Bards Behind Bars: Prison Literature In The US

by William T. Hathaway

Prisons are one of the few growth industries in the USA today. They are becoming money-making institutions, and profits are rising. New ones are being built and old ones expanded to hold all the new slave laborers being captured. The prison-industrial complex is the epitome of capitalism.

The USA imprisons a far higher proportion of its population than any other country, 730 people per 100,000. As of 2011, our prison population was 2,266,832. (1) Read the rest of this entry »

A US Election Day Parable – fiction by Joe Emersberger

What follows is a brief discussion between with The Prophet Who Looks Back (also known as “History”) and a regular US citizen.


You’re going to be mugged?


Tomorrow you will be mugged. That much is certain. Stay in all day. Go out. It doesn’t matter. You will be mugged.

I don’t believe you.

You know how impressive my credentials are.

Yeah I do, but what you’re saying is so frightening.

So you only want to believe nice predictions. I gave you more credit than that.

I’m sorry. You’re right. Just let me get myself together.

No problem.

Okay. What options do I have? What can I do about this?

Well I can offer you a choice of two different muggers depending on whether you choose to stay home or go out. Both of them are real nasty characters – totally hardened criminals. However, I think one of them (his name is Barack) might at least leave you with a pulse after he mugs you. I’m not saying he will. I’m just saying it is more likely than with the other guy -MItt. 

Oh my God I’ve heard of these guys, but some people say that Barack is worse, that the other guy just talks meaner but that he is slower and easier to run away from. Are you sure Barack is less dangerous?

Well, I can point to ….

You know what, never mind. I don’t care which of them it is.

What? You’re not being rational. You need to choose your assailant wisely.

It’s not that clear who is worse so I’m not wasting time agonizing about it. If I knew for sure one of them would leave me unharmed then that would be different. Since they’re both totally nasty fucks, just tell me which weapon and tactics I can best use against them. Prepare me as best you can to fight whoever it is.  I don’t want either one of these guys to walk away from me unscathed.

Remarkable. Most people assume they can only choose a mugger but not the option of fighting back. I have some excellent news for you. You’re attitude has altered your future.

It has?

You’re chances of walking away unharmed just shot through the roof. You may even walk away with their wallets. Now here is how you can fight either of them. They won’t see it coming….

The Home Remedy – fiction by Joe Emersberger

At sixteen, Abdias had already established himself as Walkerville’s most sought after psychologist. Of course, he couldn’t legally call himself one. His embittered rivals preferred terms like “witch doctor,” “charlatan,” and “fraud” among others that were more hateful.

One afternoon, a balding overweight man of forty paced in Abdias’ garage which served as a waiting room. Scott was oblivious to how he alarmed the other people by pacing and making angry faces.

An old black man (Abdias’ dad) eventually led Scott to the dining room inside the house. Abdias was sitting at the table wearing a T shirt and jeans. Scott had expected to see a very thin bookish kid. Instead, the young man before him was very large and muscular.

“Have a seat Scott,” said Abdias as if they had already met.

Scott’s parents had forced him into this appointment by threatening to kick him out of the house. If that was not humiliating enough, he was now face to face with a teenage “success” (and a son of Haitian refugees no less) while he, a forty year old white guy with a degree in economics, was a “failure”.

“Look, no offence,” said Scott as he took a seat “but unless you have a job for me this is a complete waste of time and money.”

“I don’t charge for this,” corrected Abdias. “People just pay what they think is fair and can afford.”

Scott looked pleasantly surprised for a moment but then sighed wearily and explained his problem.

Since finishing university, Scott had constantly been working hard yet moving backwards rather than forwards. His greatest workplace success was with an insurance company where he held on to an entry level clerical job for several years. Employers and co-workers found him weird and unpleasant. The way he talked to himself and made angry faces for no apparent reason was often described as “creepy”. The quality of his work, despite his effort, was not exceptional. He had trouble concentrating, so he was always the first targeted for dismissal. As he got older, he was treated even more ruthlessly. He was now working part time as a janitor in a factory.

