Poetry in the Age of Mass Incarceration

by R. Dwayne Betts
Avery, 2009

by Reginald Dwayne Betts
Alice James Books, 2010

Richard Nixon campaigned for the U.S. presidency on a platform of strident anti-Communism and renewed law and order. In the wake of devastating urban riots all across the nation, cresting anti-war activism, a vibrant counter-cultural network of poets and musicians and other provocateurs, and the dual successes of the Civil Rights Movement and Women’s Liberation, Nixon and his crowd had had enough. And so, to reclaim the nation from those they saw as tradition-trashing hooligans, they filled the nation’s airwaves with “war on crime” rhetoric, influenced national and state budgets to reflect Nixon’s priorities, and urged legislatures around the nation to extend sentences and build new prisons. Before long, the children of Martin Luther King Jr.’s America would be described by conservative leaders not as the nation’s redeemers—as its brave inventors of a new democracy shorn of centuries of racism, patriarchy, and war-mongering—but as its depraved destroyers.

Media corporations then realized that producing terrible tales of violence and mayhem fueled profits, and so the nation was blanketed with a stunning array of cops-’n’-robbers TV dramas, spectacular nightly news footage, and “thug life” consumer items of every variety. As media critic Bill Yousman notes, the nation’s media consumers fell hard and fast into a love affair with a peculiarly American version of “happy violence,” which left them repulsed, titillated, and ever more susceptible to the worst forms of fear-mongering about crime waves and drug wars. And so, between Nixon’s victory in 1968 and Barack Obama’s victory in 2008, the nation’s prison population skyrocketed to over 2.3 million; more than 5 million additional former prisoners languish on parole, probation, or house arrest, making the United States’ carceral apparatus the largest in the world.

Not counting policing and judicial expenditures, and not counting the more than $40 billion the federal government spends each year on its disastrous drug war, funding this incarceration system costs state governments roughly $68 billion per year. To cover these costs, states all across the nation are cutting funding for education while boosting funding for prisons. In the 2012-2013 budget year, for example, California is scheduled to spend $15.4 billion on its prisons, more than the $15.3 billion it will spend for its once-vaunted and now crumbling post-secondary education system. No wonder that prison activist Ruthie Gilmore has taken to calling California a “golden gulag.” {{{subscriber|2.00}}}

As a result of this transformation of America into an incarceration nation, the now-bursting prisons have become hotbeds of testimony, poetry, art-making, and speechifying. Activists, artists, and educators have identified the nation’s prisons as crucial sites of engagement. As a result, the nation is now awash in prison-based art (e.g., the Annual Exhibition of Art by Michigan Prisoners, held in Ann Arbor), prison-based poetry (e.g., Captured Words/Free Thoughts, Can Anyone Hear Me Scream?, Inside/Out: Voices from the New Jersey State Prison, Open Line, and Doing Time/Making Space), prison-based debate programs (hosted by Georgia State, Central Michigan, Ball State, and other colleges and universities), prison-based educational programs (e.g., the Philadelphia-based Inside-Out Education Program or the San Quentin College Program), prison-based theater programs (e.g., Jonathan Shailor’s Shakespeare Prison Project, or Robin Sohnen’s Each One Reach One program), and others. In each of these programs, activists, artists, and educators assume that their programs will help prisoners reclaim their lives from crime, violence, and incarceration. Breaking the nasty legacy bequeathed to the nation by Nixon and reinforced by every president since him, such programs hope to renew democracy by making space for incarcerated people to rejoin the conversation.

The books of Reginald Dwayne Betts, which are part of this flood of prison-based testimony, recount the tale of a young man who entered prison as a confused sixteen-year-old but who now, more than a decade later, has embarked on a career as a writer. The fact that Betts made it out of the system alive is a triumph; that he writes so honestly of his experiences is a gift. Repeating his success story confronts the rest of us as an obligation. And so readers will nod along in agreement as Betts notes, toward the end of his award-winning first book of poems, Shahid Reads His Own Palm, that “there is a lesson in this somewhere.”

Unfortunately, Betts’s books do not offer many clues regarding what that lesson might be. Instead, we encounter a young man’s journey through pain; while the consequences of that pain are illustrated powerfully, its causes remain shrouded in mystery. In A Question of Freedom, Betts recounts how he was arrested in 1996, at the age of sixteen, when he weighed 126 pounds and still wore the dental braces of adolescence. Because he committed six felonies in one night, including armed carjacking, Betts was bumped up from juvenile detention to adult prison facilities. Opening his coming-of-age memoir with a description of himself as another “black boy in jail,” Betts chronicles his initiation into the world of mature lifers, where fathers, grandfathers, and older brothers endure endless sentences with a mixture of bravado, delusion, boredom, and occasional kindness. Unlike the great prison writings of Etheridge Knight, Malcolm Braly, Michael Hogan, and Spoon Jackson, however, Betts’s telling of his story is strangely flat: we encounter few characters, events, or images that leap from the page.

