Bards Behind Bars: Prison Literature In The USA

by William T. Hathaway

February 6, 2013

One of the few growth industries in the USA today are prisons. They are becoming money-making institutions, and profits are rising. New ones are being built and old ones expanded to hold all the new slave laborers being captured. The prison-industrial complex is the epitome of capitalism.

The USA imprisons a far higher proportion of its population than any other country, 730 people per 100,000. As of 2011, our prison population was 2,266,832. (1)

As Glen Ford states:

“Twenty-five percent of prison inmates in the world are locked up in the USA … African Americans comprise one out of every eight of the planet’s prisoners. …. China is 87th in the world in the proportion of its people who are imprisoned. China is a billion people bigger than the United States — more than four times the population — yet US prisons house in excess of 600,000 more people than China does. The Chinese prison population is just 70 percent of the American Gulag. That’s quite interesting because non-whites make up about 70 percent of US prisons. That means the Black, brown, yellow and red populations of US prisons number roughly the same as all of China’s incarcerated persons. Let me emphasize that: The American People of Color Gulag is as large as the entire prison population of China, a country of nearly 1.4 billion people.” (2)

The US Incarceration Nation is a world of its own, and the writings of its inmates portray the shadow side, the excluded other of our society. Although ignored by the cultural establishment, prison writing has become a major aspect of working-class literature. Today working-class literature is alive and well and living in prison. “Well” doesn’t mean it’s contented and happy but instead vital and impassioned. And “in prison” doesn’t mean just locked behind bars but also 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.” (3)

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 Proletarian Revolutionary 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 so prevalent 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.

We’ve included a few selections below. For more, check out Struggle Magazine.

The End Result
by J.D. Barrett, Sr.

Ninety-five degree heat
and one hundred percent humidity
in a South Georgia prison without A/C
make me drip
and as a drop falls on my lips
the saltiness reminds me
that sweat and tears are the same
only tears come through the heart to the eyes
and sweat comes through the heart to the skin
and sometimes you can sweat
even when you can’t cry
and you thank God for it.

A heavy fog settles over me
and there’s no wind to clear it.
I’ve heard that misery
is the stuff of poetry
and I feel I should have volumes
but the reservoir from which I cried
is now no more than dry baked mud
and there’s so much left to cry for.

The Mulberry Bush (Jeb)
by Roger Gorley

10 to 20 for being addicted to crack
throw in another 5 for being Black
hide the SYMPTOMS to your problems behind a wall
of injust justices who are doomed to fall
right on their face
for what they’ve done to the human race
to the soup kitchen while the getting is good
to see Nelson Mandela free but what about me
and my people who no one seems to see
us begging for food and digging in the trash
canned babies that we can’t afford to feed
us to the wolves who feast on the poor
souls doing time on your three strikes
a blow for the common man
who’s doing 10 to 20 for being addicted to crack
after they tossed in an extra 5 because he was Black…

friday night
by Marek Jagoda

in the big room
institution movie
lots of us

unfolded chairs
the backs of heads
and up on high a cube of color
all focused on

in that square of attention
our hero
kisses the girl
and as his hand moves up her shirt
all these heads they twitch

some cough or clear their throats
some suddenly
find a thing more interesting to look at
the window the floor
a piece of lint

get so tense they don’t move a muscle
but you can feel their frequency
like a string of glass
stay away

so out of balance
how do we reconcile the loss of love
of intimacy
of touch
in all these darkened orbs before me
what different dramas play

Where I Stand
by Mike A. Slade

At this time, I feel disinclined
to award my appreciation —
to the customs and laws
of the U.S. and the United Nations.
‘Cause I can foresee
these power-struck figures
leading the world
towards even more tragic situations,
of which I want no participation.
Although I was born in Amerikkka I don’t
feel that I’m under any obligation.
Confused by the too few facts,
I lack focus and concentration.
No matter what the media says
I gain no inspiration.
It’s like, I’ve worked too hard to find true facts,
that I’m overdue for a vacation.
Lies are being told to drum up support
with tricked-out simulation,
causing a bunch a hoopla
& false stimulation.
What a terrible nation!
Built off of blood, sweat, tears
and degradation.

This is to awaken
my fellow man!
simply by letting him know —
“where I stand”

Bay Of Pigs
by David Pratt

You could mistake him for an eagle,
the way he soars, the casual grace
as he hangs on the air, and circles,

forty-three years too late
to spy the men who charged ashore
dreaming of death and fornication
and staggered into swamps,
firelights, ambushes, prison cells.

He glides disconsolately down,
brakes, touches ground, folds wings,
stretches a scrawny neck,
shrugs iris black shoulders,
and shakes the ugly small red head.

How cruel, close-up,
is the curved white-pointed beak
that goes for the liver
when it has finished with the eyes,

One solitary vulture.

across the Straits of Florida
a million vultures wait.

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.

Start A Revolution
by Brian S. Chapman

Time takes its toll the brainwashed masses don’t see
everything that’s wrong in our society
I’m a casualty of a drug war you don’t see
at the cost of taxpayers wasting away in a penitentiary
Start a revolution fuck the Constitution
capitalist destruction the only solution
You want to talk about equal rights why don’t you ask Uncle Sam
before he forces a gun in yr hand and ships you off
to terrorize a foreign land
Republicans keep lying while in the streets
are hungry crying children are dying
corrupt city and govt officials the deceit, lies and drugs
while insane long-term for sadistic witch-hunt
prison sentences drug convictions
while the CIA and the feds control the pipelines
of major distributors that feed the convictions
who’s killing who and what’s the reason why
some have to work so hard for next to nothing for someone else
while someone else skates by enjoying the easy life
I could go on and on I’m just another of the oppressed
but what’s the point? doing time in the joint


1. US Bureau of Justice Statistics

2. Black Agenda Report, August 30, 2012, (last visited 7-12-2012)

3. Socialist Viewpoint, July/August 2012, p. 78

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 peace activists who have moved beyond demonstrations and petitions into direct action, defying the government’s laws and impeding its ability to kill. Chapters are posted on a page of the publisher’s website.