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Stories from a prison cell

The cold steel bars lock away more than a man's soul
The cold steel bars lock away more than a man's soul
Photo courtesy California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation

Some of the most horrifying and eloquent tales of terror ever written haven’t come from the imagination of authors such as Stephen King, but from writers only a handful of dedicated readers are familiar with. Their stories aren’t about the nightmarish realms of dark fantasy. Instead, they’re agonizing tales of the harsh realities of prison life. Authors such as Odell Waller, a sharecropper sentenced to death for killing his landlord over 50 sacks of wheat in the early 1940s, paint an eerie picture of what it’s like to wait for the hangman’s noose. His short story, “Give us this day our daily bread,” tells the tale of a man waiting to die, his personal terror growing stronger as each day brings him closer to his execution. A tragic image of his situation is painted darkly in the simple yet poignant line, “as my time comes near, each second means I am one nearer my grave.” While Waller was illiterate, he was able to have his story written for him through an intermediary. Waller is just one of many unknown writers whose prison stories come to us in the form of journals and letters.

Another tale worthy of reading is the diary of Alfred Dreyfus, written while he was incarcerated on the notorious Devil’s Island in formerly French controlled Guiana. The diaries, to be given to his wife upon his death, chronicle his decent into the madness of the harshest penal colony of all time. It was his hope of one day being reunited with her that got him through the often violent ordeal of imprisonment.

In addition to countless unknown incarcerated writers, a host of well known authors and activists have done hard time in prison and have written about it. Socrates, Francois Villon, Napoleon, Gandhi, and Martin Luther King Jr. have all written firsthand about their experiences behind the cold steel bars of a cell.

Today, organizations such as Pen American Center’s Prison Writing Program teach prisoners how to express themselves through creative writing. This artistic outlet provides men and women a way of telling their stories, offering a glimpse into how they ended up incarcerated and perhaps helping someone headed in the same direction from making similar mistakes. For those of us who may have had better breaks in life, their writing reminds us of how fortunate we are. However, no matter who you are or where you come from, there’s nothing better than a good story and the best stories come straight from the heart. There are many books written by prisoners, published by small presses, that don’t end up in major book retailer’s superstores. I suggest you Google prison writing yourself and search a few out. If you ever get a chance to find a copy of “The Great Prisoners,” pick it up. It’s a historical anthology of prison writing that spans two thousand years. Here are some links to a few facinating stories: Wall Tappings (An Anthology of Women's prison writings), Prison Writings: My Life is My Sun Dance and lastly, The Great Prisoners which you'll have to search for at used bookstores since its out of print.