Part of this flatness stems from Betts’s wavering authorial voice. For his memoir, he calls himself R. Dwayne; for his book of poems he is Reginald Dwayne; in both books he assumes the moniker of Shahid to honor the writer/witness from the Qur’an. He is searching for a name, for an identity. As part of this quest, Betts’s works look for the meanings missing from his life, yet rather than offering keenly felt portrayals of the complexities of his situation, “Shahid reads his own palm.” This is a gesture of inward looking, yet in studying his palm Shahid finds only confusion. For example, at one point early in his memoir, still traumatized by his arrest and conviction, he confesses, “I thought shit just happened.” The world passes behind his back, mysteriously, driven by hidden motives. Betts later wonders “what it was that caused a young dude to do something that’s so against everything his family believed in, everything he believed in.” His own behavior baffles him. “I was seventeen and had no real clue about the way the world was moving around me,” he writes.

The celebrated prison testimonies of Malcolm X, Mumia Abu-Jamaal, Edward Bunker, and Jimmy Santiago Baca pull readers from confusion to clarity, propelling us along with them toward political commitment and occasional spiritual reverie; that empowering sense of propulsion is lacking here, as Betts and his neighbors—both in prison and in the free world—are portrayed as trapped in a netherworld of pain and confusion. The pain of the prisoners he encounters is so inexpressible that they “still wouldn’t / give a fuck if God was listening.” Denied the gift of elocution, such men rumble through the day steeped in rage, and so “men would list / the pain all in swears, confusing the meaning, / until each shit, bitch & muthafucka / was solemn.” Such solemn cussing points toward the “horror of everything” that “cuts at / what’s left of this world.”

Betts thus conveys the existential agony of prisons as stemming in part from this “cutting,” this chipping away at language and sense of self, which leaves his cellmates left with only solemn cusswords. Even the now-older poet is left looking at the world as a mystery, as he writes:


had been dumped for truth in sentencing & GM

had laid off half the people in a city I’ve never visited.

There is a secret in all of this….

… A head fake if you will.

A “head fake” indeed. The young poet knows he finds himself entombed in a Virginia Prison because of larger forces, strange “secrets” launched from far away and long ago, yet he cannot access these causes. And so he, and we readers too, can only mutter along with the prisoners, “shit, bitch, muthafucka.” When such confusions are rendered in prose, they feel flat and unmotivated, there is too much left unsaid; but when Betts crafts such moments as poetry, which naturally lends itself to more elliptical and suggestive thinking, then such lines feel grand and true, for what is life if not a startling head fake?

Most everyone who has studied the prison system, taught in it, or lived in it notes the powerful ways racism impacts arrest patterns, sentencing rates, judicial processes, and appeal and parole norms. Betts describes how our nation’s traumatic histories of racism pour into an urge for vengeance. When his friend Sam lashes out, Betts tells us that “all Sam’s anger toward the police was taken out on an unsuspecting white couple.” Betts observes that “we were passing on to each other a warped way of dealing with anger that we didn’t know we had.” Betts does not, however, seek to analyze the psychodynamics behind violent attacks by black people aimed at other blacks, nor does he share a concrete vision for how to break the patterns of violence that landed him in prison. The memoir raises more questions than it answers, portraying a dire situation with no clear solution.

While readers may find the writing in the memoir to be flat and shorn of political insight, readers of Betts’s angular and often gorgeous poetry will discover a courageous young voice depicting the absurdities and glimmers of hope of “a man handcuffed to life in prison.” Betts is now free from those handcuffs, and so we will have to wait for his next book to learn where poetry leads him. In the meantime, we can celebrate his first book of poems as evidence of how, under the right circumstances, brave young men can fight their way through poverty and incarceration to build lives of dignity.

To read a poem by Reginald Dwayne Betts in this issue of Tikkun, click here.

To return to the Winter 2012 Table of Contents, click here.

Stephen John Hartnett is a professor and chair of the Department of Communication at the University of Colorado Denver. His edited collection Challenging the Prison-Industrial Complex won a 2011 PASS Award from the National Council on Crime and Delinquency.

Source Citation

Hartnett, Stephen John. 2012. Poetry in the Age of Mass Incarceration. Tikkun 27(1): 55.

tags: Culture, Justice & Prisons, Poetry & Fiction   
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