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Six months ago, we asked writers from two prison writing programs to send a hand-drawn map of their current living environments and some writing about what they mapped. These maps addressed the relationship between place and personal narrative: What gives a place importance? What pasts or futures does that place contain? Which objects and attributes take on particular meaning? The answers we received acknowledged the tensions between reality and possibility. Each presented a map and then a response that complicated its territory.
Minnesota Prison Writing Workshop
I am fortunate to live in a facility where we have jobs. I am also fortunate to have gotten a job in a area where I have my own "office" space. There is a desk, so the term is not entirely a misnomer. But the space is mostly storage; unused materials, piles of dead equipment, old books, and empty boxes. A weathered history of where the eddy settled and the silt of a one hundred fifty year old prison has gathered.
To the right of the desk, hanging above me on the wall, is a clock. The mechanical components are identical to a kit I used to build a project in freshman wood shop. The body of this clock is something different. Someone cut a three inch section from the trunk of a fallen tree and stained it red. They lacquered it in layers until short stalactites of polyurethane grew from the back of the wood where it lay. The gold-painted numbers had been applied before the casing and were trapped forever beneath the smooth glacial mount of the face. The hands are cheap brass. They have stopped at just a few minutes after twelve.
Painted in photorealistic portraiture, along the bottom of the face, are two clowns. A woman and a man. Maybe taken from a circus poster. She is sitting just above him and to his right. Her hand is on his arm for his attention, as though a picture is about to be taken. Oblivious and adoring his gaze is fixed toward her without turning his head. I wonder if they knew the circus isn’t a thing anymore. I wonder if they know anything anymore. I wonder how long the clock has been around.
I count eighty-five rings from the center of the wood, along the left shoulder of the clown in front. Nobody brought wood in. The tree was born inside the wall. I try and guess from where on the grounds it had been salvaged.
I wonder about the man who made the clock. Did he know these clowns? Could you paint the face of a clock with the painted faces of people in earnest? Who painstakingly reproduces otherwise innocuous clowns un-ironically? They don’t look creepy. They look sad. Tired.
This morning I noticed all of the mechanical clocks in the prison appeared to have lost five minutes, whereas the digital clocks kept their time. I saw a scientist on television answering questions about the multiverse. He suggested the gravity of the matter in an adjacent universe could move between the two and have a visible effect. He called it dark matter. I wondered about our clocks and whether gravity would affect them all the same. Thoughts of my gravity being felt in some other unseen place unsettle me. It makes me wonder at my responsibility. How I am culpable.
I think about the cosmos when I want to remember my place in the universe. I find insignificance comforting. I may not matter to the world beyond my little circle, but the Earth has its own little circle of meaninglessness. The vastness of our cosmic isolation makes my joy feel much more personal. I decide the weight of what matters to me.
I go back to my office and see the time is unchanged. The clowns are an object at rest. Unperturbed by the gravity of others.
William Anderson is the lead singer and songwriter for the Minneapolis band Black & Tan, winner of The Indie Music Channel - Folk Record of the Year (2011) for their song “New Orleans.” He currently lives in a gated creative community in Bayport, MN where he carries the clerical water for The Stillwater Writers Collective.
Allegheny County Jail - Cedric Rudolph
The picture before you is a cell in the Allegheny County Jail. They all look the same. The days are all the same. The outfits are all the same. This small space is the only thing you have to yourself, and even it doesn’t belong to you. Nothing on the doors, windows, or walls unless you want a 48—two days locked in your cell by yourself. Jail inside jail. As if being locked up isn’t bad enough.
I think of the disappointment I must be to my daughter, although she tells me I’m not and she’s not mad. I know she’s hurt and I’m mad at myself. That anger brews inside me all day, but it’s at its worst when I’m in my cell stuck in my thoughts. If I could get out I’d prove to her that I’m not just a fuck up … then I come back. How could I expect her to not be mad? Not thinking of home, family, and friends is the only way to not drive yourself crazy. Thinking hurts too much.
I would like to believe that this small, dull space has no future, although the reality is that this cell will be a home to several other women, who will realize the reason they are here is not the way to live. Yet most of these women will be released and make the same mistakes and decisions. For most, it’s like a revolving door. I have no intentions of returning to the ACJ, but if I do, it will be the same days, the same outfits, and this same small space. Nothing here will ever change.
