Prison Diaries

When I met my husband, he had been out of prison nearly 20 years–the federal prison in Springfield, Missouri, where he was sent as a pacifist during the early days of the Vietnam War. Soon after he was freed in 1968, after serving 17 months, he wrote a series of prison sketches for a college class. Writing about being in prison wasn’t unique to Fran. Last night I heard him and two other peacenik ex-cons read their poetry and prose about prison. The occasion was Carol Connolly’s third-Tuesday reading series at Saint Paul’s University Club. “I think about prison every day,” said poet Jim Moore. Dramatist Frank Kroncke would agree. I don’t know about Fran.

Their musings, dramatizations, rants could not have been more different. Fran transformed prison into brief, dramatic sketches of other inmates, mostly African-American bank robbers and murderers. Fran had spent time in Mississippi helping with voter registration; he’d attended the March on Washington when Martin Luther King, Jr., gave his “I have a dream speech.” For Fran, prison became (in part) a school of “blackness.” With Richard B. he was “able to really discuss blackness,” Fran wrote. “I thought…being in prison, in a recognized uniform, unable to escape, degraded, deprived of even the simplest respect, subjugated to another breed of man–the hacks in their uniforms–[was] not unlike being black in a ghetto, and I supposed that my emotional responses–hostility, fear, anger, resentment, inadequacy–paralleled those of men in that more permanent situation.” When Fran mentioned this idea to Richard, a successful “poet, pianist, playwright” before drugs turned him into a “junkie, prisoner, lunatic,” Richard seemed to agree. Yet the more Fran thought about it, the more he realized that there was a deeper, underlying aspect: his “utter inability to describe to anyone outside, the full horrors of prison, the true depths of despair and anguish, I knew that…this was the truest, perhaps the only, parallel to being black.” Richard agreed: “That’s it, Man.”

Jump forward to Liberia’s horrendous disintegration under waves of child-soldiers led by outraged tribal people who had been dispossessed for centuries. Between 1980 and the restoration of a semblance of calm under various international peace-keeping forces, Liberia was one of the bloodiest and craziest war zones in the world. Children as young as 5 were snatched from their tribal parents and given alcohol and guns. Some insurgent groups targeted women, raping, wounding and removing them miles from their families. Often these insurgents trotted around in women’s high heels and frilly wedding dresses, carrying huge purses.

Helene Cooper’s memoir The House on Sugar Beach describes this period from the distance of her own rise as a journalist for the Wall Street Journal. Her father had died in Liberia, her mother had finally given up and come to the U.S. permanently, joining Helene and her younger sister. The descendant of early American ex-slaves who founded the ruling “Congo” class in Liberia was now working in an American nursing home, emptying bedpans, saving money for her daughter’s college education.

After joining American forces entering Iraq, journalist Helene Cooper decided she had to return to Liberia, and search for her adopted sister Eunice. Can any of us in the U.S. (except Southerners after the Civil War, except black ghetto dwellers after race riots in the North, except perhaps black ghetto dwellers at any time) truly grasp what frantic, deadly chaos is really like? No more than Fran could cross over the racial divide, even wearing the prison uniform. But Helene Cooper’s memoir comes close to bringing the reader inside Liberia, decimated by over twenty years of conflict. Interestingly it was Liberian women and their political clout, their refusal to be victims anymore, who fostered resolution of the tribal conflict and the eventual election in 2006 of Ellen Johnson Sirleaf as Liberia’s first woman president.

American women certainly played a role in the American peace movement, but here in the U.S. young men, willing to trade months of their youth to protest the Vietnam war, received the most attention. Did their actions make any difference? Was going to prison worth the loss of hope, activity, belief in a future? In the book I wrote about Fran and the peace movement in general, “Stop This War: Americans Protest the Conflict in Vietnam,” he concludes in the negative. Now I imagine that the choice was made in a flush of youthful passion, a commitment to peace so intense that the young rebel could not imagine any other act. Though I could not take up a gun except in self-defense, though I understand deep down the impossibility of becoming a uniformed agent of death, I also see that for Fran, prison deadened what had been his youth. Though he certainly lived a productive life thereafter, as a librarian, father, friend, he might have served himself better as a conscientious objector doing alternative service in a hospital. There he would not have been branded, incarcerated (that word that calls up incineration), forced into subjugation. He might have been able to feel the changes in himself as he helped heal those in his care.

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