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The Human Sewer

A Time to Die

by Tom Wicker
Quadrangle, 342 pp., $10.00


Prisons are a comparative novelty. They are, like America, an eighteenth-century experiment; but one that failed. Of course, there were jails, makeshift or permanent, long before that time—to detain people during a crisis, before a trial, or till execution. Lepers, the berserk, the plague-carriers had to be shut away. But criminals, after trial, were not customarily sentenced to confinement. If they were not executed, flogged, mutilated, or subjected to public penance, they were deprived of rights, stripped of property, fined, or—if nothing more fitting could be done to a convict left at large in society—they were disposed of by ostracism, exile, deportation. They were sometimes shipped to penal colonies, like Georgia or (later) Australia. If no colony or foreign spot was available for dumping the unwanted, some distant corner of one’s own land could be used—witness Siberia.

There were, in fact, some very long confinements—and places made infamous by them: the Bastille, the Tower. But these were felt to be exceptional, disgraceful—the detentions were normally extra-legal, a political course when open trial of any kind was felt to be risky. In the sixteenth century, houses of correction were added at the bottom of the scale of punishments, “reformatories” for slight crimes or less-than-responsible types (women, the feeble-minded, young boys). Once these institutions existed, they were also used for other things, but on no plan or system.

The Enlightenment invented prisons, not as a supplement for other punishments, at the bottom of the scale of severity, but as a substitute for things very high on the scale. Opponents of the indiscriminate death penalty, or torture, or mutilation, or public humiliation, had to answer the question What will you do with criminals? The answer: break men’s ties with a criminal society, return them to reflective solitude, and let the affections, twisted under the pressures of a corrupt society, spring back to their natural shape. Put in a cell that suggested the pre-social state, they would emerge new Èmiles, ready to sign the social contract and make a better world. We know, now, that the nature discovered in that cell was Hobbes’s and not Locke’s. But the philosophes did not know it. They had an excuse that has been taken from us.

America’s political system was born at the same time as the prison system, and the two showed a natural affinity. Prisons grew at a rapid pace where the death penalty was curbed, as in Philadelphia. By the time Jefferson’s Enlightenment monastery was dedicated in Charlottesville, a penal monastery was going up on Cherry Hill in Philadelphia, each cell complete with its little garden. One reason we think of prisons as a permanent part of life is that they spread so fast and successfully in America. Huge monk-fortresses went up everywhere, and have remained the clumsy skeleton of our prison system to this day. In 1961, more than a hundred of our prisons dated from the early nineteenth century. Even now, after a drastic phasing out of very old facilities, sixty-one of our operating prisons are from the nineteenth century.

It is the fate of rootless innovations soon to become antiques. The whole system looks so old because it was so new. The failed experiment is considered a permanent fixture, so that even the daring speculator talks of reforming the prisons when he should be considering their abolition. If there is any more disastrous survivor of the Enlightenment still gasping at a deathlike life, I do not know where to find it. We shudder our way past penitentiaries as by graveyards—with good reason. They are as nasty a little secret as sex and death have ever been—indeed, the three infanda run toward a common pool, our culture’s neglected human sewer, clogged and unworkable with human waste.

Tom Wicker was summoned abruptly down into this sewer, as an “observer” at the standoff between rioting prisoners and their guards in upstate New York. He came to look, and stayed to vomit, and vowed to write—and has now written, almost literally in blood, to give us what may be our most serious warning yet about what we are doing to ourselves when we do unspeakable things to others. The lack of serious challenge to Nelson Rockefeller’s confirmation as vice president based on his part in the Attica revolt is part of our general unwillingness to look at the ugly reality of our prisons.

Wicker is no “new journalist.” He felt the oddly comforting pangs of liberal guilt as he got drawn into a story he was supposed to be “observing.” He did not know at the outset that “observers” would become a euphemism for “semi-hostages.” They were assembled, at the prisoners’ request, as a fall-back crew of hostages, more lightly held than the captive guards, but more cooperative. The observers could be detained, on any of their timorous forays into D Yard, where the guards (fifty of them at the outset) were being held. But the real role of the observers was to supply some kind of outside guarantee for the promise of amnesty, which was the prisoners’ first and most urgent concern. They knew, from the history of other rebellions, that a mere promise from the authorities was worthless. But since the authorities, from Rockefeller on down, refused even to entertain the subject of amnesty, the observers had no agreement to stand guarantors for. Their mission was essentially futile, which led to deep anger on their part. They had risked their lives, several times, for nothing. At the end they were observers after all—that was the only thing left for them to be. They observed both the prisoners and the guards under pressure, and lived through some of those pressures themselves.