He was too beaten down to feel humiliated by the work. In fact, he found it somewhat therapeutic. It was clear what was expected of him, and there were hardly ever people around to notice or care about his eccentricities. Unfortunately, Scott had just been threatened with dismissal again. The problem was that he had been asked to fill out a checklist at the end of his shift and he couldn’t do it. He had lost the ability to write.

“I can read just fine but I can’t write,” he explained to Abdias. “I noticed the first time I tried to fill out that goddamn checklist. I have a degree in economics but I can’t write. I can’t even write my name anymore.” Read the rest of this entry »

If We Go Down, We Go Down Together – fiction by John Pietaro

Lucinda Flanagan was never one for frills. Her roots in Chicago prepared her well for life in working class New York, where she learned all about organizing tenants, neighborhoods and of course workers. Daughter of ‘notorious’ labor organizer Joe Flanagan, who stands as a hero to radicals but is the scourge of bosses throughout the mid-West, Lucinda clings to her family pride as most would a precious stone; at his most boastful her father insists that their lineage leads right back to James Connolly. Joe is into his sixties now but continues leading campaigns for his international, refusing the cushy desk job they offer time and again, and Lucinda happily walks her father’s walk. BUT, she makes clear, has no intention of hanging on his coat-tails. Where Joe stormed the barricades of Chicago’s warehouses, factories and construction sites, Lucinda has been firmly planted in on the east. And her people are the terribly overworked and underpaid human service workers of the city that never sleeps. But rather than talk about her from afar, let’s go ahead and meet Lucinda:

“Hey, first thing—please call me Luce. My parents meant well but that name carries with it a little too many syllables and a little too muchbourgeois”, she laughed. “So don’t worry about what’s written on this card except for my cell number”, she explained, handing her business card to a tired-looking group home counselor. “Call me any time. And I will call you tomorrow so we can sit down with those co-workers you told me about, okay? I know this has been a long time coming for you”. The young woman sitting across from her looked back intently– her deep brown eyes appearing relieved and at least a little frightened. Luce gripped her hand gently and smiled. Placing the card deep into her breast pocket the woman nodded affirmatively and she was gone.

Lucinda looked downward at the small stack of business cards in her hand. She’d been at this game for 7 years already but it never failed to give her a quiet thrill to see the title ‘Lead Organizer’ follow her name. This is where she needed to be. Read the rest of this entry »

Ecotopia – fiction by Ernest Callenbach

Ecotopia (excerpt) – “The Ecotopian Economy: Fruit of Crisis”

San Francisco, May 12. It is widely believed among Americans that the Ecotopians have become a shiftless and lazy people. This was the natural conclusion drawn after Independence, when the Ecotopians adopted a 20-hour work week. Yet even so no one in America, I think, has yet fully grasped the immense break this represented with our way of life – and even now it is astonishing that the Ecotopian legislature, in the first flush of power, was able to carry through such a revolutionary measure.

What was at stake, informed Ecotopians insist, was nothing less than the revision of the Protestant work ethic upon which America has been built. The consequences were plainly severe. In economic terms, Ecotopia was forced to isolate its economy from the competition of harder-working peoples. Serious dislocations plagued their industries for years. There was a drop in Gross National Product by more than a third. But the profoundest implications of the decreased work week were philosophical and ecological: mankind, the Ecotopians assumed, was not meant for production, as the 19th and early 20th centuries had believed. Instead, humans were meant to take their modest place in a seamless, stable-state web of living organisms, disturbing that web as little as possible. This would mean sacrifice of present consumption, but it would ensure future survival – which became an almost religious objective, perhaps akin to earlier doctrines of “salvation.” People were to be happy not to the extent they dominated their fellow creatures on the earth, but to the extent they lived in balance with them.

