10.07.2008

what i'm reading: committing journalism

I'm reading an interesting and very compelling book called Committing Journalism: the Prison Writings of Red Hog, co-written by Dannie Martin and Peter Sussman.

Peter Sussman was an editor at the San Francisco Chronicle, responsible for a section called "Sunday Punch". In 1986 he started publishing the writing of Dannie Martin, a convict in a federal penitentiary. Sussman recognized that Martin - known as "Red Hog" in prison - had great potential as a writer. The public responded very positively to his essays, so they began a collaborative project.

Martin wrote about prison life with wit and pathos, and put a human face on a world few of his readers would ever see. He wrote about racism, health care, sex, bureaucracy, and what could only be called prison folk stories. When he wrote an essay criticizing the tactics of a new warden, prison authorities punished him and tried to prevent him from writing. A court battle ensued, leading to a major First Amendment victory. The book's tagline: "I committed bank robbery and they put me in prison, and that was right. Then I committed journalism, and they put me in the hole. And that was wrong." (I love the title Committing Journalism.)

The book intersperses a narrative told by Peter Sussman - Dannie Martin's early life, how he came to write for the Chronicle, then the fight to continue to publish Martin's writing under his own name - with Martin's columns that ran in the paper. Martin's writing is excellent, and so impressive.

My partner is a completely self-taught writer, and even though I went to university, I didn't study journalism. I've learned more about writing from Allan editing my work, and a few scraps of advice from editors here and there, than I ever did in school. So even though my experience is light years away from Dannie Martin's, I relate to his journey of discovering himself as a writer, his need to express himself, and his eagerness to improve his craft.

Committing Journalism also has me thinking about something we once called "prisoner's rights," and how those words have fallen out of public discourse. A movement to improve the quality of life of incarcerated people, and to inject anything resembling rehabilitation into the system, seems like a quaint relic from another time. In A People's History of the United States, for example, Howard Zinn writes about this as a social issue, a goal. But no elected official dare utter the words "prisoner's rights" unless they're trying to commit political suicide. Decades ago, the idea was replaced with that useless, resource-sucking propaganda called the "war on drugs," and something called "victim's rights," as if treating a convicted person as a human being somehow violates the rights of a crime victim. So this book can be seen as a barometer of something we've lost.

As many of you know, I've been a victim of violent crime, so I know first-hand the cost. Surely the course and tenor of my life were permanently changed. I'm aware that some people have to be kept away from society.

But consider: in the US, 2.2 million people are incarcerated. When you count probation and parole, the number swells to 7 million, representing one out of every 32 USians. Over 60% of incarcerated people are are people of colour. Prisons are one of the only growth industries in the US, and like everything else, have been quietly privatized.

These prisons are full to bursting with casualties of the so-called "war on drugs" and victims of the impoverished, broken world they were brought into. The entire system is geared towards locking up those on the very bottom rungs of the social ladder, while murderers, war criminals, treasonists and thieves run the country.

It's hard to believe this is the best we can do. But it is another indicator of the US's crumbling social condition - one most people never see or think about.

Good resources: The Sentencing Project, The Innocence Project, American Civil Liberties Union. Really good book, too.

4 comments:

M@ said...

The book sounds fascinating. It's now on my list of books to look out for!

The whole US prison situation is something that I think all the political parties in Canada ought to bring up every time Harper and the CPC trot out the "tough on crime" bullshit. Only Duceppe has been able to turn it to his advantage, and admittedly he's playing to a left-leaning constituency.

Anonymous said...

Someone once said, "America is like a melting pot. The people at the bottom get burned, the scum floats to the top."

Truer words have never been spoken. This and the bailout are just further proof.

James said...

One question about "victim's rights" vs "prisoner's rights": when someone's thrown in jail for life for being in a car with somenoe in posession of pot, just who is the victim?

L-girl said...

Great comments, all. Thanks guys.