Prison Voices. Rev. ed.
Robin Chamberlain is a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of English and Cultural Studies at McMaster University.
Prison Voices is a collection of writing by 12 inmates in Canadian prisons. In addition to the inmates’ own poetry and prose, the book includes interviews with each of the inmates, brief descriptions of them, and photographs of them and the prisons in which they are residing. The “voices” included provide a broad cross-section of the Canadian prison population, including men and women of different ages and races, from different parts of the country, and sentenced for crimes ranging in type and severity from drug possession to murder. The collection also includes French (with English translations) as well as English contributions and interviews.
All of the stories are both sad and fascinating, although the quality of the writing and the depth of self-awareness vary greatly. Some of the contributions are remarkable for the level of self-reflection. For example, convicted murder James Wrigley details his struggles with denial, his inability to reconcile his sense of self with the crime he has admitted, finally coming to a point where it becomes part of him, so that he always “see[s] the killer in the mirror.” Jon Brown, convicted for armed robbery, is a talented writer, and his poem “Grape Jelly” is impressive for both its raw emotion and its facility with language. In the poem, Brown writes of “want[ing] words that betray liars” and “that embrace lovers with indecision and guilt.”
The contributions to Prison Voices cover a range of topics, including those related to the conditions of prison life and to the personal histories of the contributors. One recurrent thread is how incarceration affects relationships, especially family relationships, and many of the contributors discuss the strain put on their relationships with parents, children, spouses, and others by their incarceration itself, as well as by their crimes. Several contributors also address the prejudices that we often attach to those who are in the penal system, prejudices that the contributors themselves frequently shared when they entered the system. This book is a fascinating window into an often silenced part of society, and helps to illuminate to the reader the complex issues associated with incarceration and criminal justice.