Allegheny County Jail - Cedric Rudolph
On the female maximum-security pod 4F, Cell 216 is home. Wait, allow me to be more specific. This is a home that I find unfit. But since we’ll be here for a while, let me explain how we give it some style. There are rugs made from towels to keep the dust out and towel “rugs” for our shoes. We make hooks out of soap to hang our towels by twos. We put up calendars and pictures of our loved ones. We have a window with a view of the river and the sun. We wash our uniforms and whites in the sink. We do things you would never think. We’ve made a clothesline by ripping a shirt, and we use pads and tampons to clean up dirt. We made a rack for our dishes out of a bin lid resting on empty bottles. You would be surprised at the ways we’ve remodeled. We also have a towel “curtain” for some privacy. Because whether I like it or not, this is a temporary home for me.
What is the future of this cell? Better yet, what is the future of this jail? Years from now it may be gone, nothing left but a huge parking lot. Maybe one filled with shopping carts. Maybe they’ll turn this place into a museum, where people will walk through and say things like “That ‘room’ was your great-uncle Cam’s.” Maybe this will still be the same jail with better and upgraded cells. But only time will tell the future of the Allegheny County Jail.
Christian Clark is 22 years old, and she has been writing since she was young. She loves to read all different genres. She plans on writing a book before her life is over.
Allegheny County Jail - Cedric Rudolph
First let me say that it look a long time to finally move into the cell I really wanted (212). I tried literally everything. Bribing, being forceful, even sweet-talking the guards. Finally, I moved and here I am. I don’t really have any memories yet, but I will be here four more months, at the least, so I’m sure I will acquire quite a few by then.
I’ve been trying to make my stay here as comfortable as possible by making my cell as comfortable as possible. I have a rug, tablecloth for my desk/kitchen table, curtain, and magazines. It’s not much, but the little things make it mine. There’s various writing on my walls, leftover from past tenants. In the square outline on the wall where the cages used to be, is a fish tank literally drawn onto the wall. It’s something different. No one else has a fish tank in their room. There’s sharks, starfish, clown fish, crabs, piranhas, jellyfish, even Spongebob.
Even though there are better places I’d rather be, 212 is it for me at the moment, so I’m going to continue to make the best of it.
Kennedy A. Gisege
Minnesota Prison Writing Workshop
My cell is my country. I’m the leader of it and the only citizen. The stuff contained in it is mine without dispute. But like any country, not all resources within my cell are of equal importance. Those I care about are here and few.
When my mind spends the day doing things like a badminton racket and its shuttlecock, and my soul becomes distressed, I like to go back to my cell, loll in bed, and cover up completely with thin blankets. They make the world silent and erase the pock, smash, pock, smash sounds of life. Under them, the drama of the evening, dawn, and twilight are wiped out. Under them, my mind breaks loose and roams realms strange and familiar. Happier times are my favorite destination, althought sometimes I stumble into places I’ve never been in real life.
When it closes behind me, I become jumpy like a horse that has just met a snake. Its closure rattles my heart, and my teeth start to make a clic clac clic clac sounds. The cell begins to become a small and small room. And my body tightens like the time it held two broken ribs and lost blood. It’s inside the door, I emit a string of mindless obscenities of the fuck—then double fuck then more fucks like gunfire. Just to feel alive.
It smells of piss all the time, even when I’m not taking a leak. It is the graveyard of bedbugs and the tiny bible in which god hid, and refused to come out off when I called. For a previous occupant it was the graveyard of slithering things like lizards and snakes. When I sit on it, in solitude, fate becomes wise. That I made a mistake and that things are really bad, that my family mourns me as lost or dead. And then they speak nothing, abandoning themselves to melancholy thoughts. On the toilet I learn the cell has been decaying for over a century, and the rotting walls and stairs lead nowhere.
I'm the occupant now, but I know it has previously been slept in by men with afros, ponytails and cornrows and Rasta dreads. Their full lips, broad and thin faces mark their skin color black or white or yellow. How they must have occupied it with ease, seduction and playfulness, their bodies comfotable in it as in their own skins. From the bed I gaze at my dingy belongings on the shelf and through the cell bars of a day about to be discarded.
I slap the wall when I’m happy. Then punch and kick it when things go wrong. This makes the guy on the other side pound his in brotherhood or to confirm he’s still there or until it brings madness. I utter murmurs of love and sometimes an elegy to a family photo hanging on it, with its drab paint looking like a mourning sheet spread around the cell. The foot powder and other disinfectants hanging on it remind me that evil is always around, while their smell aggrieves me all night and makes me seethe with rage.
Through the window I learn when thunder peals outside, when the light blinks like the eyes of a ghost. I see the trees bend in the wind pointing to a nadir of sadness. How silently the darkness appears, when the heavy rains stop, just how the serene night welcomes the stars and a moon going past. The window tells me to forget freedom and time wasted like the stones of Robben Island did for Madiba at one time.