This philosophical change may have seemed innocent on the surface. Its grave implications were soon spelled out, however. Ecotopian economists, who included some of the most highly regarded in the American nation, were well aware that the standard of living could only be sustained and increased by relentless pressure on work hours and worker productivity. Workers might call this “speed-up,” yet without a slow but steady rise in labor output, capital could not be attracted or even held; financial collapse would quickly ensue. Read the rest of this entry »

The Jungle – Chapter 29 – fiction by Upton Sinclair

The man had gone back to a seat upon the platform, and Jurgis realized that his speech was over. The applause continued for several minutes; and then some one started a song, and the crowd took it up, and the place shook with it. Jurgis had never heard it, and he could not make out the words, but the wild and wonderful spirit of it seized upon him—it was the “Marseillaise!” As stanza after stanza of it thundered forth, he sat with his hands clasped, trembling in every nerve. He had never been so stirred in his life—it was a miracle that had been wrought in him. He could not think at all, he was stunned; yet he knew that in the mighty upheaval that had taken place in his soul, a new man had been born. He had been torn out of the jaws of destruction, he had been delivered from the thraldom of despair; the whole world had been changed for him—he was free, he was free! Even if he were to suffer as he had before, even if he were to beg and starve, nothing would be the same to him; he would understand it, and bear it. He would no longer be the sport of circumstances, he would be a man, with a will and a purpose; he would have something to fight for, something to die for, if need be! Here were men who would show him and help him; and he would have friends and allies, he would dwell in the sight of justice, and walk arm in arm with power.

The audience subsided again, and Jurgis sat back. The chairman of the meeting came forward and began to speak. His voice sounded thin and futile after the other’s, and to Jurgis it seemed a profanation. Why should any one else speak, after that miraculous man—why should they not all sit in silence? The chairman was explaining that a collection would now be taken up to defray the expenses of the meeting, and for the benefit of the campaign fund of the party. Jurgis heard; but he had not a penny to give, and so his thoughts went elsewhere again.

He kept his eyes fixed on the orator, who sat in an armchair, his head leaning on his hand and his attitude indicating exhaustion. But suddenly he stood up again, and Jurgis heard the chairman of the meeting saying that the speaker would now answer any questions which the audience might care to put to him. The man came forward, and some one—a woman—arose and asked about some opinion the speaker had expressed concerning Tolstoy. Jurgis had never heard of Tolstoy, and did not care anything about him. Why should any one want to ask such questions, after an address like that? The thing was not to talk, but to do; the thing was to get bold of others and rouse them, to organize them and prepare for the fight! But still the discussion went on, in ordinary conversational tones, and it brought Jurgis back to the everyday world. A few minutes ago he had felt like seizing the hand of the beautiful lady by his side, and kissing it; he had felt like flinging his arms about the neck of the man on the other side of him. And now he began to realize again that he was a “hobo,” that he was ragged and dirty, and smelled bad, and had no place to sleep that night!

And so, at last, when the meeting broke up, and the audience started to leave, poor Jurgis was in an agony of uncertainty. He had not thought of leaving—he had thought that the vision must last forever, that he had found comrades and brothers. But now he would go out, and the thing would fade away, and he would never be able to find it again! He sat in his seat, frightened and wondering; but others in the same row wanted to get out, and so he had to stand up and move along. As he was swept down the aisle he looked from one person to another, wistfully; they were all excitedly discussing the address—but there was nobody who offered to discuss it with him. He was near enough to the door to feel the night air, when desperation seized him. He knew nothing at all about that speech he had heard, not even the name of the orator; and he was to go away—no, no, it was preposterous, he must speak to some one; he must find that man himself and tell him. He would not despise him, tramp as he was!

So he stepped into an empty row of seats and watched, and when the crowd had thinned out, he started toward the platform. The speaker was gone; but there was a stage door that stood open, with people passing in and out, and no one on guard. Jurgis summoned up his courage and went in, and down a hallway, and to the door of a room where many people were crowded. No one paid any attention to him, and he pushed in, and in a corner he saw the man he sought. The orator sat in a chair, with his shoulders sunk together and his eyes half closed; his face was ghastly pale, almost greenish in hue, and one arm lay limp at his side. A big man with spectacles on stood near him, and kept pushing back the crowd, saying, “Stand away a little, please; can’t you see the comrade is worn out?”

So Jurgis stood watching, while five or ten minutes passed. Now and then the man would look up, and address a word or two to those who were near him; and, at last, on one of these occasions, his glance rested on Jurgis. There seemed to be a slight hint of inquiry about it, and a sudden impulse seized the other. He stepped forward.

