every one hundred Americans.1 These writers present practical evidence of how well imprisoned people understand the obstacles to turning American...

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Kite Out: Visions of the Night

Steven G. Avaloy

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pp. 217-220

It is in the light of hope that I am reaching out to you through this true-life story. For God may speak in one way, or in another, yet man does not perceive it, In a dream, in vision of the night, when deep sleep falls upon men, While slumbering on their beds, Then He opens the ears of men, And seals their instruction, In order to turn man from his deed...

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Mental and Physical Health Care

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pp. 221-234

Health care is a problem—both practical and political—across the United States. Health care in Prison City is a serial tragedy. A federal judge has declared that the health care afforded to men and women incarcerated in California constitutes cruel and unusual punishment; it was these conditions that moved the Supreme Court to order the state to reduce its prison population...

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Kite Out: A Message to the Incarcerated Muslim

Shakkir Talib Mujahid

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pp. 235-237

I am sad today, for the Message I bring has been shouted through the halls and walls of these universities for years. “Say you believe in Allah and stand firm on it.” I don’t know that many of you know what this actually means. It appears that you have let your life of anger, deceit, distrust, hatred, greed, and lust for power, control, and fame make you...

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Community Activists

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pp. 238-254

No one feels the stakes of prison transformation more intimately than the prison’s inhabitants. The essays that follow witness how well located they are to effect the change required. These are essays by men who dare to make improvements that would turn the American prison into a more functional, safe, and socially constructive institution—for staff, inmates, and the public at large....

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Kite Out: Life on the Inside

Karter Kane Reed

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pp. 255-256

I would like to start by telling you a bit about myself. Like any human being, I am a unique individual with my own eccentricities and idiosyncrasies while also sharing in common with you—and everyone else—many traits, characteristics, and quirks. I am very much different than you . . . and very much the same. Growing up, I was a pretty smart kid and learned readily, something I carried with me into...

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Prison and Reentry Programs

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pp. 257-280

The bad news from Prison City is evident: this is a population in exceptional need of effective treatment, education, and training; but it faces exceptional negligence, indifference and often outright hostility toward the work of individuals trying to make something constructive of their years inside. The good news is less easily discerned and much less predictable: prison and reentry...

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Danner Darcleight

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pp. 281-294

The prison wall stretches like a dark gray band in the van’s rearview mirror. As we speed away, the gray line tapers down; in under a minute it’s gone, and I’ve covered more distance than I have in a decade. This is the first time I’ve been outside of a prison wall in all those years. I’m relieved that the feel of driving hasn’t made me throw up farina into my shackles. My handcuffs are tethered to a...

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Editor’s Afterword

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pp. 295-298

This volume began inside Attica Correctional Facility, where I initiated a creative writing workshop in November of 2006. Working with men inside Attica revealed to me the values and quality of thought that can be forged in men living under the daily heat of the prison environment— values and thinking that remain unknown to the public. As a teacher of writing for...


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pp. 299-310

Further Reading

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pp. 311-314

Notes on Contributors

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pp. 315-322


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pp. 323-338

E-ISBN-13: 9781609173975
E-ISBN-10: 160917397X
Print-ISBN-13: 9781611861075
Print-ISBN-10: 1611861071

Page Count: 352
Publication Year: 2014

Edition: 1st