Ever since I was young, I’ve been fascinated by prisons and prisoners. Perhaps this started when my father was put in jail for drunk driving and resisting arrest: this, unfortunately, became a regular occurrence as his alcoholism worsened and his behavior became more violent and erratic. At one point, his driver’s license was revoked, yet he still drove and in his increasing paranoia (due to the alcoholism), started keeping a sawed-off shotgun under the driver’s seat of his car. (He once told us in total sincerity that the FBI had our phones tapped and that we had to be extremely careful about what we said in our conversations: but that was later, when I was a teenager.) At this point, however, he was simply paranoid of the police, probably within right since he was often inebriated and unlicensed yet driving nonetheless. It became a regular event to get phone calls at three in the morning from him, telling my mother to call her parents so they could put their property up for his bond.
When I was in fourth grade, my teacher took our class to the parish jail for a field trip. In her cynicism, she thought she was doing us a favor. We, at nine years old, were such degenerates in her eyes that visiting the jail would be an eye-opening experience to help us mend our ways. Little did she know (nor anyone else in my class) that my father was actually in the jail during the time she had scheduled the field trip. I was mortified. I told my mother about this when I got home and she cried. Then we talked about what we could do. I knew if I stayed home that day and if one of my classmates recognized my dad that I would never hear the end of their taunting and ridicule. I also knew that if I went on the field trip and saw my dad behind the steel bars, and if he saw me and spoke to me, the ridicule would still occur and likely be more direct. I didn’t know what to do.
The day of the field trip, my mom called the jail and told them the situation: fortunately, the guards were very sympathetic and they hid my father in a cell that wouldn’t be seen by the visiting students. To take further precaution, I found out later, my dad lied in his bunk with a sheet pulled over him the entire day just to make certain no one in my class (or I) saw him.
I remember the men we saw: the desperation and wildness in their eyes and in their actions. They hollered at us and jumped out at us when they could, laughing at our fear. It was an intimidating experience. I tried to imagine my father among these men and how he handled himself: I later learned that on his first day in there, he got into a fight with a large black man and beat the black man down. After that, everyone called my dad “chief” and the gaurds, perturbed or angered by this, gave my dad a hard time, as if to make up for the ease with which his fellow inmates treated him after this initial altercation.
My dad taught me to have a general distrust for authority: directly by his words and indirectly (and ironically) by his own actions. He told me not to like police, for one, and also that the IRS was going to come to our house one day and take all of our belongings since he owed them so much money. I remember hiding my favorite toys under my bed and in air vents to keep this horrifying thing from happening. When I was young, all of this seemed totally plausible.
(If one reads my forthcoming novel, Harlow, one will see a lot of these events transcribed there. In fact, I dedicate the novel to him and my grandfather.)
When I was nineteen, my dad died. As horrible as it sounds, it was a relief in one way, but I still miss him. He will never see my children, and he will never know me as a father now. But his legacy, for better or for worse, will live on. I have to believe that. And the fact that prison life and prisons have made such an indelible mark on my psyche is, in part, owed to him.
Some good books to read on prison life and culture are (and forgive me for the myriad books I know I’m probably leaving out here):
In the Place of Justice by Wilbert Rideau
God of the Rodeo by Daniel Bergner
Zeitoun by Dave Eggers
Life After Death by Damien Echols
“Rita Hayworth and The Shawshank Redemption” by Stephen King
The Green Mile by Stephen King
Lancelot by Walker Percy
Dead Man Walking by Sister Helen Prejean
Suttree and All the Pretty Horses by Cormac McCarthy have two of the best prison scenes I’ve ever read
I’m currently reading Falconer by John Cheever
And Tim Gautreaux, my writing teacher from college, has a great story that doesn’t appear in either one of his collections which is called “Just Turn Like a Gear” which depicts prison and prisoners and those who care about them very wonderfully, and which can be found here (though I think you need to be a subscriber to read it): http://www.jstor.org/stable/25089708?seq=1
Both of my novels, as well as the third one I’m currently writing, have scenes which take place in prison. The entire latter half of my third novel will take place in a prison, hence all of the reading and research and thinking about this topic. I hope to visit the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola for additional research.
But the bottom line of all of this, what moves me the most, is the idea that man, at his most desperate point, can still retain hope for living and for the possibility of love. That’s what I write for, that’s what I see behind bars.