“I wanted to thank you, sir!” he began, in breathless haste. “I could not go away without telling you how much—how glad I am I heard you. I—I didn’t know anything about it all—”

The big man with the spectacles, who had moved away, came back at this moment. “The comrade is too tired to talk to any one—” he began; but the other held up his hand.

“Wait,” he said. “He has something to say to me.” And then he looked into Jurgis’s face. “You want to know more about Socialism?” he asked.

Jurgis started. “I—I—” he stammered. “Is it Socialism? I didn’t know. I want to know about what you spoke of—I want to help. I have been through all that.”

“Where do you live?” asked the other.

“I have no home,” said Jurgis, “I am out of work.”

“You are a foreigner, are you not?”

“Lithuanian, sir.”

The man thought for a moment, and then turned to his friend. “Who is there, Walters?” he asked. “There is Ostrinski—but he is a Pole—”

“Ostrinski speaks Lithuanian,” said the other. “All right, then; would you mind seeing if he has gone yet?”

The other started away, and the speaker looked at Jurgis again. He had deep, black eyes, and a face full of gentleness and pain. “You must excuse me, comrade,” he said. “I am just tired out—I have spoken every day for the last month. I will introduce you to some one who will be able to help you as well as I could—”

The messenger had had to go no further than the door, he came back, followed by a man whom he introduced to Jurgis as “Comrade Ostrinski.” Comrade Ostrinski was a little man, scarcely up to Jurgis’s shoulder, wizened and wrinkled, very ugly, and slightly lame. He had on a long-tailed black coat, worn green at the seams and the buttonholes; his eyes must have been weak, for he wore green spectacles that gave him a grotesque appearance. But his handclasp was hearty, and he spoke in Lithuanian, which warmed Jurgis to him.

“You want to know about Socialism?” he said. “Surely. Let us go out and take a stroll, where we can be quiet and talk some.”

And so Jurgis bade farewell to the master wizard, and went out. Ostrinski asked where he lived, offering to walk in that direction; and so he had to explain once more that he was without a home. At the other’s request he told his story; how he had come to America, and what had happened to him in the stockyards, and how his family had been broken up, and how he had become a wanderer. So much the little man heard, and then he pressed Jurgis’s arm tightly. “You have been through the mill, comrade!” he said. “We will make a fighter out of you!”

Then Ostrinski in turn explained his circumstances. He would have asked Jurgis to his home—but he had only two rooms, and had no bed to offer. He would have given up his own bed, but his wife was ill. Later on, when he understood that otherwise Jurgis would have to sleep in a hallway, he offered him his kitchen floor, a chance which the other was only too glad to accept. “Perhaps tomorrow we can do better,” said Ostrinski. “We try not to let a comrade starve.”

Ostrinski’s home was in the Ghetto district, where he had two rooms in the basement of a tenement. There was a baby crying as they entered, and he closed the door leading into the bedroom. He had three young children, he explained, and a baby had just come. He drew up two chairs near the kitchen stove, adding that Jurgis must excuse the disorder of the place, since at such a time one’s domestic arrangements were upset. Half of the kitchen was given up to a workbench, which was piled with clothing, and Ostrinski explained that he was a “pants finisher.” He brought great bundles of clothing here to his home, where he and his wife worked on them. He made a living at it, but it was getting harder all the time, because his eyes were failing. What would come when they gave out he could not tell; there had been no saving anything—a man could barely keep alive by twelve or fourteen hours’ work a day. The finishing of pants did not take much skill, and anybody could learn it, and so the pay was forever getting less. That was the competitive wage system; and if Jurgis wanted to understand what Socialism was, it was there he had best begin. The workers were dependent upon a job to exist from day to day, and so they bid against each other, and no man could get more than the lowest man would consent to work for. And thus the mass of the people were always in a life-and-death struggle with poverty. That was “competition,” so far as it concerned the wage-earner, the man who had only his labor to sell; to those on top, the exploiters, it appeared very differently, of course—there were few of them, and they could combine and dominate, and their power would be unbreakable. And so all over the world two classes were forming, with an unbridged chasm between them—the capitalist class, with its enormous fortunes, and the proletariat, bound into slavery by unseen chains. The latter were a thousand to one in numbers, but they were ignorant and helpless, and they would remain at the mercy of their exploiters until they were organized—until they had become “class-conscious.” It was a slow and weary process, but it would go on—it was like the movement of a glacier, once it was started it could never be stopped. Every Socialist did his share, and lived upon the vision of the “good time coming,”—when the working class should go to the polls and seize the powers of government, and put an end to private property in the means of production. No matter how poor a man was, or how much he suffered, he could never be really unhappy while he knew of that future; even if he did not live to see it himself, his children would, and, to a Socialist, the victory of his class was his victory. Also he had always the progress to encourage him; here in Chicago, for instance, the movement was growing by leaps and bounds. Chicago was the industrial center of the country, and nowhere else were the unions so strong; but their organizations did the workers little good, for the employers were organized, also; and so the strikes generally failed, and as fast as the unions were broken up the men were coming over to the Socialists.

