Each episode of the new podcast Written Inside from Chicago public radio station WBEZ begins with the same striking introduction: "The US incarcerates over 2 million people, more than anywhere else in the world," a host says. "What does it mean to be locked up, confined to a small space for ten or 20 or 30 years? How does one get by?"
To answer that question, Written Inside takes listeners inside a maximum-security state prison 35 miles outside of the city and presents personal essays read by actors and written by inmates serving lengthy sentences. In the first episode, Demetrius Cunningham describes teaching himself to play piano on a homemade cardboard keyboard, practicing so often that he developed callouses on his fingers. In the second, Oscar Parham explains the motive behind his relentless battle with the cockroaches in his cell: the decades-old memory of an inmate nicknamed "Fester" who had roaches crawling through his hair and beard. "It was... in that moment that I went to war with everything that Fester represented," Parham writes. "The loss of vigilance against the elements of prison that subtly ask you to surrender your dignity. So, when I entered that cell [with the roach infestation], I said to myself, I'm not gonna let this beat me."
The podcast began when the journalist and author Alex Kotlowitz, a writer-in-residence at Northwestern University, was invited by his colleague and philosophy professor Jennifer Lackey to visit a class she was teaching at the prison. During Kotlowitz's three-hour visit, he asked his 15 students to complete an in-class writing assignment about their prison cells. He was so amazed by the results that he offered to work with them over the coming months to sharpen and polish the pieces. After he told some friends in the publishing world, five of the essays were published in December on the New Yorker's website, and the podcast—which adds immersive sound design, like the of chill-inducing sounds of the skittering of cockroach legs—will release a total of eight through mid-April.
I recently spoke with Kotlowitz about what the show reveals about life both in and out of the prison's confines.
VICE: In the episodes I've heard, the listeners don't really get any detail about the actual crimes the author has committed. Why make that decision?
Alex Kotlowitz: I knew they were all there for violent crimes—many of them, if not all of them for as far as I know, for murder. This was not meant to be an exercise that somehow would excuse them for or try to explain what they did. It has everything to do with their time in prison. Also, I know well enough from my time writing about poor communities where many people end up in these places [that] when you're in prison, you don't talk about your crime. It's this moment that has defined you, so you spend much of your time trying to move away from that as best you can. So I wasn't interested in what they had done. In one case, I learned what the crime was. But in the others, I don't know what got them there.
Do you consider this a political show? Does it take a stance on mass incarceration?
I feel like any piece of art is political. I can't speak for the guys in prison. [But] if you're asking me, I feel like we've really kind of gone amiss in this country, given the number of people who we send to prison—not only the number of people we send to prison but the number of people we send to prison for very, very long sentences. I think there are any number of arguments you can make about why that's misguided. But if that's our policy—how we think we ought to deal with punishment in this country—then we really owe it to ourselves to fully understand what it means to do that to individuals. And a disproportionate number of those [individuals] are people of color, so it's easy for much of the country to feel disconnected from those who are spending all this time behind bars.
It seems as though for that system of mass incarceration to keep chugging along with nothing changing, it requires everyone else to not really pay attention.
It requires us to put our heads in the sand. If that were my brother or my sister, locked up for ten or 15 years, I think I would come to know in a very visceral way the kind of pain and distress that is involved in that—not only for the people who are locked up but for the family and friends. But there's almost a glibness about the way we send people away to prison.
What have you learned from this process?
I just struck by the ingenuity and inventiveness in a place like prison. Demetrius's essay about learning to play the piano—this is a story of a guy who's got access to a piano for maybe an hour a week in the church choir, and he wants to teach himself to play, so he builds himself a cardboard piano and actually becomes a fairly talented pianist as a result. What imagination!
What do you think it says about us as a country that we lock up more people than anywhere else? Do we have more criminal actors per capita than other countries? Or is something else going on?
You can't look at the mass incarceration that has taken place in this country over the past 20 or 25 years and not think or talk about race. Because such a disproportionate number of people locked up for long periods of time are people of color, there's a real inequity there, and you see it in sentencing laws—the most obvious being the difference that existed for so long in the sentencing between crack and powdered cocaine.
In the end, I think we're kinda confused as a country. On the one hand, we think of ourselves as this very generous, forgiving place. But we send people for such long periods of time—and I'm not sure whether we're doing that because we feel that's the appropriate punishment, or whether we feel like this is what it's going to take to rehabilitate someone, although of course there's very little energy put into that. Or are we doing this because this is somehow going to make our communities safer? You can argue that [is the case] with some people.
But for me, it comes down to the question, "What feels right?" Now, again, I want to be clear: The guys who wrote these essays have committed violent crimes and are serving enormously long sentences. [But] they all struck me as dignified, graceful, generous individuals. I suspect if I'd heard what they'd done, it would be hard to reconcile with who I met and what had happened. So the question [when you're] talking about violent offenders is, "What's long enough?" At what point do you ask yourself, "Is this person ready and capable of living in the outside world again?" [In the podcast] there's this beautiful essay by William Jones. It's probably the most literary of all the pieces. He writes about everything that's not in his cell. And [in] the last line[s]... he talks about how [he's] not that person who came here 35 years ago.
[Editor's note: The exact ending of the piece reads, "My cell is without a criminal. I'm now 61. The young ruffian who came into this cell ready to take on the world died a long time ago."]
I'm envisioning folks on the conservative end of the spectrum saying, "Why have a podcast about criminals? Why not have a podcast focus on victims of violent crimes or their families?" What do you say to that?
I write about people who are trying to stay erect in this world that's slumping around them—people who, for reasons of race or class or gender or ethnicity, are living somehow along the margins of America. In this moment, I've taken these stories and presented them in the voices of these individuals—but I'm working on a book now about the violence of Chicago that will also talk about some of the victims of crime. It's all important.
Is there anything in particular you want folks to take away from this podcast?
For me, the power of story is that it allows you for a moment to stand in somebody else's shoes. And that's what these stories do, I think. For this brief moment, they allow readers and listeners to step inside the shoes of these inmates who talk about life in their prison cell. It's as simple and as complicated as that, I suppose.
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New episodes of Written Inside will be released biweekly until mid-April.