Incarceration Nation

Literature in a Locked Down Land

By William T. Hathaway

Working class literature is alive and well and living in prison. It is “well” not in the sense of being contented and happy but rather of being vital and impassioned. And it is imprisoned not just in the sense of being locked behind bars but also of being locked into poverty. Some prisons have walls of iron and stone, others walls of economics and racism. It is their efforts to escape from this second prison that get most inmates incarcerated in the first. As Mumia Abu-Jamal said, “I’ve been in prison my whole life.”

The life-constricting pressures in both types of prisons can crush some psyches and produce diamonds of art and wisdom in others. Struggle: A Magazine of Revolutionary Proletarian Literature has been publishing the diamonds (along with some glass) since 1985. Reading it is to rediscover the power of art to give us insights and inspire us to action, an invigorating change from the vapid musings and trivial subjectivity that pass for “literary” these days. By showing us the multi-layered oppression surrounding us and the strength of the human spirit caught within that, Struggle is contributing to a culture of resistance and eventually of revolution.

For example:

Doing Time in Folsom State

By Arvan Washington III

Sleep slips away like tendrils of fog

before a Lompoc Valley breeze, a morning

sun dawns upon another moonless night.

I amble aimlessly, wandering twisted corridors

inside a convoluted mind seeking the solace

of an earthly slumber, yet find myself lost

amidst the wreckage of yesteryear: a Bermuda

Triangle existence where disappearing smiles

vanished without ever leaving a trace

upon a heart hardened by aloneness.

The passage of time mocks me as I search

for my truths, though I dread their discovery.

Thus, I find comfort in lies: origami constructs

of paper figurines dancing in the funeral pyre

like marionettes dangling from a hangman’s noose.

My Country Does to Thee

By J. Glenn Evans

Your children walk barefoot through raw sewage

Behemoths lumber through your streets

Spitting death and destruction to ancient icons

Armed men burst into your homes

Terrify your women and children

Take a father and uncle a cousin a brother

Hold them in bondage

Humiliate defile torture

Through your land sacred rivers flow

Tigress—Euphrates birth of civilization

Brown people of the desert

I grieve for your suffering

And for the soldiers

Who just want to go home

But are trapped like you

In a fatal conflict not of their making

I would rather walk or ride a horse

Than rob you of the black sea

That lies under your ancient sands

This feeble pen seeks justice for what you suffer

I spill only ink you spill your blood

If the world be brave and not tremble

At the action of this teenaged nation

It would rebuke this brutal war

Declare perpetrators war criminals

All predatory war are criminal

Against peoples of the world

Like all empires of the past

This one too will have its fall

From Captive Audience

By Michael Monroe

I write my poems for the homeless and friendless,

parched by the sun of the searing day,

freezing in the chill of the callous night

as the cold slices skin like razors

and indifference multiplies

like malignant cells.

I write my poems for the working people

slaving in the heat of the cavernous foundry,

humping crates in eternity’s shipyard,

coughing in mines deep underground,

farming our food and harvesting life,

laying bricks at the noise-drenched construction site

like Sisyphus pushing his boulder

up that lonely hill in hell.

I write my poems for the prisoners

living out their lives in concrete closets,

in rows of chicken-coop cells,

dreams locked behind steel bars;

they traded their lives

for liquor store cash,

and now they pay the price

as the years blend together

and disappear like dirty water

down a shower drain.

The March on Washington, 1963

By Tim Hall

Twenty-four years have passed

since my heart first pulsed with hope

for a better world

when I saw those black youth marching,

arm-in-arm, their faces bold and clear in purpose,

under the trees beside the pool

at the Lincoln Memorial.

I didn’t really listen

to the melodic words of Martin Luther King;

they seemed to be a little rhetorical,

not quite down-to-earth enough

compared to the vibrant, rebelling

life on the march, the young people

arm-in-arm, under the trees,

chanting, singing—militant choirs, their

voices welling up from the long years of black resistance

and bursting forth into the air that day

in a pure joy at seeing

half-a-million faces

dedicated to burying racism.

I didn’t listen at all

to the pompous, empty oratory of Walter Reuther;

inexperienced as I was, it revolted me nevertheless.

I saw even then that it lacked

the depth and resonance to express the lives

of the oppressed and turbulent people;

I didn’t even much like

the uniform, stale, detached slogans

on the unions’ perfect picket signs;

I sensed in them something bureaucratic,

not poetic, and I demanded poetry

to express the feelings of the people.

But I loved the faces of the workers,

warm, resolute, lively, varied,

experiences of great depth evident

in the lines on their faces, in their unevenly

developed muscles, and I noticed

that the hundreds and hundreds of buses of workers

carried the most vivid variety of people—

they, more than anyone else at the March,

already trying to live out

our belief in equality.

I was too naive to notice

a slight difference in tone

in the speech of John Lewis,

the young SNCC field worker from the rural South

who knuckled under to the big shots

and, moments before he spoke,

hastily removed all militancy from his text

and lost any chance

of presenting a radical alternative

to innocent but questioning

characters like me.

I was also too ignorant

to question the absence of Malcolm

who would have scourged the union hacks

and official black “leaders”

With a fiery exposure

and sent an insurrectionary spirit

running among the gathered masses

like a flame sweeping across

a spill of gasoline.

There were many things I missed that day,

many a lesson that went past me,

but that one fragrant blossom of hope

embodied in those singing, marching youth

and in those hundred-thousand united workers’ faces

changed my life for good.

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William T. Hathaway is an adjunct professor of American studies at the University of Oldenburg in Germany. His latest book, Radical Peace: People Refusing War, presents the experiences of war resisters, deserters, and peace activists in the USA, Europe, Iraq, and Afghanistan. Chapters are posted on a page of the publisher’s website at