Mass Incarceration and the Limits of Prose

Many books try to capture the truth of mass incarceration. But how can words hope to convey the reality?


Writing compellingly about the prison system is nearly impossible. The challenge is to bridge the gulf between the readable and the necessary; true crime sagas are thrilling to read, mass incarceration statistics are moderately less so. Real trials never feel like John Grisham novels, and prisons themselves are less the gritty gangland battlegrounds of HBO’s Oz and more just an endless bureaucratic tedium. For those who believe American criminal justice is dysfunctional and unjust, this creates a frustrating paradox: many of the stories that most desperately need to be conveyed are those that are the most difficult to tell interestingly and well.

The task of persuasion remains crucial, though. Despite growing recent public awareness and scholarly attention given to the problem of mass incarceration, it has proven difficult to create the sense of urgency required to start bringing down walls and signing release orders. “A dozen books in recent years have addressed this problem without having much of an impact on policy or practice,” laments Robert Ferguson in Inferno: An Anatomy of American Punishment. “Why has identification of the problem had so little effect? What is it about punishment that confuses people?” Everyone now knows about it, but mustering the will to stop it is another matter. 

Ferguson himself believes the answer lies in an insufficient examination of the nature of punishment and the American punitive psyche. But the problem might be less to do with a lack of a certain kind of writing, and more with some inherent limitations of the subject matter. For, where a writer is concerned, prisons differ in an important respect from ordinary places: they are arenas where all sensation, all color and variety, has been deliberately extinguished. This spareness of stimulus does not easily lend itself to enticing or unique prose.

Literature on mass incarceration therefore easily becomes didactic. Writers about prisons, both inside and out, are faced with creating vividness from the mundane, and find themselves with a limited and clichéd vocabulary. “America’s criminal justice system is broken,” they say, in a sentence that has been written verbatim tens of thousands of times. Or they will resort to the familiar statistics; the third of black men that will pass through prison gates at some point, the millions entangled with the court system in some way. To stimulate intrigue, writers will call this system Kafkaesque, even though it really isn’t. The Kafkaesque is defined by mystery. Who is doing this? What logic governs this thing? In the case of American prisons, we know the who, how, where, when, and why. It’s a matter of public record.

One can contrast these difficulties with the successes that the Black Lives Matter movement has had in creating political pressure around the killings of black people by police. The names and lives of victims, like Walter Scott, Sandra Bland, and Eric Garner, make for powerful, wrenching narratives. Prisons themselves are a different matter. There is no single moment of tragedy; the injustice is stretched over years or decades. And it is not an individual story, but the story of multitudes. But harms that take place over long periods of time, and are perpetrated collectively, become abstract. Protests against policing can animate around discrete events, such as a tragic death or a non-indictment. Yet the prison system is not an event, but a constant. It doesn’t build toward a sudden, violent climax. Instead, it operates perpetually in the background, a slow, quiet suffocation rather than a single deadly gunshot. Fruitvale Station can show us the devastating final hours in the life of a single individual, Oscar Grant. But how do you tell the story of millions being housed in cages for decades? What could a film about solitary confinement look like, except a blank wall accompanied by a scream?

A number of recent books have attempted to deal with this challenge, and to rouse the kind of passion necessary to activate real public opposition. None of them quite succeeds, since nothing ever can. But by placing them side-by-side, one can see the truth emerging in the gaps. Their varying approaches to crafting mass incarceration narratives, and what those approaches both capture and fail to capture, reveal how the limitations of prose affect our ability to communicate effectively about the prison system.

The newest of these is Mr. Smith Goes to Prison (St. Martin’s Press, $25.99), which benefits from its uniquely novel angle. Jeff Smith was a promising young state senator in Missouri when he lied to the FBI about a campaign finance violation, earning him a year long sentence in a federal penitentiary. As an ex-political science professor, Smith had long been interested in the criminal justice system, and the conviction afforded him with an unexpectedly in-depth experience of it. Ever the enterprising politician, Smith took advantage of his stretch to produce a detailed entry into the neglected genre of involuntary ethnography.

