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.)
The old man pulled off his pants—rags!—and holding one pants-leg threw it and after several tries, managed to drag mashed potatoes off the tray and across the dirty floor in a big mess. All this time the pigs were hollering: “You better eat! We pick up the trays in two minutes!”—and laughed. The old man was using both hands at once, reaching out to the floor and grabbing bits of mashed potatoes and shoving them into his mouth. He was crying while he was doing it. I thought the pigs were “playing” and when they had their “fun” they would bring him his food. I was wrong. When they picked up our trays, they took his off the floor and threatened to beat him for causing a mess on the floor. The old man actually cowered, crying, in the far corner of his cell. He was only in for vagrancy—and being a “public nuisance”!
Later, myself and a couple others sent him everything we had to eat. I bought him all the sandwiches I could and threw them to him. I was in for suspicion of armed robbery (1962) and was released after seventy-two hours. The public never cares about an old man like that. They may do a “tsk-tsk-tsk” and act mournful about it, but they will not correct the situation. Basically, they approve of it.
It still exists. I was in the LA jail last year for about two weeks and nothing has changed.
The “working code” of a convict is at bottom to beat the man, the pig. To do what he can to get his time done and get out of prison. There are some things he can’t do and still be a man (a “convict”). At that point, he rebels. He has no “revolutionary ideology,” true. But eventually he’ll run into me in the hole and I’ll tell him things that will clear his confusion and give his rebellion a cause. And when he rebels alone, if I see him fighting a squad of pigs on the yard or in the hole, I’ve never hesitated to dive in. His fight is my fight. If I pay the highest price for helping him and he later cops out, it doesn’t bother me. I’ve done right and I have no bad feelings for him. We got no one but each other and I learned that a long time ago. All the state-raised convicts down ten or twenty years feel like that.
A prisoner who is not state-raised, e.g., serving only one or two short sentences, tolerates the situation because of his natural social maturity prior to incarceration. He knows things are different outside prison. But the others have no conception of any difference. They have no conception because they have no experience, and hence, no maturity. Their judgment is untempered, rash; their emotions are impulsive, raw, unmellowed.
There are emotions—a whole spectrum of them—that I know only through words, through reading and my immature imagination. I can imagine I feel those emotions (know, therefore, what they are) but I do not. At age thirty-four I am barely a precocious child.
The only thing a convict respects in another is moral strength. I don’t fear or respect the billy-clubs, the guns, or the law. I don’t respect a man for his ability to harm another and no convict does.
As long as I’ve been in the penitentiary (jails are different) all the fist fights I’ve seen can almost be counted on one hand. You never see violence in the open and it’s always with a knife or a piece of pipe (lately here they use gasoline—dousing the enemy and igniting it). This of course refers only to the violence of prisoner against prisoner. The violence between guard and prisoner is open, naked, and you see a lot of fist fights with pigs.
A prison warden, guard—any authority in jail or prison—hates one thing worse than anything else and that’s a prisoner who is “arrogant.” There is a way a convict can walk, just walk by, that’s a challenge to a pig. A convict can give a pig a supreme insult just by standing and answering the pig without saying or doing anything you can put your finger on. There is a way of looking at them that they interpret as defiance. (The used to throw you in the hole for looking wrong; they called it “eye-balling.”)
The judge sent me to the penitentiary for the express purpose of reducing me to a punk. I was even told that by one of the pigs who transported me to the prison. They felt I’d be less arrogant once I’d been turned into a dick-sucker.
I was distrustful of everyone by the time I arrived at prison. I guess you could say I was punchy. When the older prisoners saw me, they would whistle at me from a distance. The first one who tried to fuck me I threw down on with a knife. I made him get on his knees and suck my dick in front of several other prisoners.
To the authorities, there is nothing seriously wrong with anyone getting raped there. In prison, if I take a punk, he is like a slave, a chattel slave. It is “illegal” for another prisoner to speak to him. He cleans my cell, my clothes, and runs errands for me. Anything I tell him to do he must do. I can sell him or give him away at any time. There is only one way out of it for a punk and that is to murder his old man.
