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  • The Inside Stories of the Global American Prison
  • H. Bruce Franklin

Three decades ago, I wrote that the literature of the American prison is not “some peripheral cultural phenomenon but something close to the center of our historical experience as a nation-state.”1 Back then, there were 300,000 people in U.S. domestic prisons and jails. Today there are 2.4 million. Since then, the United States has built an average of a prison a week inside our nation, globalized a vast prison-industrial complex, and normalized prison torture at home and around the world. The outcome of national elections as well as representation in Congress is now determined by felony disenfranchisement, which today deprives more than five million lower-class American citizens of the vote. One example: In the 2000 election Florida disenfranchised 827,000 former prisoners; if they had been allowed to vote, political scientists estimate that Al Gore would have won Florida by 80,000 votes, George W. Bush would never have gotten to reside in the White House, and the world we live in would be a very different place.2

To comprehend the American prison one must turn to the literature created by those who have experienced its secret world. For secrecy is part of the essence of the prison. Prior to the American Revolution, imprisonment was seldom used as a punishment for crime in England and was rarer still in its American colonies, most of which were being used as dumping grounds for British convicts. Here the main punishments were executions and various forms of physical torture—whipping, the stocks, the pillory, branding, mutilation, castration, etc.—all designed as spectacles to be witnessed by the public. The prison system depends on the opposite. It institutionalizes isolation and secrecy. The prison’s walls are designed not only to keep the prisoners in but to keep the public out, unable to observe what is going on inside. Prison literature, therefore, is intrinsically subversive, revealing what is supposed to be concealed and what is often unimaginable. As ex-convict author Jim Tully put it back in 1928: “I’d rather read one page by a man who had been in Hell—than all of Dante.”3 [End Page 235]

One man who had been in America’s prison hell was Jack London, who defined his incarceration for a mere thirty days as an event that shaped his perception of America.4 In two essays published in Cosmopolitan magazine in 1907, “’Pinched’: A Prison Experience” and “The Pen: Long Days in a County Penitentiary,” London described his arrest and imprisonment at the age of eighteen in 1894.5 London tells of experiencing on a gut level two great revelations. What shocks him most deeply is that the prison not only brutalized the prisoners but also transformed them—including himself—into instruments of terror and class oppression within the prison. His second revelation is the overwhelming power of the state, with hints of its full potential for terror: “I saw with my own eyes, there in that prison, things unbelievable and monstrous. . . . My indignation ebbed away, and into my being rushed the tides of fear. I saw at last, clear-eyed, what I was up against.”6

Only months after these memoirs appeared, London published an astonishing extrapolation from his prison experience, The Iron Heel, the world’s first full vision of a fascist state. The two sketches display the American prison as a totalitarian state; the novel projects an American totalitarian state as a gigantic prison. And now we greet the centennial of this 1908 novel under the state’s electronic eyes and ears and in the lengthening shadows of Abu Ghraib and Guantánamo.

London returned to his vision of the American prison as matrix of brutalization in his last major novel, Star Rover (1915), a tale of unending fiendish torture in San Quentin relieved only by the narrator’s out-of-body escapist trips in time and space. In 1915, however, torture was not central to the American prison, except insofar as it served the prison’s primary underlying purpose, which was slave labor, whether on the vast prison plantations that had replaced the...


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pp. 235-242
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