Tales from the inside
by Kevin Murphy
Raise your hand if you’ve been to prison. Nobody? Good, we’re all law-abiding citizens here, as are, I propose, most readers interested in books about spending time behind bars. After all, what kind of former prisoner delights in reliving what has to be a miserable experience? I shudder when imagining what it’s like to spend hours cooped up in a cell, and yet am fascinated by the stories that can emerge as a result. It’s the same fascination, I suppose, that draws readers to books about climbing Everest, or being a celebrity, or going to Heaven and coming back again. Most of us won’t ever know firsthand what it’s like to yodel from 24,870 feet, so we might as well do so vicariously through books.
Prison stories are a bit different than your average edge-of-the-world adventure story, though, because instead of inspiring us to personally go there and do that, we settle deeper into the warm embrace of our sofas, grateful we’re far from the sinister gloom described on the book’s pages. Part schadenfreude, part personal exploration, prison books offer a safe and remarkable trip into no man’s land.
Earlier this week, the LA Times reported that a case filed by the Australian government against David Hicks, a former Guantanamo detainee, has been dropped, and that Hicks will indeed be able to keep profits earned from his book, Guantanamo: My Journey. In Australia, proceeds earned from criminal activities can result in a lawsuit against the criminal, former or otherwise.
While this story is interesting for its legal implications, I’m curious to hear what the man has to say about day-to-day life in one of the world’s most notorious lockdowns. As the Times notes:
Hicks, described as a former kangaroo skinner and Outback cowboy who left Australia for Afghanistan, was captured by U.S. forces in Afghanistan in 2001 and sent to the Guantanamo Bay detention center in Cuba. In “Guantanamo: My Journey,” he wrote that he had trained at a military camp in Afghanistan that was visited by Osama bin Laden but that this was not terrorism training.
Only time will tell if Hicks’ book is any good, but by putting his experiences on the page he joins a genre that includes many wonderful titles. Here are some favorite fictional and autobiographical tales from the inside. Feel free to suggest your own recommendations in the comments section.
“After nineteen years inside, the foreman wouldn’t hustle his men out a minute too early. When he said “Out,” you knew there was nothing else for it.”
“All a man needs is a little jealousy and a clerical error – bad luck – and they throw him into jail, but I’ll leap the net in a week or two.”
“If he has a conscience he will suffer for his mistake. That will be punishment-as well as the prison.”
“I lay awake in my dreams. I often think that love is not for me, but tears are. Cemeteries are for the lives that die of broken hearts. The wind is whispering the song of the executioner to my minds ear. The fragrance of love is now dead to me.”
“Man’s highest virtues are to be found in what is called the gutter, the underworld; and what gangsters do is sometimes the same as what heroes do.”
“They won’t break me because the desire for freedom, and the freedom of the Irish people, is in my heart. The day will dawn when all the people of Ireland will have the desire for freedom to show. It is then that we will see the rising of the moon.”
“Lying in bed, I could hear the trams far away in the distance. Turning the corners heavily, and gathering speed for the hills. I used to hear them back in Dublin on the Northside when I was small, lying in bed, avoiding the eye of the Sacred Heart in the picture on the far wall.”
“I am surrounded by some sort of wretched specters, not by people. They torment me as can torment only senseless visions, bad dreams, dregs of delirium, the drivel of nightmares and everything that passes down here for real life.”
Klaus Kinski as Marquis de Sade, who did much of his writing while behind bars.
Kevin Murphy is the digital media marketing manager of Melville House.