Also, in all the penitentiaries I’ve been to and know well (the big ones like Leavenworth and Atlanta), there are only about half a dozen known homosexuals. Only once or twice in my life have I seen in prison two men demonstrate affection by kissing or otherwise touching one another. I doubt if I’ve seen a dozen sex acts in prison (and only because I stumbled upon them). To be a punk is surpassed in contempt only by being a snitch. I’ve spoken to men in prison who outside live homosexual lives but in prison would die before they submitted to any sex act. We are encouraged to rape other prisoners but convicts consider it a weakness to do it. Myself and friends must have stopped a dozen rapes at Leavenworth alone.
The pressure that prisoners bring to bear on prisoners is tremendous. I guess it must be like this. We are left to rule ourselves and we don’t have any written code.
It’s a system that makes it real easy for the prison staffs.
The prisoners who happen to be physically big are encouraged to run the other prisoners’ lives. Those are the traditional dreams of the typical warden. A hierarchy he can control. The big prisoners are usually fools who have been led to believe (like sheep to the slaughter) that because they can overpower with their hands the average man, everyone will obey them. What throws a wrench in all of this is the little skinny kid with a knife or some other weapon. The restraints (inner and outer) that govern ordinary men don’t affect a prisoner bent on protecting himself.
In prison we are all very polite to each other, very formal in our respect. We are serving years. If I have a verbal disagreement with someone, and I’m in the wrong, my apologies are given sincerely. But if I’m in the right and some asshole is wrong and he knows it, I have to see his face every day If he threatens to hit me, I have to see him day in, day out for years. That’s what leads to killing him over a seemingly trivial matter. All the violence in prison is geared for murder, nothing else. You can’t have someone with ill feelings for you walk around. He could drop a knife in you any day.
When I went to prison, I was normal, a normal man. Years ago, I became what a segment of society would call homosexual, although I could never carry out such an act with anyone. Because it isn’t me and I could never live that life. Years ago I looked at my fellow prisoners as I would a brother. First, I guess, I had the impulse to comfort one once in a while I felt particularly sorry for. I think it sprang from that. Also it sprang from the fact that I haven’t touched anyone but males in all these years. All people need to be touched after so long. There is not even a dog to pet! Where do a man’s affections go?
Yes, it’s suppressed. To be honest with you, I don’t know personally one convict—I know thousands—who does not have the same problem with homosexuality and every one of them (99 percent) suffer in ways like this. It distorts a lot of meanings, triggers a lot of violence. No prisoner really respects a homosexual (lately they seem to respect a few) and yet every prisoner I know has these desires.
In all my years in prison, eleven of them have been in punishment cells. They finally put a name on it: sensory deprivation. The first few times I served a couple of years like that, I had seen only three or four drab-type colors. I had only felt concrete and steel. I was let out; I couldn’t orient myself. Prison-blue shirts really struck me, dazzled me with their brilliance and beauty. A piece of wood fascinated me by its feel, its texture.
I was once carried to the hole in Leavenworth by the security force. My hands were cuffed behind me. A pig about 6 feet 2 inches, who weighed about 250, was the boss. He was about forty-five but hard as a rock. The pigs had me face down on the concrete floor punching at me and kicking me. It was exactly like a pack of dogs on me. The big one, the boss, ordered me to stand up. He motioned to the others to stand back, and I swear to God you won’t believe this, but he knocked my clothes off with a few swipes of his hands.
The cloth tore my skin like knife cuts. All through this thing I tried to keep my head by acting passive and smiling. I thought they were so afraid of me it made them animals, which was true, but I couldn’t calm them. That was the time they threw me face down in a dungeon cell. They stood on me while one hand-cuffed me. The pig who knocked my clothes off was the last to leave the cell. I heard them back out of the cell and I rolled over on my side. I was hurting everywhere. Well, this pig, who had never spoken a word, had his cock out and his face was wrinkled up in a grin and he kind of bounced up and down by bending his knees. He was pretending to jerk off. Then he zipped up his fly and left the cell kind of chuckling.
