9. Passage & Place, An Anthology of Letters, Essays, and Visual Art by Both Free-World and Incarcerated Queer Writers/Artists

16 Jan

Passage & Place

An LGBTQ prison-activist group asked incarcerated gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people to send writing and drawings in response to the question of what home meant to them. The result is this lovely anthology produced for the 2014 National Queer Arts Festival. Prisoners write poems, essays, letters or just speak in their own words about how a prison can—or cannot—be a home. Most include short bios and contact addresses with the work, which makes the anthology both a compelling glimpse into the writers’ lives, and a potential source of connection and support for them.

The book also includes writing by queer activists on the same topic, which produces a somewhat strange texture of concerns, leaping from prisoner’s stories to those of people forced to move from Oakland to Toronto because of rising rents. I was much more interested in the writing by prisoners, though appreciated the leveling effect of including both.

Judging any of this work on its merits as writing isn’t quite the point, but the strongest piece in the book is beautifully written, from a now-former prisoner named Matt Hahn, who writes about what he liked about Folsom Prison in California.

How can I think fondly of a place like Folsom? Didn’t all sorts of awful things happen there?

His description of the prison—it is vintage, and thus nicer to live in!—is pretty fascinating. More so is his insight into the people he met there.

When it comes to level iii (low maximum security) prison yards, Folson is pretty mellow. Thus, it is a popular destination for the thousands of lifers throughout the state who want to do their time in “peace.” The yard is packed with lifers, most of them men who have been down 10, 20, 30 years or more. These men have seen a lot in their decades in prison & a lot of them have grown because of it. instead of becoming bitter, they became better. Some of them have spent decades reading voraciously in their cells, others have spent the decades meditating, some have learned every trade imaginable, & many have done all of the above. & there is nothing more humbling than being a man with a release date standing next to a man who has accepted the fact that he may never have one at all.

As my man Tom Spanbauer would say, decades man, fucking decades. It’s hard to imagine a run-of-the-mill crime for which 30 years of a person’s liberty is moral or necessary. I am of the camp to find our society’s usage of incarceration barbaric and appalling, and am glad to participate in any form of resistance.

Unfortunately, I can’t urge you to go buy the book, because it’s something of an artifact. Mailing the copies to all the incarcerated people who contributed was part of the project’s fundraising goals, and otherwise Passage & Place seems to be unavailable for wider purchase.

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