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…
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