holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall

Splendour of snow blown sideways
through the penitentiary yard,
plastering the brown scissor-blade legs
of cattails in the ditch, filling keyholes
& every available crack,
razor-wire softening into white ropes

when the bang of an unfastened corncrib door
brings everyone — the guards
& the guarded — to a full stop.
This was once an ordinary farm
with ordinary livestock.
Ghostly pigeons arrive
from a blurred-out depth of field.

The owl’s insomnia

holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall

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Standing in the shower on the morning after we went to see the snowy owl, I found the words to one of Rafael Alberti’s many poems called “Canción” running through my head:

Si my voz muriera en tierra,
llevadla al nivel del mar
y dejadla en la ribera.

Llevadla al nivel del mar
y nombradla capitana
de un blanco bajel de guerra.

Oh mi voz condecorada
con la insignia marinera…

I couldn’t quite remember the last few lines, so after my shower, on my way out to the porch, I grabbed my bilingual edition of Alberti’s poems, selected and translated by Mark Strand: The Owl’s Insomnia (Atheneum, 1982).

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Insomnia? Well, perhaps so. What else might explain the amazing persistence of this Arctic vagrant, a veritable capitana de un blanco bajel de guerra shipwrecked in Central Pennsylvania on one of the mildest winters on record? For a month and a half he has sat implacably at one of several locations along a stretch of interstate highway near Rockview state prison, with meal breaks presumably consisting of meadow voles and other rodents. With all the traffic roaring past, not to mention the steady stream of admirers like us, one can well imagine he might be suffering from some form of insomnia – whatever that would mean for an owl. For most of this time here there’s been no snow cover to speak of, though the ground inside cloverleaf interchanges might be nearly as barren as the frozen tundra.

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This past Saturday, the temperature was in the low sixties, and the owl huddled in the meager shade afforded by the concrete entrance to a culvert, described as his favorite spot in the birders’ listserve. I felt as if we had come to pay our respects to some avian anchorite of great holiness. My brother pointed out the heavy bars on the culvert, no doubt intended to seal off a potential hiding place for escaped convicts. The owl’s eyes were never completely open, nor did they ever appear to shut all the way. He slowly pivoted his head as other cars parked on the shoulder of the exit ramp and more visitors emerged. We were at first surprised by the demographics, which included two different sets of mother-with-daughter-aged 10-12. “Hedwig!” Steve exclaimed, ever the authority on popular culture. “They’re here to see Hedwig!” Apparently a snowy owl by that name is featured in the Harry Potter books and movies.

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A raven suddenly flew in low over our heads, and we noticed a pair of horned larks fluttering around on the cloverleaf tundra within fifty feet of the owl. Less than a mile away, the state’s official execution chamber awaited its next victim and hundreds of modern-day slaves toiled indoors and out, under the assumption that Arbeit macht frei. It was eerie. During the whole twenty minutes we kept up our vigil, the owl never stopped looking like an apparition:

sobre el corazón un ancla
y sobre el ancla una estrella
y sobre la estrella el viento
y sobre el viento la vela!

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*Here’s my translation of the poem by Rafael Alberti.


If my voice should die on land,
carry it down to the sea
and leave it on the shore.

Carry it down to the sea
and make it captain of a white
ship of war.

Oh my voice, decorated
with the emblem of a sailor:
over the heart an anchor,
and over the anchor a star,
and over the star the wind,
and over the wind the sail!

Life under capitalism

holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall

Greyhound buses – the analogy runs – are like prison ships, ferrying the urban poor from one ghetto to another. It turns out that this is almost literally true. Greyhound Bus Lines, Inc. has an arrangement with the federal government to transport paroled felons, who get vouchers for tickets home upon their release. As such, it is but one of a rapidly growing number of companies who rake in sizable profits from the “captive market” that prisoners represent.

I learned this and much more by eavesdropping on a conversation between two just-released felons yesterday, as I rode back from an overnight in Pittsburgh. One of the men, a heavily tattooed white guy in a sleeveless undershirt, had gotten on at Pittsburgh, and I was surprised by the fact that he had no luggage or carry-ons whatsoever. He sat down right behind me. He had the rank smell and motor-mouth tendency of someone who has been riding the dawg for two or three days.

Three stops to the east, at Greensburg, two men dressed in identical brown slacks and white t-shirts boarded the bus, each carrying a couple of bulky cardboard boxes, which they wrestled onto the bus rather than stowing them underneath in the baggage compartment. One stop later, at Johnstown, one of the two men – a 20-something Hispanic – came back to use the john in the rear of the bus and was hailed by Tattoo Man.

“You guys just get out?”

“Yeah, man. You?”

“I got out of Texas state prison two days ago. Huntsville, Texas. Heading home to Altoona.”

“Damn! We just got out of Greensburg. I’m goin’ to Allentown, he’s goin’ to Harrisburg.”

I wanted to take notes on the conversation, but something told me I better just listen. It was a fascinating exchange. Tattoo Man had also done time in the Pennsylvania correctional system, so they had lots of fun comparing notes. I was surprised by how quickly their conversation got political.

“Yeah, you know everyone’s got a hustle going here, it’s just one big hustle. Everyone wants a piece. You know that prisons are the single biggest moneymaking industry in Pennsylvania?”

“Yeah, and it really took off under that fucker Tom Ridge. No surprise he got where he’s at now – Homeland Security. He got lots of practice from bein’ governor. That’s why Bush picked him. ‘Course, Bush bein’ from Texas, that’s the worst state there is! They got more prisoners in the state of Texas than in all of Russia!”