Ostrinski explained the organization of the party, the machinery by which the proletariat was educating itself. There were “locals” in every big city and town, and they were being organized rapidly in the smaller places; a local had anywhere from six to a thousand members, and there were fourteen hundred of them in all, with a total of about twenty-five thousand members, who paid dues to support the organization. “Local Cook County,” as the city organization was called, had eighty branch locals, and it alone was spending several thousand dollars in the campaign. It published a weekly in English, and one each in Bohemian and German; also there was a monthly published in Chicago, and a cooperative publishing house, that issued a million and a half of Socialist books and pamphlets every year. All this was the growth of the last few years—there had been almost nothing of it when Ostrinski first came to Chicago.

Ostrinski was a Pole, about fifty years of age. He had lived in Silesia, a member of a despised and persecuted race, and had taken part in the proletarian movement in the early seventies, when Bismarck, having conquered France, had turned his policy of blood and iron upon the “International.” Ostrinski himself had twice been in jail, but he had been young then, and had not cared. He had had more of his share of the fight, though, for just when Socialism had broken all its barriers and become the great political force of the empire, he had come to America, and begun all over again. In America every one had laughed at the mere idea of Socialism then—in America all men were free. As if political liberty made wage slavery any the more tolerable! said Ostrinski.

The little tailor sat tilted back in his stiff kitchen chair, with his feet stretched out upon the empty stove, and speaking in low whispers, so as not to waken those in the next room. To Jurgis he seemed a scarcely less wonderful person than the speaker at the meeting; he was poor, the lowest of the low, hunger-driven and miserable—and yet how much he knew, how much he had dared and achieved, what a hero he had been! There were others like him, too—thousands like him, and all of them workingmen! That all this wonderful machinery of progress had been created by his fellows—Jurgis could not believe it, it seemed too good to be true.

That was always the way, said Ostrinski; when a man was first converted to Socialism he was like a crazy person—he could not’ understand how others could fail to see it, and he expected to convert all the world the first week. After a while he would realize how hard a task it was; and then it would be fortunate that other new hands kept coming, to save him from settling down into a rut. Just now Jurgis would have plenty of chance to vent his excitement, for a presidential campaign was on, and everybody was talking politics. Ostrinski would take him to the next meeting of the branch local, and introduce him, and he might join the party. The dues were five cents a week, but any one who could not afford this might be excused from paying. The Socialist party was a really democratic political organization—it was controlled absolutely by its own membership, and had no bosses. All of these things Ostrinski explained, as also the principles of the party. You might say that there was really but one Socialist principle—that of “no compromise,” which was the essence of the proletarian movement all over the world. When a Socialist was elected to office he voted with old party legislators for any measure that was likely to be of help to the working class, but he never forgot that these concessions, whatever they might be, were trifles compared with the great purpose—the organizing of the working class for the revolution. So far, the rule in America had been that one Socialist made another Socialist once every two years; and if they should maintain the same rate they would carry the country in 1912—though not all of them expected to succeed as quickly as that.