You sit in solitary confinement stewing in nothingness, not merely your own nothingness but the nothingness of society, others, the world. The lethargy of months that add up to years in a cell, alone, entwines itself about every “physical” activity of the living body and strangles it slowly to death, the horrible decay of truly living death. You no longer do push-ups or such-like physical exercises in your small cell; you no longer pace the four steps back and forth across your cell. You no longer masturbate; you can call forth no vision of eroticism in any form, and your genitals, like the limbs of your body, function only to keep your body alive. Time descends in your cell like the lid on a coffin in which you lie and watch it as it slowly closes over you.
I know how to live through anything they could possibly dish up for me. I’ve been subjected to strip-cell, black-out cells, chained to the floor and wall; the beatings, of course; every drug science has invented to “modify” my behavior—everything.
Prolixin is the worst I’ve ever experienced. One injection lasts for two weeks. These drugs, in this family, do not calm or sedate the nerves. They attack. They attack from so deeply inside you, you cannot locate the source of the pain. The drugs turn your nerves in upon yourself. Against your will your anger is directed at your own tissue, your own muscles, reflexes, etc. These drugs are designed to render you almost totally involved with yourself physically so that all you can do is concentrate your entire being on holding yourself together (tying your shoes, for example).
On all of these drugs you can get the “Parkinson’s reaction”—a physical reaction identical to Parkinson’s disease. The muscles of your jaw bone go berserk so that you bite your mouth inside and your jaws lock and the pain is terrible. For hours every day this will occur. Your spinal column arches so that you can hardly move your head or your neck and sometimes your back bends backward like a bow and you cannot stand up. The pain grinds into your fiber; your vision is so terrible you cannot read.
Starvation was once a natural element to me; I have no qualms about eating insects in my cell or living in my own body wastes. When they say “what doesn’t destroy me makes me stronger,” that’s what they mean. But it’s a mistake to equate the results with being strong. I’m extremely flexible but, no, I’m not strong. I’m weakened, in fact. I’m tenuous, shy, introspective, and suspicious of everyone. A loud noise or a false movement registers like a four-alarm fire in me. But I’m not afraid and that’s strange. I care very much about someday being set free and I want to cry when I think I’ll never be free. I want to cry for my brothers I’ve spent a lifetime with, especially those with life sentences.
Your needs in a prison are transformed into creatures that stalk you with reflections of every flaw in your personal existence. There is nothing so superfluous as the personal need to fulfill personal needs, and those needs become magnified and kaleidoscoped into such intense images and objects they lose whatever little reality they had until you yourself are no longer able to accept reality as easily as you once may have.
You try only to keep yourself together because others, other prisoners are with you. You don’t comfort one another; you humor one another. You can’t stand the sight of each other and yet you are doomed to stand and face one another every moment of every day for years without end. You must bathe together, defecate and urinate together, eat and sleep together, talk together.
And the manifestation of the slightest flaw is world-shattering in its enormity. It is as if you very discreetly passed wind in a huge stadium and suddenly thousands of people grow silent and look at you in condemnation. That is what prisoners do to each other.
So we can all hold up like good soldiers and keep a stiff upper lip and harden ourselves in prison but if you do that for too long you lose yourself. Because there is something helpless and weak and innocent—something like an infant—deep inside us all that really suffers in ways we would never permit an insect to suffer.
You can’t know how sad I feel when I realize the source of, and the nature of, the involuntary pride and exhilaration all convicts feel when they are chained up hand and foot as though they were vicious lions, dangerous animals. They make killers out of pussycats like that. It’s like suddenly we are in the spotlight, center stage. The world is focused on us for a moment. We are somebody capable of threatening the world in some way—no matter how small a way. That is why, for example, Son of Sam could not suppress a smile, that bashful smile pride causes in very humble, very humiliated men. Men in chains.
June 26, 1980