Posted: November 1, 2008 in prison, general, prisoner writing
Tags: ,

In reading some of the guys’ work this weekend I came across this passage:

“But this guy…he wasn’t just commerical strong, he was industrial. Whatever he’d been doing wasn’t just weight-pile, or gymnastic-martial art work. This bastard had to have some kind of job reefing engine heads off an assembly line and hand tooling valve springs in place all day.”

First, it’s a great descriptive paragraph. One of those passages that rings with the voice of a narrator that has been there and seen that and so can write from a place of truthful imagery. I know the author will probably not be able to see right away all of the levels on which these sentences are working effectively, and I have no doubt he was just writing from his heart when he put them down on the paper, but they’re good, and I’ll be sure to tell him so in my feedback.

My second thought was about strength. In particular, strength as it relates to existing inside prison. In this story the narrator is describing another inmate being brought back to a unit of the prison, and what the narrator knows is this guy is physically stronger than him and for various reaons, in all likelihood, a threat to the narrator. The scene is partly the narrator’s journey toward the realization that at some point, in the near future, he will likely have to fight this new inmate.

What I found compelling about this piece was that the narrator acknowledges that he is the weaker of the two men physically, and he also accepts the inevitably of the confrontation that is to come. There is no whining in the piece, nor any discussion of how to avoid the confrontation. It will happen. The narrator describes some fear, but there is more a hardened tone of practicality and understanding, which can only come from experience. He will be as prepared as he can be for the day that the confrontation occurs.

I wonder if one of the outcomes of serving time is that you learn to size others up in the way this narrator does. He knows he is “commerical strong” and that the other inmate is “industrial”. Serving time must give you ample opportunity to study others, and learn who is actually strong and who is merely posturing. Prison must also give you an opportunity to size yourself up pretty quickly, as well as demand that you get honest about your own strength, both physical, emotional and spiritual. I imagine it is hard to pretend that you are something you actually are not in prison. Others will discover your weaknesses, so you either get good at hiding them, or you get even better at exploiting your strengths. The narrator in this piece understands he is physically outmatched, but perhaps he also knows that his is wiser? More intuitive?

I think about how few situations in life (outside of prison) test our strengths. It’s a rare opportunity, I think, to find yourself forced into that sort of honesty. To have to acknowledge in what ways we are weak is not comfortable. And to acknowledge in what ways we are strong brings with it responsibilities to live up to that strength. The narrator of this piece is knows how he stacks up against the other men around him, he has to sleep at night knowing he is not the strongest, and yet he figures out how to survive. Or perhaps because he knows he is not the strongest he is able to survive. He doesn’t have to waste all that time pretending to be what he is not.


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