“Yeah, when Ridge was governor, that’s when we first started getting the Acts, you know, that’s what they call it. Getting the Acts. Every year they pass a new one that’s worse than the year before. Every prisoner is under some Act, it’s hard to keep straight – ‘cept for the guys that have been there a long time.

“You got to make up for what you did, you know – that’s alright. But they make you pay for everything else now, too. And at the same time, you get less and less money for working. They give you a “raise” – one penny at a time! It’s not even enough to pay for cable. Man, you have to have someone sending you money or you ain’t gonna survive!”

“They still give out TVs?”

“Hell no! They make you buy these little ones, K televisions – total piece of shit. It ain’t even color! Fucking black and white little piece of shit television! And you know how much they charge you for it? One hundred and fifty dollars! And now they got a rule against giving them away to someone else when you get out. I didn’t want the motherfucking thing, but they made me take it with me – new rule. That’s so everyone has to buy one. K Television.”

“That’s a generic brand, you know, can’t even buy it on the street.”

So it went with a whole litany of products and services, including extra food. The company store charges outrageous prices, to hear them tell it, and in Texas, the prisons even have a hustle going to take advantage of parolees. It seems there’s a law that requires the warden to give every newly released prisoner fifty dollars.

“But they give you this clown suit to wear: great big shoes, pants don’t fit, no belt. Unless you want to ride Greyhound looking like that, you got to walk across the street to buy some clothes right away. Jeans, $30.00. This shirt cost me $6.00, can you believe it? I refused to give them any more money than that! But that’s how they get you. That fifty dollars is gone!

They discussed the difference between Pennsylvania and Texas prisons in great detail. Not surprisingly, Texas is more severe in almost every respect. The gang warfare is much more dangerous there, Tattoo Man said, and membership in a gang is virtually unavoidable. The white guys have a choice of three different “families,” whose names each begin with the word “Aryan.” In addition, there’s the Mexican Mafia and the Crips and Bloods.

“They got Aryan Nation up here now too, you know.”

“Yeah, I know. But that’s still just an optional thing, right? Not too many members?”

“Yeah. But any time there’s a riot, they put us on lockdown for a month!”

“Three months in Texas. You have to go anywhere, they put on a gag, handcuffs, shackle your feet. Five guys pick you up and carry you.”

Most shockingly, according to Tattoo Man, Texas prisoners no longer have the option of not working – and they are paid nothing. “Eight hours a day, man. No air conditioning, either. It was 110 degrees there when I left! Texas is fucked, man. You can’t get money from the Outside, you ain’t worth dogshit.”

Friendly as their conversation became, I noticed that they were careful not to give out their first names. The Hispanic guy addressed his fellow Greensburg parolee as “Harrisburg,” after his destination. Tattoo Man didn’t say what he was in for, though his interlocutor did mention at one point that he’d been convicted on drug-related charges.

It was touching how animated the former Texas prisoner became as we neared his hometown, behaving like a tour guide: “Now up here’s the stadium they built for the Altoona Curve baseball team. It’s nice, man, check it out! We’re gonna get off at the 17th Street exit. That’s where they been building this mall right on the side of the mountain – tearing it up for years now and they still ain’t got one building on it! You’ll get a better look when you get back on the highway.”

He moved up to the front of the bus and talked to the driver in a vain attempt to get him to stop a few blocks short of the station. It was, he’d told his new friend, a long walk back to his old lady’s house in the pouring rain. When the bus finally pulled into the station he disembarked without a backwards glance, grinning from ear to ear.

Experts on the U.S. prison system point out that we would be in flagrant violation of the Geneva Convention if it applied to the treatment of domestic prisoners.The latest report on U.S. prisons from Human Rights Watch observes that

Across the country, inmates complained of instances of excessive and even clearly lawless use of force. In Pennsylvania, dozens of guards from one facility, SCI Greene, were under investigation for beatings, slamming inmates into walls, racial taunting and other mistreatment of inmates. The state Department of Corrections fired four guards, and twenty-one others were demoted, suspended or reprimanded. In many other facilities across the country, however, abuses went unaddressed.

Overcrowded public prisons and the tight budgets of corrections agencies fueled the growth of private corrections companies: approximately 100,000 adults were confined in 142 privately operated prisons and jails nationwide. Many of these facilities operated with insufficient control and oversight from the public correctional authorities. States failed to enact laws setting appropriate standards and regulatory mechanisms for private prisons, signed weak contracts, undertook insufficient monitoring and tolerated prolonged substandard conditions. In less than a year, there were two murders and thirteen stabbings at one privately operated prison in the state of Ohio.

Sexual and other abuses continued to be serious problems for women incarcerated in local jails, state and federal prisons, and INS detention centers. Women in custody faced abuses at the hands of prison guards, most of whom are men, who subjected the women to verbal harassment, unwarranted visual surveillance, abusive pat frisks and sexual assault. Fifteen states did not have criminal laws prohibiting custodial sexual misconduct by guards, and Human Rights Watch found that in most states, guards were not properly trained about their duty to refrain from sexual abuse of prisoners. The problem of abuse was compounded by the continued rapid growth of the female inmate population. As a result women were warehoused in overcrowded prisons and were often unable to access basic services such as medical care and substance abuse treatment.

A columnist for the Toronto Star recently noted that

At Abu Ghraib prison, the alleged main perpetrator is staff sergeant Ivan “Chip” Frederick, 37, the senior of six non-officers charged with cruelty and other mistreatment. He is a part-time military policeman called up last year for service in Baghdad — and was a prison guard for six years in Virginia.

To get involved in prisoner outreach and solidarity efforts in your community, consider becoming active in a local branch of the ABC Network.