By Colman McCarthy
Post: Page X13
From inside and
outside the nation's prisons, six authors ask whether better methods
exist for deterring and punishing crime. They answer yes.
construction increases by leaps and the number of people caged in
them by bounds, so also are there surges in the flow of prison
literature. It ranges from cell-bound first person accounts of
lockdown living to sociological essays confirming the negative
results of mass imprisonment that former Virginia Gov. L. Douglas
Wilder spoke of in 1992:
absolutely insane the amount of money we spend on corrections. What
we have been doing is not right. But it's very difficult for
politicians, and I am one of them, to say we have been wrong and that
we've got to revisit, revise and restructure the whole system."
Part of the costly
system of which Wilder speaks is Virginia's death row, the scene of
more executions since colonial times than any of the other 37
death-penalty states. In Dead Run: the Untold Story of Dennis
Stockton and America's Only Mass Escape from Death Row (Times Books,
$25), Joe Jackson and William F. Burke Jr. take us into the shadows
of Mecklenburg Correctional Center, in south-central Virginia, a
facility packed with the condemned. Jackson, a reporter at the
Virginian-Pilot from 1985 to 1997, and Burke, an editor there since
1980, examine in masterful detail the realities of death row from
1983 to 1995. The dates span the confinement of Dennis Stockton.
Jackson and Burke,
a pair of conscientious and hard-digging journalists, did their
double- and triple-checking to get their story. "We found over
the years that Stockton was surprisingly reliable concerning
details," they write of a man who, in the end, proved to be a
gifted writer himself.
same can be said for Leonard Peltier.
That is the Anglo name -- though he is not an Anglo -- of Tate
Wikuwa, which in the Lakota language means Wind Chases the Sun.
Peltier does not consider himself an American, that too being an
imposed name. Of Ojibway and Dakota Sioux bloodlines, he calls
himself "a native of Great Turtle Island. . . . I am of the Okce
Wicasa -- the Common People, the Original People. Our sacred land is
under occupation, and we are now all prisoners, not just me."
and concrete cell is in the Leavenworth, Kan., federal prison. At 55,
he is in the 24th year of a double life sentence after a 1976
conviction in Fargo, N.D., for the murder of FBI agents Jack Coler
and Ronald Williams. Versions of the trial and pre-trial events --
false affidavits, FBI coercion and intimidation of witnesses,
suppression of exo-nerating evidence, prosecutorial inconsistencies
-- can be found in Peter Matthiessen's In the Spirit of Crazy Horse:
The Story of Leonard Peltier and the FBI's War on the American Indian
Movement, in Robert Redford's documentary film "Incident at
Oglala," in the literature of Amnesty International and the
testimonies of Ramsey Clark.
Writings: My Life Is My Sun Dance (St. Martin's, $22.95, edited by
Harvey Arden), Peltier covers new ground -- the territories of his
inner life, the expanses of his justice-seeking vision for tribal
people and his reflections about imprisonment or what he calls being
"a houseguest in hell." Some of the 38 chapters are brief
bursts of mystical prayers and poems; others are cries for
reconciliation. In some places, Peltier's prose slips into bullhorn
decibels. He says, for example, that "white society would like
now to terminate us [Indians] as peoples and push us off our
reservations so they can steal our remaining mineral and oil
resources." This blanket accusation ignores a fair amount of
contrary evidence, starting with the current federal court case that
would restore billions of dollars to tribal members whose trust funds
-- in the opinions of a white judge, white lawyers representing
Indians and white federal officials -- have been mismanaged.
But the occasional
lapse into bombast is a minor flaw, considering the rage that Peltier
feels he is justified in expressing. In its most eloquent and
passionate sections, Prison Writings deserves a place alongside the
best works of Vine Deloria Jr., M. Scott Momaday, Mary Summer Rain
and other Indian authors.
Many of Peltier's
reflections are echoed in Letters From Robben Island: A Selection of
Ahmed Kathrada's Prison Correspondence, 1964-1989 (Michigan State
Univ.; paperback $22.95). During his 26 years of confinement in the
same South African prison that held Nelson Mandela, Kathrada wrote
more than 800 letters. Nearly all were smuggled out or heavily
censored. Incoming mail received similar treatment. A letter came to
Kathrada in 1964 that mentioned the election of Harold Wilson of the
British Labour Party. Censors decreed that this was "sensitive
information." Kathrada was given the letter 18 years later.
See the Washington
Post for the rest of the story...