Newswise — Fourth City: Essays from the Prison in America, a compilation of 71 essays written by prisoners from across the U.S., edited by Hamilton College Professor of English and Creative Writing Doran Larson, has just been published. Solicited through direct mail by Larson to prison education programs, prisoner support groups and prison support newsletters, the essays are divided by topic: “Ticket In,” “Coping with Life in Prison City,” “Seeking Peace in Prison City,” “Family Life,” “Inside Justice and Injustice,” “Civic Dysfunction and its Critics,” “Mental and Physical Healthcare,” “Community Activists,” and “Prison and Reentry Programs.”
Larson has taught a writing course in Attica for many years and teaches a Prison Writing course at Hamilton in which he takes his students into local prisons.
From a pool of 154, Larson chose 71 for the book. “Each had to be accessible in voice and composition, illuminate some dimension of prison life, politics or culture,” he explained, “and I sought the broadest sampling possible of regions, races, religions and sexual preferences.” The remaining essays will be scanned and archived on Hamilton Digital Humanities Initiative site. He said it took four-and-a-half years to compile the book, from the first solicitation of essays in fall, 2009, to this month’s publication.
According to a press release from the publisher Michigan State University Press, “At 2.26 million, incarcerated Americans not only outnumber the nation’s fourth-largest city, they make up a national constituency bound by a shared condition. Fourth City: Essays from the Prison in America presents more than 70 essays from 27 states, written by incarcerated Americans chronicling their experience inside.
“In essays as moving as they are eloquent, the authors speak out against a national prison complex that fails so badly at the task of rehabilitation that 60 percent of the 650,000 Americans released each year return to prison. These essays document the authors’ efforts at self-help, the institutional resistance such efforts meet at nearly every turn, and the impact, in money and lives, that this resistance has on the public.
“Directly confronting the images of prisons and prisoners manufactured by popular media, so-called reality TV, and for-profit local and national news sources, Fourth City recognizes American prisoners as our primary, frontline witnesses to the dysfunction of the largest prison system on earth. Filled with deeply personal stories of coping, survival, resistance and transformation, Fourth City should be read by every American who believes that law should achieve order in the cause of justice rather than at its cost.”
As editor, Larson said he learned, “The 2.2 million Americans in prisons are assumed to be a massive problem; what I found was an enormous, untapped resource of insights into and true wisdom about how poverty, public policy, uneven police enforcement and a ragged criminal defense system have created the largest prison regime on earth,” he remarked.
As far as the prisoners whose essays are included, Larson concluded, “They cannot express the depth of their thanks; they are thankful even to know someone wants to read their work, let alone publish it.”