The prison memoir has never been an especially robust or popular genre, and it is not difficult to see why. Each must describe the same sensations: the routinization, the deprivation, the slow process of setting aside what it was like to be human. As a result, they tend to bleed together, the narrator’s voice lost the moment her identity was stripped at intake. Claustrophobic and stark as the cell it is written in, the form is inherently hostile to the literary impulse.

Mr. Smith Goes to Prison deftly avoids this pitfall, distinguishing itself by taking advantage of its author’s strengths. Smith has a wry voice and absurdist humor that enliven his recounting of the experience, and a social scientific academic background that lets him make important big-picture policy observations. The risk was that Smith would simply write a “fish-out-of-water story,” how he went from brokering appropriations bill negotiations to trading packs of cigarettes. And of course, he does tell that story, but Smith also aims to use examples from his observations to inform a wider systemic critique.

Smith is keenly observant of tiny details, from the kitchen’s B-grade meat containers stamped “For Institutional Use Only” to the dated pop culture reference points of long-term inmates. He compiles a list of rules for survival (never accept a candy bar left on your pillow; it comes with major hidden strings attached) and translates prison slang (“dipping in the Kool-Aid” means barging into a conversation uninvited). He tells us how to steal peppers from the warehouse (always in the socks, since the pockets bulge too much). He explains the intricacies of racial hierarchy and segregation, and frankly discusses the issues of sexuality in prison, including rape. He carefully demonstrates the mechanisms of prison profiteering, from minor offenses like the mass theft of food supplies by correctional officers to major operations like the dollar-a-minute phone calls and the massive mark-ups on commissary goods.

Smith is especially good at showing the real-world implications of policy questions. His passages on solitary confinement are especially disturbing, discussing the ways in which it gives inmates “depression, rage, claustrophobia, and severe psychosis” with the lack of stimulation and interaction creating a “slow-motion torture.” He points out how small things matter, like giving inmates access to weightlifting equipment. Dismissing safety paranoia, Smith says that bodybuilding is one of the most important ways that inmates learn to develop and be proud of their achievements, and that it gives them hope and dignity.

One might think Smith’s experience somewhat narrow, because he spent his time in a minimum-security prison. But this turns out to be one of the book’s most important points: contrary to what the public believes, the differences between minimum and maximum-security facilities have shrunk in recent years. No more Club Fed, with its tennis courts and spas. Minimum security is maximum security without the barbed wire; the conditions are just as stark and brutal, and the discipline is just as rigid.

Smith is exasperated by just how unnecessary so much of that rigidity is, and documents its harms to the well-being of both inmates and the communities into which they will ultimately be released. Storing inmates far from their families and making phone calls unaffordable breaks down relationships, and that lack of a support network increases their likelihood of re-offending. The cruelty of the correctional officers is often needless and builds mistrust and hostility. And the educational programming offered to inmates borders on the fraudulent, with some “classes” consisting of sitting silently in an empty room until an hour has elapsed. The only real skills training offered is a several-week course on “how to grow tomatoes in water.”

All of this, for Smith, creates an unconscionable waste. He points out that inmates are intelligent, creative, and often remarkably entrepreneurial, but that their abilities are being squandered. The miniature economy that runs in a prison trafficks largely in pornography, cigarettes, Mother’s Day Cards, and peanut butter (for muscle building). But its operators are well-familiar with economic and mathematical concepts, even though they use “somewhat different jargon than you might hear at Wharton.” 

Smith is not the first one to note this; The Wire’s Stringer Bell used the formal economic knowledge he gained from reading The Wealth of Nations in order to master the drug market. But Smith is policy-oriented, and has recommendations for how these skills can be put to good use. Inmates are hungry for knowledge, he says. They have endless time on their hands and want the knowledge and connections that will help them stay in jobs once released. But the prisons consistently fail to provide even the most meager opportunities; even Smith’s own repeated attempts to teach classes to his fellow inmates were instantly vetoed by the prison administration.

Like every memoir ever written by a politician, Mr. Smith Goes to Prison is partly self-serving. Smith frequently trumpets his long history of volunteer work and enjoys listing his political achievements. And though Smith does everything to come across a decent guy who made a regrettable error of judgment, it is nevertheless disturbing when he admits he planned to pin the campaign finance misdeed on a young staffer who had committed suicide.

