A couple of years ago, in the middle of writing The Executioner’s Song, I received a letter from a man in prison named Jack H. Abbott. He had heard I was writing a book about Gary Gilmore and wanted to tell me that he didn’t see how such a work could be attempted, or Gilmore comprehended, without some real knowledge of what violence in prisons was really like. No one on the outside, he assured me, had a clue. They might think they understood but they didn’t.
I wrote back that I expected I had a lot to learn about the subject (which was true enough) and if he wanted to write to me I would certainly read his letters and answer them. In short order came a twenty-page letter, a thirty-page letter, a fifty-page letter, all in hand-writing. After that, regularly, close to twenty pages arrived most weeks. Abbott must have written a thousand pages of letters to me over the last two years. I found the content remarkable, and a great help to comprehending Gilmore, but, apart from that, Abbott’s own writing impressed me as being as good as any convict’s prose I had read since Eldridge Cleaver.
Abbott is half-Irish and half-Chinese. Brought up in foster homes in the West, he was put in reform school at eleven, and entered Utah State Prison at eighteen with a five-year sentence for Issuing a Check with Insufficient Funds. Three years later, convicted, while still in prison, for a fatal stabbing, he was found guilty of Assault by a Convict without Malice Aforethought. That gave him an indeterminate sentence of twenty years (one to twenty) and he was kept in isolation until an escape from Maximum Security some nine years ago. That gave him a six-week vacation, but he was caught in a bank robbery. By then, by the age of twenty-nine, he had been behind bars for eighteen years, a veteran of such federal penitentiaries as Leavenworth, Atlanta, Marion, the majority of his time spent in solitary. At present, he is coming up for parole. Until now, however, prison has been his secondary school, his university, his family, his culture.
The example of Abbott’s writing here, taken from twenty or more letters, was put together by Judith McNally.
I’ve looked through steel bars so long it’s odd not to see bars everywhere. I’ve had to literally rest my head on steel more times than I can count. The knife, the symbol of power on all prison yards, is steel. The chains are steel.
Walking through the gate into any unit is exactly like walking into a room lined with animal cages. Any prisoner has a full view of any other prisoner in his cell. All day there are arguments and threats hollered all over the place. It is not too different, really, from the monkey house at the zoo.
All day from after breakfast to suppertime at four or five, the time is broken up by the guards. Each death row prisoner’s door is opened onto the tier one at a time. At that time, you can shower, sweep out your cell, and pace the tier in front of the cells of others. Terry is demanding as a child. He will reach into your cell and shake you awake to talk excitedly about the Lone Ranger show or some such. Nothing you can say will get him off your back.
Next Thomas comes out. He hangs around your cell smiling “meaningfully” and staring alternately at your lower body and your eyes. He’ll bring you his candy and cigarettes just to open a conversation. He’ll ask you real nice to put your cock out through the bars for him. He’ll hound you and there is nothing you can do. You can’t grab him and rattle his teeth; you can’t reach anyone. Jonathan isn’t like that; he is introverted. Stephen paces and bumps into everything. You try to read, and find you’ve been reading the same paragraph for hours. The noise level is very high. You can’t think or concentrate.
The closest you come to adjusting is this: you will yourself to sleep all day through most of the disturbances. After each meal, you curl up, pull the blankets over you, put your pillow over your ears and sleep—a drugged sleep. Once for about three years I slept like that sixteen hours a day.
Relief only comes midnight to breakfast. You stay up all night enjoying the tremendous relief. The noise which literally vibrates your brain is gone. The distractions disappear. The freaks’ faces are not in front of your cell. You are with yourself again. Until dawn at least.
But your can’t read, you can’t write. you can’t hear a radio. All you hear is the pigs making their rounds—keys, chains, the dogs they bring in on the count. You hear the sleeping sounds of the prisoners. Every night there is at least one screaming out in his sleep. You pass the night thinking, remembering your life. You go back to your first childhood memory and advance to today. You’ve masturbated yourself to the point of total sexual uninterest months (years?) ago. You fantasize a lot. You think of your future.
That’s no way to exist, let alone live. You’re exhausted from thinking when dawn and breakfast comes. You eat and fall asleep. The gate to your cell bangs open before you know it. You stagger out of bed, go through the motions of showering. You fall into bed again. No sooner are you asleep when lunch is served. You pick at it half asleep.
