Wednesday, August 19, 2015

HANDLING THE MATH

Eighteen years ago, Doran Larson wrote a novel we published and in the interim we’ve lost sight of one another. But early this year he contacted us about publishing a prison memoir, Concrete Carnival, written by Danner Darcleight, an inmate sentenced to twenty five years to life. Judy and I were overwhelmed by the story itself and the brilliance of the writing, and immediately decided to publish it, even though we invariably publish fiction only. In this post, Danner reflects on the personal experiences of a fellow inmate facing his time in prison and the many disappointments that came with each parole board hearing.

I can think of no better way to introduce Darcleight’s blog than by turning this over to Doran, who, during those seventeen years we were apart became an authority on prison writing as the following introduction makes clear,

*        *         *

Concrete Carnival instantly places Danner Darcleight in the very top tier of writers working among the 2.3 million Americans held inside prisons and jails.  But this is not simply a prison book.  Darcleight’s verbal dexterity and streetwise insights, his honesty, humor, his narrative skills and unyielding search for the humanity in all of his subjects announce a writer who deserves a place upon the broad contemporary literary landscape.  Like Jack London, Chester Himes, Nelson Algren, Malcolm X, George Jackson, Edward Bunker, Angela Davis, Patricia McConnell, Donald Goines, Iceberg Slim, Malcolm Braly, Mumia Abu-Jamal and many others, Darcleight shows once again that any distinction between American literature and American prison literature perverts our understanding of what America is as a literary enterprise.

Prison walls quarantine bodies and minds.  They also incubate thinking and writing that strip bare the human costs of the contemporary order.   In an era of unprecedented, mass-scale incarceration—with nearly three quarters of a million citizens released from prisons and jails each year, and more than one-in-five citizens marked by a criminal record—we need this book in order to help us understand the very nature of the American experience today.

—Doran Larson, Wolcott-Bartlett Professor of Literature & Creative Writing, Hamilton College; editor, Fourth City: Essays from the Prison in America; Director The American Prison Writing Archive.

*         *         *

“Years ago a friendly old timer named Ralphie told me that I wasn’t yet doing time, that my bid would truly begin once I see my first parole board and get denied release for another two years. I didn’t understand him at the time, though Ralphie’s words have begun to bubble back up and repeat on me like a greasy, late-night meal. After serving twenty-five years, I will see a parole board in 2024.

“Ralphie went away in 1965, before Vietnam was a household word, and is still hashing off years on a twenty-to-life sentence. Fifty years in prison, and counting. How he handles that math, I have no idea, and hope I’ll never have to learn for myself. After appealing his tenth parole board’s decision, he was mistakenly sent pages from his file meant only for viewing by parole commissioners. The most damning: a letter on official stationery from the former mayor of a large city—who is friendly with the affluent family of victims—stating that Ralphie should never be released. Ralphie is an old man now, in failing health, and it seems this administrative fiat will serve as an extrajudicial death warrant. As far as his case is concerned, the system has fallen back on Machiavelli’s advice that men should either be caressed or crushed; might as well tell him, Arbeith macht frei.¹ During the seven or so years we locked near each other, I sat with him in the numb days following three of his parole denials, “hit” in local parlance. There was nothing I could say, nor would I dare offer palliative clichés.

¹ Work sets you free, is the wrought-iron signage on the gate to Auschwitz.

“I tried to imagine these parole commissioners watching Ralphie totter in, bald and pudgy like a cherub; peering up at them, his eyes look tremendously big behind thick glasses. The senior commissioner begins the interview, while the others half listen to what is going on, scanning the folder of the next case.² Ralphie speaks well and advocates for himself, but it does not really matter, does it? Not with that mayoral coupe de grâce serving as a cover page to his file. So, he sits there as they berate him, and when they ask what his plans are if he’s to be released, well, he tells them. His wife of many years recently passed away; yet, a group of Quakers has written to the parole board pledging to house Ralphie, ditto the director of a program for ex-cons, who would guarantee employment for him administering their database (the old man learned to code in the nineteen-eighties and, remarkably, has kept his skill set current). And then it’s over, just a matter of waiting about a week to receive the denial in the mail, a terse, boilerplate invite to the confab two years hence.

² ...half listening to what is going on, because they are focusing on the next case” were the words used by Vernon Manley, former New York State Parole Commissioner, to describe the parole process during a panel discussion held by the New York City Bar Association, February 15, 2007.

“Disappointing, he says, but no surprise. Stoic. But alone, the night after receiving his denial: crushed, gutted. Two days later, he opens the accordion folder that holds a copy of his appeal to the previous denial, two years earlier when the parole board meted out its pronouncement. He highlights names, dates, and other changes that will need to be made on this go round. That appeal was never ruled on, nor were any of the ones that preceded it, each one made moot by not being heard within two years. This is a Catch-22 by way of Kafka, and only someone who’s learned patience from decades spent in a cell can face it without decompensating. On one hand, Ralphie knows that, after spending countless hours assembling and mailing his appeal, it will be mooted by his appearance at the next board, which will hit him again, which will lead to this retrieving his appeal yet again from the according folder, revising and resubmitting; but on the other hand, he has to work the process, do what is expected of him, and hope that one day soon the Fates will tire of making him their plaything. The days go by, and we go with them—but don’t start counting too closely.”


DANNER DARCLEIGHT writes from and about prison. His essays have been published in  Stone Canoe, The Minnesota Review, The Kenyon Review, and Fourth City.



COMING NEXT WEEK: 92-year-old Daphne Athas, an influential author and educator, shares her thoughts. 

1 comment:

  1. With "more than one-in-five citizens marked by a criminal record" this is surely a strange country. It seems even more so when we read here of real, not so very strange, people on the wrong side of the line.

    ReplyDelete