Still, Smith’s book is invaluable, since it manages to be both vivid and thorough in documenting America’s prisons from the inside. It’s regrettable that it takes a state senator to tell these truths, though. The “fish out of water” story is good at bringing the facts to life, but its premise also means the described experiences will inevitably be atypical. Smith does his best to remain focused on the lives of those he did time with, but he has a very limited access to their inner worlds. Everyone in prison is putting on an act in order to survive, and Smith admits he rarely manages to break through and find people’s true selves. Smith’s book is overflowing with useful observations and facts, but it remains an outsider’s account.

Bryan Stevenson is intensely aware of this challenge in Just Mercy (Spiegel & Grau, $14.99), recently released in paperback. Stevenson, who has worked as a lawyer on behalf of the poor for decades, is foremostly concerned with conveying the experiences of his clients. The book is framed by Stevenson’s own account of his work defending the indigent, and how he came to recognize the depth of the justice system’s bias and cruelty, but he is careful to use these in the service of telling the stories of those he works for.

Stevenson has already received well-deserved praise for the emotional force of his writing and his skillful selection of devastating anecdotes. The people he meets are impossible to forget. There is Joe Sullivan, a mentally disabled thirteen-year-old sentenced to life without parole, sent to an adult prison where he suffers unspeakable sexual abuse and ends up in a wheelchair. Yet Sullivan still retains an upbeat spirit, asking Stevenson about cartoon characters and reciting a little poem about how nice life will be when he goes home. It is impossible not to be outraged by the hell Sullivan has been condemned to. Stevenson’s depictions of tormented youths doomed to spend their entire lives suffering from horrors totally disproportionate to their crimes should make it difficult to justify the very idea of trying children as adults. (Stevenson managed to convince the Supreme Court to abolish mandatory life without parole for juveniles in 2012, but the only practical effect is that a hearing must be provided before giving a child life without parole.)

The story at the heart of Stevenson’s book, though, is that of Walter McMillan, accused of a murder he couldn’t possibly have committed. (Scores of people from his church were selling sandwiches with him in front of his house while it happened.) Yet while McMillan’s case seems a slam-dunk for the defense, Stevenson shows how the specter of racism continues to haunt the justice system. McMillan is a black man who had relations with the white woman who was murdered, and in Monroeville, Alabama, this is enough to put him under suspicion in the community. In fact, it is almost enough alone to convict him; the actual testimony against McMillan is laughably unreliable and contradictory. But McMillan is sent to death row nevertheless, where Stevenson fights a lengthy battle to present the evidence that will exonerate McMillan. After six years watching those around him in his cell block being executed one by one, McMillan is finally released, but by this time trauma-induced dementia has set in. When Stevenson goes to visit McMillan in his care facility, he finds that McMillan still believes he is on death row. McMillan’s story is a harsh reminder of the stakes, not just because of how patently unfair his conviction was, but because his tragic ending shows that many injustices can never be set right.

Yet Stevenson’s choice of McMillan as the main case study also has a shortcoming: McMillan was innocent, and very obviously so. His case is thus a perfect illustration of just how little truth and justice can matter when it comes to defendants who are poor and black. But while cases like McMillans are not infrequent, the main group of people on whom the injustice of mass incarceration is inflicted are guilty rather than innocent.

It’s understandable that Stevenson would pick the most sympathetic possible case to anchor his book. It shows just how little American constitutional protections can really matter in practice. Here we have a gentle, harmless man with a rock-solid alibi, and his life is nevertheless ruined because of his status in the racial and economic hierarchy. Nevertheless, the most common story of American prison life is not that of Walter McMillan. It is that of people who did commit crimes, often violent ones, but who nevertheless receive sentences vastly incommensurate with those crimes, and who are given none of the resources they need in order to build a stable life for themselves. Thus a fair criminal justice system will require building sympathy for more than just those who are already sympathetic.

This speaks to one of the central dilemmas in animating public support for prison reform. On the one hand, it is tempting to make the points that will most easily convince people: low-level drug offenses shouldn’t carry long prison terms, fourteen-year-olds who tagged along when an older brother killed someone shouldn’t get life without parole, the innocent should go free. All of these statements are true, all of them demand changing current American practice, and all of them can probably be supported by a good majority of people.