The Socialists were organized in every civilized nation; it was an international political party, said Ostrinski, the greatest the world had ever known. It numbered thirty million of adherents, and it cast eight million votes. It had started its first newspaper in Japan, and elected its first deputy in Argentina; in France it named members of cabinets, and in Italy and Australia it held the balance of power and turned out ministries. In Germany, where its vote was more than a third of the total vote of the empire, all other parties and powers had united to fight it. It would not do, Ostrinski explained, for the proletariat of one nation to achieve the victory, for that nation would be crushed by the military power of the others; and so the Socialist movement was a world movement, an organization of all mankind to establish liberty and fraternity. It was the new religion of humanity—or you might say it was the fulfillment of the old religion, since it implied but the literal application of all the teachings of Christ.

Until long after midnight Jurgis sat lost in the conversation of his new acquaintance. It was a most wonderful experience to him—an almost supernatural experience. It was like encountering an inhabitant of the fourth dimension of space, a being who was free from all one’s own limitations. For four years, now, Jurgis had been wondering and blundering in the depths of a wilderness; and here, suddenly, a hand reached down and seized him, and lifted him out of it, and set him upon a mountain-top, from which he could survey it all—could see the paths from which he had wandered, the morasses into which he had stumbled, the hiding places of the beasts of prey that had fallen upon him. There were his Packingtown experiences, for instance—what was there about Packingtown that Ostrinski could not explain! To Jurgis the packers had been equivalent to fate; Ostrinski showed him that they were the Beef Trust. They were a gigantic combination of capital, which had crushed all opposition, and overthrown the laws of the land, and was preying upon the people. Jurgis recollected how, when he had first come to Packingtown, he had stood and watched the hog-killing, and thought how cruel and savage it was, and come away congratulating himself that he was not a hog; now his new acquaintance showed him that a hog was just what he had been—one of the packers’ hogs. What they wanted from a hog was all the profits that could be got out of him; and that was what they wanted from the workingman, and also that was what they wanted from the public. What the hog thought of it, and what he suffered, were not considered; and no more was it with labor, and no more with the purchaser of meat. That was true everywhere in the world, but it was especially true in Packingtown; there seemed to be something about the work of slaughtering that tended to ruthlessness and ferocity—it was literally the fact that in the methods of the packers a hundred human lives did not balance a penny of profit. When Jurgis had made himself familiar with the Socialist literature, as he would very quickly, he would get glimpses of the Beef Trust from all sorts of aspects, and he would find it everywhere the same; it was the incarnation of blind and insensate Greed. It was a monster devouring with a thousand mouths, trampling with a thousand hoofs; it was the Great Butcher—it was the spirit of Capitalism made flesh. Upon the ocean of commerce it sailed as a pirate ship; it had hoisted the black flag and declared war upon civilization. Bribery and corruption were its everyday methods. In Chicago the city government was simply one of its branch offices; it stole billions of gallons of city water openly, it dictated to the courts the sentences of disorderly strikers, it forbade the mayor to enforce the building laws against it. In the national capital it had power to prevent inspection of its product, and to falsify government reports; it violated the rebate laws, and when an investigation was threatened it burned its books and sent its criminal agents out of the country. In the commercial world it was a Juggernaut car; it wiped out thousands of businesses every year, it drove men to madness and suicide. It had forced the price of cattle so low as to destroy the stock-raising industry, an occupation upon which whole states existed; it had ruined thousands of butchers who had refused to handle its products. It divided the country into districts, and fixed the price of meat in all of them; and it owned all the refrigerator cars, and levied an enormous tribute upon all poultry and eggs and fruit and vegetables. With the millions of dollars a week that poured in upon it, it was reaching out for the control of other interests, railroads and trolley lines, gas and electric light franchises—it already owned the leather and the grain business of the country. The people were tremendously stirred up over its encroachments, but nobody had any remedy to suggest; it was the task of Socialists to teach and organize them, and prepare them for the time when they were to seize the huge machine called the Beef Trust, and use it to produce food for human beings and not to heap up fortunes for a band of pirates. It was long after midnight when Jurgis lay down upon the floor of Ostrinski’s kitchen; and yet it was an hour before he could get to sleep, for the glory of that joyful vision of the people of Packingtown marching in and taking possession of the Union Stockyards!

Banjo – fiction by Claude McKay

Excerpts from the chapters “Official Fists” and “Banjo’s Ace of Spades,” in McKay’s novel Banjo (1929) Read the rest of this entry »