Some Prison Fiction (Pearce, Highsmith, Greer, Bathanti)

Sarah Kennedy Click to

Sarah Kennedy is the author of the novels Self-Portrait, with Ghost and The Altarpiece, City of Ladies, and The King’s Sisters, Books in The Cross and the Crown series, set in Tudor England.  She has also published seven books of poems.  A professor of English at Mary Baldwin University in Staunton, Virginia, Kennedy holds a PhD in Renaissance Literature and an MFA in Creative Writing.  She has received grants from both the NEA, the NEH, and the VA Commission for the Arts.  Please visit Sarah at her website:

Writers of fiction have used prisons as settings for centuries, and prison escapes have long been a feature of Hollywood films.  Papillon, The Great Escape, Escape from Alcatraz are just a few, and who hasn’t seen the rather sentimental Shawshank Redemption or The Green Mile?  In novels, the prison itself is usually one of several locations, and, in films, generally the setting that the characters leave behind.  When inmates don’t, or can’t, escape, the prison is the site of an inmate’s unlikely heroics or redemption.

Novels unfolding primarily in prisons are less common than films, but they tend to provide more realistic, stark details about a prison life.  Almost a sub-genre of crime fiction, prison fiction, particularly by American novelists, uses the physical buildings almost as characters–and certainly as metaphors for crime and guilt.  But do they reinforce or undermine social norms about crime and punishment?  In these novels, punishment for felonies becomes the penalty every human pays for the sin of participating in human fault–which we all do.  As crime fiction often shows that any person can become guilty, given the right set of circumstances (read a little Patricia Highsmith or Ian Rankin), prison fiction often shows that the differentiation between being “inside” or “outside” is less distinct than we may believe.

One of the best-known novels in which the prison itself is an integral part of the characterization is the classic Cool Hand Luke. Written by Donn Pearce and first published in 1965, this novel is purportedly about a petty thief who gets convicted after cutting the heads from parking meters.  In the movie, Paul Newman’s good looks keep the focus on Luke, but in the novel the characters all become secondary to the prison itself.  They don’t even have names; instead, they are all given nicknames–Dragline, Stupid Blondie, Dynamite, Gator.  Even Luke’s name isn’t Luke; it’s Lloyd Johnson.  The convicts acquire their prison names through some metaphor or habit. Dragline, for example, is out working, and the Captain asks “Boss Godfrey” how he is doing.  “Ain’t never seen nothin’ like it, Cap’n.  He can shovel more mud than any six men put together.  He’s like a human dragline” (38).  And so his name becomes Dragline.  As the narrator says, however, “But once upon a time, his name was Clarence Slidell.”

This fairy-tale diction suggests the other-worldly quality of what is called the “Free World” in this novel.  Their “real” world is the prison and the chain gang.  It’s a white, male world, though they see a few women and people of color as they work and ride in the truck, and Luke’s final scene takes place in an African American church.  The convicts refer to themselves as “The Family” and “The Hard Road,” which they consider “a noun and . . .a proper name, capitalized and sacred” (6).  And the prison itself is “the Building,” also always capitalized.  The walls of the Building, along with its surrogates, “the Box” (a small cell for punishment) and “the cage truck.”  Despite allowing brief glimpses of the Free World, of cars and women, the truck remains their “caged world on wheels” (3).

The Building and the cage truck contain and control the convicts and are barely less human than the guards, who treat the convicts with inhuman rigidity:  “There is no privacy whatever in the Building.  Just as there are no wash basins nor cups.  You drink, wash, shave and brush your teeth beneath the one faucet in the shower stall” (60).  An “armed guard sits up all night keeping watch,” and it seems as though the Building itself is watching them through its windows that are “square holes without any glass, covered over with chain link fence material and also with fly screen.”

So Luke, with “that smile” (68) and lack of concern for following the rules of the “Fatherland” (83), becomes legendary, a “song” and a “story” (41), though by the time the novel opens, he is already dead.  Retelling the details of Luke’s escapes, his exploits when captured and recaptured, his insistence on playing it “cool” (hence his nickname) sustain the prisoners’ hopes that they, too, will escape the deadening, meaningless monotony of their lives.  In fact, though, Luke’s story reinforces the similarity between the Building and the Free World.