I masturbate into the sink, like countless men before me. I think it is impotent like the other men must have thought too. Like a ringing bell it reminds me of the children I’ll never have and the children the other men must have wanted. It gave me the waters I presented God to baptize my grandkids. The libation I offer my ancestors daily. During lockdowns it becomes my bathtub, the place I wash my socks and dirty underwear. In winter I keep the hot water run to warm the room. When the water is brown, it reminds me of home and the sprawling hillsides and the black clouds that shielded me from sadness and the sky that was a sterile blue most of the time.
The Hot Pot
It’s small, broad, and rounded like the royal buttock of a fat king. I steam small portions of bitter vegetables which are good for repairing my body after a bad diet. Sometimes I pour rice over it, and then add a can of mushroom soup that I mash into a spongy froth. On bad days I use it to boil water for my swollen feet and painful ankles.
Most men use the mirror to answer the questions like am I really, really beautiful? For me it’s the place, I lose the mask I put on for other men: the crooked eye, the flared nostrils, and bared babycorn teeth that tells everyone I eat raw meat like a bush animal. I use the mirror to plait the cornrow hair that tells everyone, I know the devil and we share the meat. It’s in the mirror I see my meaty arm muscles that have made many inmates to scurry away or slink off, to wait for a better day.
I tell it I slept with many women, how one of them gave me a few whacks to let me know she was serious. How I ran with her in hot pursuit. How I got caught in the shrubbery and wailed. How she laughed and told everyone the bush had snared her man. How she told me that life is a journey that some are allowed, and some are not at all. How she supervised my way out of the bush.
Kennedy Gisege is the author of The Liturgy of Smell, a poetry chapbook published by Red Bird Chapbooks and the eBooks, Fingers, Lies and Omens, under the pen name Ken Amen. He is a winner of a poetry Broadside and is currently working on a prose collection.
Allegheny County Jail - Bennett
The only thing that I can tell you about this is that this is the worst feeling ever. Seeing everything in front of you with nobody to love you. Knowing that anytime you might walk out the door that keeps you locked in your room, you might not return for a couple of days. That one door can do so much for you. I’m telling you, if you’re coming to jail for the first time, that seeing what I see will kill you on the inside. Your sense of hope will be crushed. The respect you have for others might die a little. But while you’re here in this jail remember that your thoughts are your worst enemy and best friend. But this is what life is like in a cell every day.
I look into the mirror this morning and wondered why the toilet is so close to the table. I wonder why I have to eat there whenever I’m locked in. My mom told me, ”Never shit where you eat.” So now I do wonder, did I shit where I ate? Is that why I’m here? I fucked up? I come to my senses and wash my face, use a towel to wipe, and think, Wow I use a towel for a lot. A welcome mat, a placement for shoes, a blocker for under the door so dust doesn’t fly in, cleaning my floor, and of course drying my body after I shower.
I hate this place, but for now it’s mine. I keep my room very clean and basic so if the correctional officers try to do some funny shit, my room can’t be destroyed. I have a cellie, but we can barely chill unless I sit on the bunk and he sits on the stool by the table, because we have one stool at the table. That is, unless his ass hurts from sitting on steel too long, than we switch.
I’ve been here for a while and a couple of times. Don’t judge me I’m a nice guy. When you’re in a room like this you think of the craziest stuff ever:
What’s my lover doing?
How are my kids?
I need to make a phone call.
I need some commissary.
I miss (whoever).
It literally will lead you to a path of reminiscing on memories, trying to think of ways you could’ve prevented anything or at least being in here, in jail. In reality it’s already over. Just accept it, change yourself, learn something about yourself, and become a better version of yourself.
I would love to mention that I have an alien in my room on the wall giving me the finger, saying “it’s over.” Yes, he speaks. He’s really a reminder for me to say “fuck it,” and all will be better. I think he’s a hater. Ignore him. He’ll be here forever.
Yes, I’m used to this, but hopefully I never come back to this place, because this is not where you want to be. I wouldn’t wish this place on the lowest scum on the earth. What I’m saying is true, and if there’s a hell on earth it’s right here, on this bunk. No love, happiness, friends, food, your own clothes, time to go and hang, cigarettes, nothing.
But, looks who’s talking: the guy who’s been here a couple of times and still continues to come back.
Stephen Hill is a 23-year-old who loves Confucius, ’90s R&B, and trying to confuse people with psychology. He is currently in jail but doesn’t let that hold him back from becoming a better writer through writing.
When possible, we included contributor bios. Due to some constraints, we were unable to include all. Please see the Genius Loci map on the issue’s editorial page for contributor locations and photos.
Special thanks to Mike Bennett, Cedric Rudolph, and Sarah Shotland, who helped us coordinate with the Allegheny County Jail and Jennifer Bowen Hicks, founder of the Minnesota Prison Writing Workshop.