But America’s prison system is so vast, so bloated and so cruel, that making it humane is going to require unpopular reforms as well as popular ones. The reform-minded often emphasize drug sentencing, because it seems an issue on which it is easy to build political consensus. Yet even fixing drug policy would barely put a dent in the number of incarcerated. And as Gilad Edelman puts it in The New Yorker, “having a fifth of the world’s prison population would be better than having a fourth, but not by much.” The real problem is sentences for violent crime, but as Edelman says, “acknowledging the need to cut down the number of violent prisoners is a tough sell.”

Building the necessary empathy for violent criminals, and showing the way they too are victimized and locked into an inescapable cycle of imprisonment, is part of the project of Alice Goffman’s acclaimed ethnography On the Run (Chicago, $25.00). For eight years, Goffman attempted to immerse herself in the world of the guilty, young black men in Philadelphia who spend their lives in and out of various jails and prisons. The result is an extraordinary piece of work, logistically speaking, since Goffman is able to bring details from lives that are typically never seen or cared about by elite policymakers.

Goffman brings readers inside the lives of the men of 6th Street, whose entire lives seem defined by their interactions with police. They are ruled by fear and mistrust, the War on Drugs destroying any prayer they might have had of maintaining an ordinary existence. Goffman aims to help readers understand why Mike, Chuck, and the other 6th Street Boys act as they do. They are criminals, to be sure, but in Goffman’s portrayal their lives seem almost inevitable.

Goffman’s work has encountered some extraordinarily high praise as well as some fierce criticism. One criticism of the work, made by Dwayne Betts, is that its attempt to humanize backfires. In fact, Goffman simply “encourages outsiders to gawk,” reducing these men to the sum of their crimes and their police encounters. She thus fails to portray the neighborhood in three dimensions, excluding its culture, its warmth, its relationships, and treating it solely as a dysfunctional symptom of the drug war.

Another criticism of the book accuses it of inaccuracies. Multiple reviewers have gone after Goffman for supposedly taking liberties with the facts. The most vociferous has been Northwestern University law professor Steven Lubet, who has repeatedly accused Goffman of dishonesty in The New Republic. Lubet says that Goffman’s accounts of certain events, like her supposed visit to Chuck’s deathbed, do not add up. But he also suspects something fishy in her narrative, especially a passage in which she discusses her readjustment to life outside 6th Street.

The factual challenges to Goffman have not gone particularly far. Gideon Lewis-Kraus of The New York Times and Jesse Singal of New York magazine checked them out, and her sources seem to confirm her reporting. But Lubet is right to hit upon Goffman’s narrative of her return to Princeton as seeming particularly odd. In the “Methodological Note” at the end of her book, Goffman writes of arriving at Princeton after her time on 6th Street:

The first day, I caught myself casing the classrooms in the Sociology Department, making a mental note of the TVs and computers I could steal if I ever needed cash in a hurry.. The students and the even wealthier townies spoke strangely; their bodies moved in ways that I didn’t recognize. They smelled funny and laughed at jokes I didn’t understand. It’s one thing to feel uncomfortable in a community that is not your own. It’s another to feel that way among people who recognize you as one of them…The Princeton students discussed indie rock bands– white people music, to me– and drank wine and imported beers I’d never heard of. They listened to iPods, and checked Facebook…Moreover I had missed cultural changes, such as no-carb diets and hipsters. Who were these white men in tight pants who spoke about their anxieties and feelings? They seemed so feminine, yet they dated women. More than discomfort and awkwardness, I feared the hordes of white people. They crowded around me and moved in groups.

The passage may seem an unusual one to single out, tucked as it is at the end of the book. But it’s notable for its failure to ring true, given the facts known about Goffman’s background. As Lubet points out, Goffman was raised in tony surroundings as the child of prominent academics. She attended a prestigious private school, and was at the University of Pennsylvania when she was researching the book. To think that somehow when she got to Princeton, she was baffled by the existence of the iPod, stretches the limits of the imagination. For a wealthy double Ivy-leaguer to be looking for TVs to steal in case she needed extra cash is hard to believe.

Her fear of white people is similarly implausible. Goffman says she was scared especially of white men, even though “on some level, I knew they weren’t cops, they probably wouldn’t beat me or insult me.” On some level? This despite the fact that her adviser was a white man, and that no male sociologist in the history of Princeton has ever been mistakable for a cop.

