- Prison Writing of Latin America by Joey Whitfield
The uniqueness of Prison Writing of Latin America is its focus on prisoners whose published writing in the tradition of the testimonio genre navigate the boundary between the political and the criminal. As an exposé of the penal system in Latin America, the book is a denunciation of the prison system as a hegemonic institution of state-sanctioned punishment, wherein the marginalized of society are condemned to conditions of violence and injustice, both behind prison walls, as well as in the society from which they emerged. These non-traditional authors of an anti-literary genre of writing bear witness to their prison environment as individuals with a collective message to the social order. That message is simply that penal institutions do not result in rehabilitation and that state punishment only reinforces class, race, and gender hierarchies outside of the prison’s confines. In this sense, [End Page 158] their poignant writings fall into the category of a collective voice of the voiceless, a literature of solidarity with fellow inmates; it is a resistance literature of social action with the intent not to reform the penal system, but to abolish it entirely, replacing prison with restorative and transformative modes of justice.
Advancing the “coloniality of power” theory of the Peruvian sociologist Aníbal Quijano, Whitfield explores a number of key features of prison life in Latin America that reflect the colonial power matrix. Referencing analytic approaches and socioeconomic practices of decoloniality, the author questions the penitentiary model of the criminal justice system as a means of reform.!Prison confinement becomes an instrument of social differentiation and control, an expansion of the punitive institutions, and practices of colonial, political, social and cultural domination. !Whitfield draws attention to political organization and punitive cultures and the abuses endured by the authors of prison writing in Latin America and the Caribbean through!an!analysis of an eclectic range of texts from the 1930s to the 2000s (memoirs, novels, short! stories,! testimonios, and political propaganda).The author uses textual analysis from Costa Rica, Mexico, Cuba, Peru, Bolivia, and Brazil. By highlighting the underlying roots of crime in the region—class domination, racial exclusion, economic inequality—, Whitfield shows the interconnectedness between incarceration and the historically subjugated and vulnerable of society. In short, prison becomes an extension of Latin American colonial and oligarchic culture, and prison writings become a counter canonical form of political activism denouncing the hegemony of the prison system. Across the region, prison populations in Latin America have risen rapidly in recent decades, most notably through the use of pre-trial detention and the increasingly punitive stance taken towards the overwhelmingly poor arrested on drug charges. At the same time, prison conditions have deteriorated as physical capacity and staff numbers have fallen behind the number of those imprisoned. These developments have broader implications for understanding prison life in Latin America and highlight the need to develop alternative paths toward social justice, crime, and punishment.
Chapter 1 focuses on the politics of the prisoner writing from a subaltern position of incarceration. Literary recognition not only gives these writers a voice, but also empowers those deemed “powerless” and thus repudiates and rejects their subaltern identities. Chapter 2 examines hegemonic masculinity in three Cuban prison narratives, wherein homosexuality becomes a central theme. Revolutionary and post-revolutionary Cuban ideology are analyzed with emphasis on the hombre nuevo, “staunchly masculine and heterosexual but also anti-materialistic, self-sacrificing, loyal, loving to family and country and (relatively) respectful towards the mujeres nuevas, with whom he was notionally placed on equal footing” (87). Male homosexuals were considered counterrevolutionary, according to this ideology, and thus incarceration placed an added burden of choice between total sexual abstinence or submission to sexual male advances. Transitioning to an entirely different perspective, Chapter 3 analyzes the Peruvian political prison system during the time of the Sendero Luminoso (Shining Path). The prison writings of this revolutionary Communist party and political organization exemplify how the penal system can be used as a platform to overthrow the Peruvian...