What McVeigh Was Spared: Prison Barbarism Laid Bare

The Funhouse Mirror: Reflections on Prison , by Robert Ellis Gordon and inmates of the Washington Corrections System. Washington State University Press, 110 pages, $14.95.

The Harvard-educated novelist Robert Ellis Gordon spent the 1990′s teaching fiction-writing in Washington state’s toughest jails. He seems to have learned more from his students than they learned from him. “My first day in prison,” writes an armed robber serving eight years, “a dude a few cells down cut off his testicles with a razor blade and threw them out onto the tier.” Mr. Gordon himself writes of an inmate so annoyed by his tablemate’s eating habits–”I can’t stand the sound of mushy bananas. I hate that fucking sound!”–that he gouges out the fellow’s eye.

Mr. Gordon is not happy that the American prison population has quadrupled over the last two decades, thinks that most policy discussion of prisons is ignorant, and bemoans the vogue for “no-frills” incarceration, which dooms both the creative-writing classes he teaches and the degree-equivalency programs that have been shown to lower recidivism rates. But this hodgepodge of a book, made up of Mr. Gordon’s desultory reminiscences and his own and his students’ short stories, is neither a sociology of prisons nor a political tract. It aims instead to open a window into the minds of prisoners and prison workers.

That’s a good and necessary thing, because these people don’t tend to get heard from. The American prison system is one of humanity’s ongoing human-rights catastrophes. The United States, as is well known, incarcerates a higher percentage of its population than any other country and subjects its inmates to unspeakable barbarities. Black Americans make up 0.4 percent of the people on Earth, but account for fully a tenth of the world’s prisoners. Underpaid prison guards supplement their income by conniving with inmates to permit mammoth drug rings. Judges who may have done drugs with impunity in their youth today sentence recreational drug-users to years of getting gang-raped. For one class of criminal–sex offenders–the “debt to society” never gets paid. Every state in the country now has a law permitting either the reincarceration, the public shaming, or the official hounding of child molesters and other deviants once they leave jail.

The penal side of the American justice system shows every evidence of unaccountability and bureaucratic hubris. There are certainly understandable impulses for its policies, and there may even be reasons for them: Blacks commit more crime, molesters have high recidivism rates, and we “didn’t know” how bad drugs were when today’s middle-aged drug warriors were getting high in their youth. But these “good reasons” are seldom good enough to relieve us of the worry that our prisons may be evidence of a wider societal sickness. And whether these reasons are good or bad, what’s shocking is that no one is held accountable for providing them. The most fascinating thing about American jails is that so few people are fascinated by them. If The Funhouse Mirror serves one purpose, it will be to convince readers that every single last instant of scrutiny which our jails receive from international human-rights groups is merited.

“Welcome to the Steel Hotel,” written by one of Gordon’s inmates who was released after serving 12 years for attempted murder, lays out the rules of prison life. Most of these are perversions of rules that obtain on the outside. Make no eye contact because meeting a person’s glance is always taken as a challenge. Never loan anyone anything because, if you don’t get back what you’ve given away, you must either respond with extreme violence or become prey to the inmates who want the rest of your stuff. And never snitch because the guards you snitch to will betray you to other prisoners.

New arrivals in prison get slotted into a preexisting hierarchy based on the crimes they committed. The crimes most “worthy of respect” are (in descending order) murder, assault, armed robbery, kidnapping and drugs. The plebeians in this twisted class system are the “rapos,” the sex offenders of all categories, who are subject to virtual enslavement as “punks” (or permanent girlfriends) to the more violent offenders. There is plenty of sudden and unpredictable sexual violence as well. Prison toughs not infrequently show up, armed with homemade knives or “shanks,” at rapos’ open cell doors. “Shit on my dick or blood on my shank” appears to be a common icebreaker. What is most bizarre is that all prisoners–rapos and their predators alike–assume there’s some ethical logic to this treatment. “I beat up sex offenders,” writes one, “because it was my right to do so, my right as someone who was in prison for an ‘honorable crime,’ mine being armed robbery. Sex offenders are the worst kind of criminals, the only bad kind, really.” But it will be crystal-clear to the reader that sex offenders are singled out for sexual mistreatment out of sheer opportunism: They are the only class of prisoners who, as a rule, have no expertise in defending themselves against man-to-man violence.

Mr. Gordon’s students, in other words, could tell you some stories. But there’s a bit of false advertising here. Like a vain academic who lards the anthology he edits with his own poetry, Mr. Gordon has stinted on the cons’ writing and made this book a showcase for his own. As a prose-writer, he suffers from the besetting flaw of most literary tough guys: floweriness. This is a book in which “oft-” is an oft-used prefix, and “all-too-” is used all too frequently. Mr. Gordon doesn’t just say that all prisons are different; he says, “To reiterate, then, prisons vary. But pronounced and obvious as these surface differences are, I think it is only after you have spent a bit of time inside a few institutions that you begin to develop an appreciation for the distinctive varieties of pathology and pain that a particular prison generates.”

Such passages leave the reader doubtful whether a creative-writing class is the best lens through which to pass judgment on our prison system. In the end, some political or at least societal context would have been welcome. The brutality of the inside of a prison is not only familiar but also numbingly one-dimensional. A 100-pager like The Funhouse Mirror is sufficient to convey it. Exposing the failures outside of prison that permit such brutality to persist is a more complicated task–and, arguably, a more important one.

Christopher Caldwell is senior writer at The Weekly Standard and a columnist for the New York Press.