One of the features of Luke’s past that the narrator mentions frequently without comment is his service in World War II.  The war looms large and seems to have had quite a lot to do with Luke’s criminal activity–and perhaps with the other convicts’ as well.  They first see Luke in the paper, in two photos:  “the one a formal military portrait, the kind we all sent home during the war . . .the other the picture of a drunk peering through the bars” (44).  When Luke commits his crime, he sees the parking meters as soldiers, “advancing, marching forward in open ranks, a battalion of emaciated soldiers with ugly faces beneath odd-shaped foreign helmets” (47).  The word “VIOLATION” on the meters sends Luke into a mental tailspin: “Had he done a violation?  Did he dare make a violation?  Had a violation been committed against him? . . . Is a violation done to you–are they made–or do you commit them?” (47).

This uncertainty bleeds into the prison itself.  When Luke is incarcerated at Raiford, he (like the narrator before him) rides past the “Visitor’s Park,” where a band is playing “a rousing military march” (57).  The second prison is a “Camp,” and its highest figure of authority is a “Captain” (59).  After Luke gets his banjo back from his brother, he slowly retells his experiences during the war.  He and his fellow soldiers robbed, raped, and killed innocent civilians.  They acted indiscriminately.  Sometimes “prisoners were fed.”  Other times, “prisoners were shot.”  Local girls “were given chocolate bars.”  Or they “were raped” (158).  Luke’s war became “an orgy of vandalism” until he was confronted in a room where he has gone to attack a girl with “a huge crucifix, the figure of Christ . . . .Luke stood there and looked at it.  He looked down at the girl.  He waited for a long time, hanging his head and thinking and quietly slung his banjo over his shoulder and left the room” (159).

This incident seems to have driven Luke into an agony of non-belief.  He taunts God when a lightning storm threatens the chain gang, asking Him to “show your stuff, Old Timer!  Make me know it!  Make me know you’re up there!” (174).  But Luke fails to get an answer–or a lightning bolt.  No matter how Luke tries to provoke the Almighty, terrifying the other convicts, his answers come only from the prison system.  Luke is shot in the church by lawmen, “his hands . . .still raised” in an almost cruciform position.  And in the retelling, Sailor notes that the universe is controlled by guards.  The worst of these, “the Walking Boss,” becomes almost godlike, as the narrator, speaking collectively for the entire “Family” reveals:  “we knew that sun was really the left eye of the Walking Boss just as his right eye is the moon” (77).  Later, when Luke escapes, Boss Godfrey shows his “outraged moon-eye” (242).  And the guards are just one link in the hierarchical chain that binds the convicts:  “in the complex hierarchy of the Chain Gang every boss has another boss, the purely eternal rising on high right up through the Captain and even beyond until it ultimately reaches the Great White Father himself, who reigns supreme in Tallahassee” (188).  So it comes as no surprise that the fury over Luke’s escapes manifests itself in the eyes of the Walking Boss, which become “two balls of blinding celestial fire” (254).

Luke cannot escape, and neither can anyone else.  After Luke’s death, the  Building itself puts out “subtle vibrations” in response to the steps of the Floorwalker, who is, like everyone else, “wearing away his Time” (298).  The memory of Luke becomes the only hymn they sing, because he dared to “do it the hard way and make history by escaping from the Building itself” (197).  But as Luke tells them all, to escape the Building can only mean death, because “It’s a hard world out there” (259).  He makes clear to them “quite calmly” (and to readers as well) that, in contrast to the convicts’ belief that the Free World is essentially different from theirs,  “there was really no other world but this” (260).

A close contemporary of Cool Hand Luke (though less well-known), Patricia Highsmith’s The Glass Cell (1964) features the unjustly imprisoned Philip Carter, who has been convicted of embezzling company funds.  Highsmith  usually endows her criminals and villains with charm and intelligence–and she often allows them to escape detection–so this is an unusual novel in her body of work.  Carter is self-doubting, mild, and devoted to his unfaithful wife, at least for a while.

Like Cool Hand Luke, The Glass Cell begins in the prison, but Highsmith’s setting is fully integrated racially, and she makes it clear that sexual encounters among inmates are not uncommon.  She also sees her main character, Carter, all the way through his sentence and devotes the second half of the novel to his post-prison life.