But Goffman’s failure interestingly reinforces the point about the difficulties of discussing mass incarceration. It appears as if Goffman’s research was sound, but the narratives she laid atop it were faulty. Goffman attempts to use the “fish out of water” framing in order to make her personal story seem more exciting, but doing so requires her to distort her experiences and background in a way that harms her credibility. And she tries to tell a story about how the drug war has created a Wild West in which black men are forever on the run, but this isn’t exactly true. The reality is, as it always is, more complex than that. While easily-summarized punchlines may sell books (“white Princeton sociologist enters a terrifying urban battleground and loses herself in the process”), when they imply things that aren’t true, they damage our ability to understand and address the social problems they are supposedly concerned with. Yet in that old battle between the readable and the necessary, the readable continually wins out.

The same tendency toward narrative at the expense of truth applies equally to the classic text of the anti-mass incarceration movement, The New Jim Crow (New Press, $14.99). By invoking America’s own apartheid, Jim Crow, Michelle Alexander wanted to forge a powerful image that would stir public sentiment. She tried to avoid simply presenting dusty statistics, using the segregation comparison to convey the severity and urgency of the injustice. But as critics have pointed out, the Jim Crow metaphor isn’t precisely accurate. As law professor James Forman has explained, calling present-day criminal justice Jim Crow fails to explain the system’s often equally devastating effects on Hispanics and poor whites. It also obscures the fact that mass incarceration was not imposed simply by whites, but also involved support from blacks fearful of crime. Thus even Michelle Alexander doesn’t quite identify the problem precisely.

Smith, Stevenson, Goffman, and Alexander have all written powerful books, each using a different strategy to try to capture what criminal justice in America today is like. Each of them succeeds to a degree, and each ought to be read. Ultimately, though, none of these authors can do what they set out to do, because America’s prison system tests the limits of prose. You can try to turn it into a story with a moral, a snappy metaphor or the cry of an innocent man accused. But it’s too bleak, pointless, and devastating to be captured in any of these.

remember when I first realized how little there truly was to be said about what goes on inside a prison. I made a stupid, naive blunder interviewing a client while working at a public defender’s office.

“How are you?” I asked him with eager-intern chirpiness.

“I live in a tent with 80 men and there is no air conditioning. So that’s how I am.”

“Oh,” I replied sheepishly, making a “whoops” face. “I’m sorry.”

Monotony does not make for good stories, yet politics thrives on stories. 12 Years A Slave must be about about man who escapes slavery instead of the scores who did not, because this is where the story is. As Stanley Kubrick described his fundamental problem with Schindler’s List: “The Holocaust is about six million people who get killed. Schindler’s List is about 600 who don’t.”

This is not to deny the countless horrifying incidents in the life of the American prison system. But so many of these tend toward the meaningless. I once worked on a class-action lawsuit against a prison in the American South, and I remember reading the statements that had been taken from the inmates. There was one man who was deprived of medical care as he slowly watched his testicle grow steadily larger and turn purple. Each day he would look at the testicle. Each day as the pain worsened, he would beg the guards to take him to the hospital, and each day they would tell him to shut the fuck up. Eventually, when the testicle had grown to the size of a baseball, he was finally brought to the doctor to be castrated. By that time, the cancer had spread. The end.

It is hard to imagine the film version of this scenario being successful. You can’t readily adapt it for Netflix. Yet these are the stories that we are trying to tell. Stories without lessons, without resolution or purpose.

Literature is a key ally of social progress for its ability to induce empathy, but literature seems powerless when it comes to mass incarceration. This is unfortunate, because for no issue is the creation of empathy more crucial than in criminal justice. From the beginning, the task is to foster love for the most despised. Not only that, but with prisons being hidden away in countrysides, people must be made to feel something that they cannot see.

One reason the prison epidemic has been hard to excite public emotion against is that while it is easy enough to write about, is difficult to write about powerfully. The story of a prisoner is the story of a starved brain, a human being slowly going mad inside a box. The story of American criminal justice is the story of millions of such people, being placed in suspended animation and put away. What can be said about this? Where’s the moral? When it comes to mass incarceration, words simply fail us.

Author: Nathan J. Robinson

is the editor of Current Affairs.