It was by and large the prison’s best men who were out in D Yard. Some came desperately, as a last effort to keep some pride alive in themselves. Others came in fear, like sheep. A few came reluctantly, sorry the break had begun, but feeling responsibility for their charges—many hotheads in the Yard were “squires” in the barbaric chieftain-structure of this jungle. The cooler heads, not hoping much for reconciliation, at least tried to bring order into the rebellion. Others came in that discipline of brotherhood that prison Muslims have been able to instill. Most of the whites in the Yard, inmates as well as hostages, survived because the Muslims guarded hostages and broke up struggles between inmates. (Three white inmates were secretly killed—to pay off private grudges, or to enforce leadership; in panic or a private quarrel? No one but the participants knows why; knows, even, when or exactly where the killings took place.)

Wicker felt that all hope for compromise depended on noninvolvement, on rational bargaining. He was carrying a tiny ice cube into a furnace, but he held onto it as long as he could. He learned only partially, and late, that there is no noninvolvement in a situation entirely made up of human emotion. Wicker is critical of the flamboyant observers, who seemed to do nothing but heighten the drama—William Kunstler, all tears and “Brothers!” and rhetoric; Jaybarr Kenyatta, a shadowy figure no one could quite pin down. But as time went on, Wicker saw Kunstler risk his own life to save observers from convicts whose trust he had earned. And even Kenyatta softened and pleaded as the death sentence began to limn itself on the walls of D Yard.

Wicker is almost exasperatingly fair in his nice liberal effort to find excuses for everybody’s irrational behavior. He even finds something good to say about duplicitous people like Assistant Commissioner Walter Dunbar. Only two men stretch his resolute tolerance. The first is Bobby Seale, who came late and left early, after being almost forced into D Yard, promising to return, and then breaking that promise at the first excuse. In the heated oven of the observers’ room, where sleepless men began to react like those in marathon therapy, Wicker’s angriest outburst was at the slippery egotism of Seale. His other anger was more considered, with a longer fuse—the contained, justified, stalking anger at Nelson Rockefeller.

Despite Wicker’s effort at noninvolvement—no radical rhetoric, no false promises, no stage-directed “interviews” with inmates calling the shots—he became aware as time went on of other soft “engagements,” a meshing of gears under the floorboard, that kept him jerkily moving forward in the negotiations while probing back and back into his own life. He and others faced death—not very bravely, by Wicker’s wry account (but bravery is just one’s cowardice faced). They saw the rotting underside of America’s life; and Wicker, not being a monster, had to face the underside of his own life. The book is part confession. We hear about Wicker’s dissolving marriage, his Southern resistance to contact with blacks, his small-town pieties and prejudices. He had heard the grim reports of a lynch mob as a boy, and seen its “catch” in a car trunk.

These reflections do not seem forced or out of place. Anyone in his spot would have to ask the kinds of questions he does. What is he, of all people, doing there? What of the wife and kids? (Well, the wife is leaving, and the kids are almost grown up.) Is this silly bravado, or an attempt to make up for past attitudes? Or is that thought a rationalizing of one’s fear? Is there nothing to do in such a crazy cockpit of emotion? Or will an incongruous semicaptive from outside give both sides pause? There is no end to such questions, once started. One can only avoid them by walking away—which is what most of us do. Wicker, without any self-flattery, simply decides he cannot do that any more.

In him, though he does not spell things out so schematically, there were three very important elements of American life tugging with and against each other. None of the three could make sense of Attica; but in combination they made Attica seem a fitting Nemesis. They could not judge Attica; but Attica judged them. The top, most recent layer of his life is Tom Wicker the New York Times liberal. He gives touching credit to his parents for the way they opened certain areas of tolerance for him in the constraining atmosphere of a Southern town.

Still, the liberalism is partly a coverlet, one he keeps twitching at. Underneath, he remains a son of the pious South. Perhaps, he half-confesses, the only part of that creed he retains is the guilt for noncompliance with it. But when moral energy rises in the limp near-hysteria of the observers’ room, Wicker finds himself towering into an improbable John Brown tirade at Commissioner Oswald, quoting Deuteronomy from memory: “I call heaven and earth to record this day against you that I have set before you life and death, blessing and cursing; therefore choose life, that both thou and thy seed may live.” Sin is an endangered species in our world, and the South may be its last game preserve. What Tom Wicker found at Attica was sin, tangled and inexplicable, feeding on itself. Nice liberal symposia are hard to carry on when serpents are crawling over you. He found man’s perverse cruelty to man, folded back and back over upon itself—without any promise of redemption by Dialogue.

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