Carter could not be more different from Luke, at least initially.  He becomes frustrated when he gets “demerits” because “he did not yet know everything he could and could not do” (14), especially since “there was no list of regulations anywhere that an inmate could read and so avoid committing misdemeanors” (15).  As a result of a minor infraction of the rules, Carter is put into “the Hole” (roughly equivalent to “the Box” in Cool Hand Luke) and strung up by his thumbs.  The torture, as well as the pleasure that the guards seem to derive from inflicting it, causes Carter to view the prison as a madhouse.  The prison doctor’s attitude only reinforces this: “Dr. Cassini had a cheerful, matter-of-fact way of talking about the Hole, and victims of it whom he had treated, that gave Carter an eerie feeling that he was in a madhouse instead of a prison a madhouse in which the caretakers were the madmen, as in the old cliché” (24).

Madness, for Carter, suggests a chaotic state of mind, in contrast to the orderly rules and regulations he seeks.  After his thumbs are ruined beyond repair, he lies in the infirmary wondering “Who was mad? . . . Which ones of them?”  He seems to be referring to the other inmates, but in fact his thoughts move on to the legal system:  “Which jurors and which judges out of the thousands who had sent these six thousand men here?” (26).  As his faith in rules dissolves (even Dr. Cassini tells him, “You try to fight city hall and you go crazy” 27), Carter conflates the law and prison life.  When his wife comes to comfort him about the appeals process (ironically being sought by the man with whom she is having an affair), he becomes complacent: “The law.  Where is it?  What good is it?” (34).  Indeed, the law has abandoned Carter, who was set up by others in his firm to look guilty, when in fact he has only been guilty of a tendency to “carelessness” (46).

What is Carter’s response to this injustice?  He becomes “cool,” like Luke; he has “to have hope, and at the same time not take things too seriously” (60).  And like Luke, he realizes that he must “arrive at a ‘right attitude’ or else” (60).  He learns that the prison system is rigged against him–and against other prisoners–to allow authorities like the doctor to ignore illness and corruption, and so when another inmate dies after neglect, and Carter discovers the body under a sheet, it is “like unveiling a crime” (63).  And “thus the years rolled on” (101) while murders during a riot seem “right and proper” (109) and Carter makes “an effort to see things differently” (110).

One of the significant features of Highsmith’s novel is that Carter is released, having served his full sentence, halfway through the story.  He goes home to his wife and son, and despite the continuing problem of having had his thumbs mangled by prison guards manages to secure a job.  All seems well.  But he discovers then that his suspicions about his wife’s fidelity are true–she has been having an affair with a family friend for years–and that his son considers the lover more of a father than Carter.  He is addicted to morphine and misses Max, the one friend he had inside.  Max is long dead, but he seems “more alive and real than any of the rest of them” (134).

Unsurprisingly, Carter comes to the conclusion that “the whole world is like one big prison, and prisons are just an exaggerated form of it” (143).  The title of the book then comes into focus:  a “glass cell” may have invisible walls, but it’s a cell just the same.  When events lead to Carter committing what actually is a crime, and then another, he does so without remorse.  Even the police, when questioning him, remark, “‘Ain’t he a cool one'” (203).  And he is–so cool, in fact that he has “no pangs of conscience” (214) about anything.  When the police look as though they’re closing in on him, Carter imagines his position as “a difficult spot” which he can escape if he remains “cool.  Very, very cool, just idealess” (222).  He removes his tie so that his shirt is “more like a prison shirt” (246).  Unlike Luke, who cannot stop himself from dreaming of a better life, Carter accepts that the world is a “glass cell.”  Unknowable rules govern everyone, and anyone can come  under surveillance.  This knowledge allows him to survive, even to thrive, and when the police threaten never to stop “watching” him, Carter can say, with what sounds like relatively good humor, “I know” (249).

Ben Greer’s Slammer, first published in 1975 and reissued by LSU Press in 2002, marks a decidedly grim turn in the prison novel.  Unleavened by the wit and intermittent humor of Cool Hand Luke and The Glass Cell, this short book seems hardly aware of the outside world at all, and though the violence of the earlier books was certainly detailed, the despair and brutality in Slammer are unrelenting.

While all of the other novels under consideration here center, at least largely, on one character, Greer provides an ensemble cast of guards and prisoners, all of whom have become so deeply enmeshed in the prison culture that it’s impossible to see a way out.  The story begins with Aaron Walsh, a new guard, entering the prison through “Carter’s gate” which was named “for a guard who had been stabbed to death there some years ago.”   Although the “large sign” hanging above the last set of stairs reads “‘Prison Is a Highway Not a Dead End'” (5), incarceration does in fact become that dead end–literally for some.