You finally tell the others in no uncertain terms to stay away from your cellfront, not to speak to you. You threaten to throw a cup of urine on them, knowing you’re taking a chance they’ll do the same to you. If you’re lucky they’ll keep their intrusions on you to a minimum. But you can’t stop them completely. The tension wraps itself around your brain like a steel vise.
To live in “peace” in such circumstances can change you into one of those damned men who will do anything to exist biologically. If you love life too much, or fear violence too much, it’s only a matter of time before you become a thing, no longer a man. You can end up, albeit after decades, scurrying about like a rodent lending—nay, giving—yourself to every conceivable low, evil, degrading act anyone, pigs or prisoners, tells you to perform.
The law has never punished anyone for hurting me. If I want justice to punish a wrong done me, it’s entirely up to me. Just picture yourself in that position. You can’t call a cop when your house is burgled or if you’re mugged. Instead, the police walk into your home, slap you around (to put it mildly) and help themselves to whatever they want—your wife and kids even. Almost anyone can accuse you of anything and you are punished without even knowing who your accuser is. You have absolutely no rights to legal protection by prosecution. The most you can do is file a civil complaint against the city. If you do, hands are “slapped,” but nothing is done. The judge says, “Now, Mayor, I hope this doesn’t happen again.” The mayor doesn’t even bother to respond to the “admonition.” He stands up, stretches, yawns, and ambles away. All the faces around you, even the judge’s, are covered with smirks. That’s how I have had to live all my life.
What would you do? I assure you you’d either become a deranged, cringing coward or the exact opposite. If you become the former, everyone is happy and they’ll give you little rewards. If you become the latter, they’ll destroy you the first opportunity they get. They’ll say you’re “crazy,” a psycho. The “norm” is the coward in this situation.
There is a boundary in each man. He can bend, sure. He can eat crow and brown-nose to an extent. He can shuck the man for a while, become a good actor. But when a man goes beyond that last essential boundary, it alters his ontology, so to speak. It’s like the small pebble that starts a landslide no one can stop. You can betray others until, lo, you’ve betrayed yourself. You want to survive so badly, to be free of violence so terribly, you will literally do anything. You’ll allow anyone to order you around. You’ll let your ma, wife, or kids die just to stay alive yourself. You’ll suck every cock in the cell house to “get along.” There’s nothing you won’t do.
Most convicts don’t cross that line. You accept violence, committing it to survive morally as well as biologically. You’re not a “psycho” or a killer—but that doesn’t mean you won’t kill and commit mind-boggling acts of violence. It is terribly hard to bring yourself to these acts but you take a deep breath, look intelligently at what you must do and do it, even though you are scared stiff and sick to your stomach. It is something a man has to do sometimes.
But I swear by everything of value to our species, no one dies at the hands of another prisoner unless his crime is so grievous there is no other course. No one gets killed who doesn’t indeed ask for it. If some “hog” (that is, bully) does manage to off someone who doesn’t deserve it, the hog gets it for certain. A snitch, an informer, has a better chance to live than a hog.
It’s the prison system in America that drives us to outrages on one another. We are not animals but we are herded like animals. We are torn by the system of parole that rewards everything base and vile in a man. If we betray our poor comrades we are rewarded. If we compete for the good graces of our jailors we are rewarded. If we refuse to defend ourselves we are rewarded. If a man lets himself be used by the prison staff to catch another prisoner, he is rewarded. If he sucks your cock to get you to talk to him, he is rewarded for the information and congratulated on his method.
When I was very young, I was in a precinct jail in Los Angeles. They brought in an old derelict, about sixty years old, they had found lying in a gutter. He wasn’t drinking; he was starving. The pigs put him alone in a cell right across from mine. When it came time to feed us, the pigs took the old man’s food tray and set it on the floor of the tier about five or six feet from his cell—where he could see it but not reach it. He started crying. He was broken badly. He was on his knees trying to reach his arms out to the tray of food and was weeping and whining softly. I hesitated to come to his defense because the pigs had worked me over that day. (I had two black eyes. It was at a time they could give third degree interrogations legally.)