The guards, most of whom are impaired by “a shot or two just before they came in” or “uppers and downers” that they take “through the long day” (9), extort money and favors from the prisoners, and Walsh is assured that “‘Cons don’t trust men who aren’t on the take.  Neither do guards'”(49).  The priest, a recovering alcoholic, despises his new assistant, whose “fingers were slim and dark and even the nails perfectly rounded and without flaw” (43).  The prisoners rape and attack each other, seemingly at will, and the race hatred among them has divided them into rival gangs, each bent on controlling the prison.  James Moultrie, a new convict, believes that the “whites had put him here because he tried to help his brothers” by calling his actions “armed robbery” (31); his rival is “the Muslim,” whom Moultrie considers “nothing more than silk and Beethoven, a perfumed cancer that ate up his brothers” (54).  On only one point do Moultrie and “the Muslim” agree:  “‘The whites are our trouble.  They are bright wolves, but they will fade'” (56).

Nothing in Slammer operates as it should.  The prisoners are better-armed than the guards.  While the guards carry unloaded weapons, the prisoners carry “prison-made knives” and Walsh is told that if he ever “feel[s] a shiv on a man” during a search, he should “let him go”:  “Give him a hard one-eye.  Write a report.  When we had clubs, it was different.  We had a chance.  But now–we just write a report” (94).  One inmate, John Darcy, is called “the angel of Death” and carries, along with an alarming body odor from an untreated cancerous growth, an ice pick with which he kills by stabbing people through the ear.  Another prisoner has had two of his sons “commit minor offenses” so that they can join him in making whiskey and selling it inside.  It’s “like the service,” he says (157).  The two priests, who might have acted as moral centers for the prison community, end up in a boxing ring, bloodying each other.  Someone shouts, “‘Good God!’ (123) when the battered clergymen are discovered, but no benevolent deity is evident in this novel.

In such a place, where race hatred and personal gang warfare dominate, mass violence is predictable–and when Moultrie has “the Muslim” murdered and then incites a riot–it becomes inevitable.  And even that is bungled.  A guard is accidentally killed, and his colleagues, armed by the Governor when the prisoners will not lay down their own weapons,  accidentally shoot one of the priests.  Several hostages are murdered.  The guard, whose appearance at the prison opens the novel, can’t take the shot to kill Moultrie, and it costs two more hostages their lives.

Nothing is really resolved, and nothing really changes.  Slammer ends as bleakly as it begins, and its lack of humor, of dreams, and of respite from violence set it apart from the other novels here in many ways.  Most of the references to an outside world mark a sharp difference between freedom and imprisonment.  And yet that difference is blurred by the larger arcs of the various intertwined stories.  “Rose,” one of the retired “whores,” tells a young inmate who is turning tricks to stay alive, “‘Here you cannot choose.  Outside you dare not'” (198).  The older priest considers his appointment to the prison “a life sentence” (137) and equates offerings with robbery: “‘I make a heist every Sunday in broad daylight'” (139).  And when the guard fails to kill the riot leader, he agrees with his colleague’s assessment about his future:  “‘On the roof, you got into debt.  Where else can you go” (254).  Everyone, the novel suggests, is one error away from punishable guilt.

Joseph Bathanti’s Coventry, published in 1975, moves the focus of the prison novel to the guards and so provides a balance to the majority of prison novels, which focus largely on prisoners.  The main character, Calvin Gaddy, has followed his father’s lead in working for the prison system, and the entire novel makes the separation between guard and prisoner murky and tangled.  This book strives very hard–a little too hard sometimes–for the poetic in its imagery and language, and its primary register is spiritual (often biblical).  Cal’s father, Mac, is haunted by the ghosts of the men he has guarded and becomes increasingly maddened by their presence.  Cal himself is haunted by the seemingly mystical knowledge that the baby his wife Rachel is carrying is male (despite ultrasounds which have indicated that it is female) and will continue the Gaddy legacy of prison work.  Grisly scenes are suddenly revealed to be nightmares; prisoners bewitch guards; the guards deal in illegal drugs with the prisoners; Cal himself becomes enmeshed in buying and using both drugs and alcohol on the job.  Incarcerated men may be saints, and the prison officials may be devils.  This is a nasty world, deeply rooted in the Civil War, and though the point of view is primarily Cal’s, the characters are all prisoners in the closed system of Coventry.

Mac has been a hard task-master in his time, and he repeatedly reminds Cal that the difference between a guard and an inmate is stark.  He is relentless in his pursuit of escapees and will stop at nothing to recapture one:  “MacGregor Gaddy would throw rocks.  He hit a convict with a dog once, beat another with a live black snake.  He’d run him down with the truck, throw himself on him from the speeding vehicle.  Pound him with his fists, with a coffee pot, never saying a word.  Few of them tested him, but came on out, solemn as church, and surrendered at the sight of him” (12).  He tells Cal that the separation of right and wrong is unassailable: “you are right because you carry the keys, and he is wrong because he wears the stripes. You go messing with the order of that in jail and you might as well peel off your britches and bend over” (240).

 Cal accepts the truth of what his father tells him, at least consciously.  He has, after all, become a guard as his father was, and eventually makes sergeant.  He, however, is “not the same sort as his father.  He did not really believe in prison, nor own the proper temperament” (12).  Cal, like Cool Hand Luke and Philip Carter, needs to get his mind right, but he can’t–and the justice system, including his own father, seems to be telling him that he doesn’t need to, because he’s a guard.

This novel, however, suggests that the wisdom of the system simply isn’t true.  Guards are like convicts, and the convicts include both the saintly Frank and the demonic Pitch.  Cal, high as he often is on marijuana, feels among the prisoners “a familiarity which was both comforting and disorienting” and finds himself “lost . . .among them” (17).  When he goes home, he must pass his father’s house, which is falling apart but illuminated by “spotlights” (32), like the prison itself.  The prisoners watch prison shows on TV, and old Mac Gaddy still wears “a brown state conflict shirt” (36).  Cal soon begins to “identify” his unborn child with an executed convict (111), and when another guard insists that the drugs are being sold by “one of them” (113), Cal immediately thinks, “One of us” (114).

Much of the world of Coventry may seem implausibly mystical–conjurings; dreams that leave physical injuries on the dreamers; ghostly apparitions on walls after a prison fire; the many memories of Cal’s lunatic mother, struck dead by lightning on her own threshold; the sudden personification of the prison cook shack–but the blending of good and evil, of prison and “free world,” are perfectly believable.  Cal knows that he has “made the crossover” to criminal, but he also realizes that this “stepping over” has made him stronger as a new sergeant (133).  It also makes him more responsible when the cook shack burns and kills a number of inmates, as well as one of the guards.

Cal is at home, asleep, when the fire starts, but as a senior officer he must shoulder much of the burden of explanation.  This proves easy enough to do, when his father tells him to “will” himself into the right.  Cal “turn[s] this over a time or two in his head” and finds that he can do it–will himself into believing that preserving himself at whatever cost is “right.”  He decides that he will “live with it” if he must lie: “He would live with it until it became his truth, and then it would no longer be a lie.  Like the prison itself” (240).  He can become brutal and violent, tearing the beard from a man’s face, and his victim sees that he has been “out convicted by a free man” (246).

But Cal is not free, nor is anyone else in this novel.  At the end, the novel seems to accept, even to embrace, its premise that the world is a prison.  The baby is a boy, as Cal somehow knew, and is named Eli, after Cal’s dead mother Elizabeth.  The infant, somehow infected with the ghostly world of the prison, has a preternatural ability to understand the adults around him.  He can see his dead grandmother; he can see the dead convicts.  He even plays with one of them, and their games make “the tiny boy laugh and laugh” (260-261).  He embodies the likeness of prison and free world, and he is “not afraid,” because his grandfather has built “a wall . . .to protect him” (261).

 `The world of prison life continues to intrigue readers and viewers.  Television shows like Orange Is the New Black and Women in Prison now focus on female prisoners, both fictional and real, and the endless number of reality shows about law enforcement officers indicates that the appetite for seeing what happens to offenders has not slackened.  TV tends, however, either to glamorize or to downplay the grim details of prison life.  In these novels, there are no superheroes, or even sympathetic parole boards or guards, to mitigate the dehumanizing grind of incarceration.  But what is more striking in them all is the suggestion that we are all, at best, one misstep or mistake, one unrealizable ideal or one moment of madness, away from a cell.  In fact, we may all be in cells that we cannot–or will not–see.


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