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Review: Prison Writing of Latin America by Joey Whitfield

joey whitfield

Joey is a teacher of mine at MLANG in Cardiff University. This is his first book. It explores prison writing in Latin America and looks at abolitionism of the penal system and draws on some really rather delicate themes that expose the dark brutality of prisons in a developing continent where sometimes human rights can be totally thrown out of the window. There is a schism in the penal code between political prisoners and criminals and Joey looks at how these two groups affect each other’s progress through the system. Often it is the poorest and racially discriminated against that suffer the worst fates in the prison system. Poor, indigenous women victims of Reagan’s War on Drugs when Latin American governments need to satisfy captivity quotas in order to get their dollar funding are the ones which are locked away as they are easy targets for a corrupt police force. The first chapter looks at political writing within the prison system. I was totally blown away by the imprisoned Costa Rican author José León Sánchez. This man was a true victim of the system and was wrongly given a life imprisonment term on the barren prison island colony of San Lucas, condemned to carrying a ball and chain around with him whilst manacled all day. In the face of adversity, Sánchez became literate and his work ‘La isla de los hombres solos’ catapulted him into national and international fame, his original work confounding all the critics. Chapter 2 of Whitfield is very dark and difficult to read. It explores homosexual love in the prison system, from rape through to desperate displays of machisimo. The men turn to each other in a way of confronting the system. This chapter looks mainly at imprisoned Cubans. Chapter 3 is brutal in the way it describes the prison massacres of Senderoso Luminosa captives who fight wars with the Peruvian authorities from behind the door, all in defence of their leftist communist ideologies. Some of the worst prison massacres in history occurred in Peru during the 1980s at the peak of the Senedero resistance guerrilla war with the state. Chapter 4 is about the War on Drugs where the Reagan administration turns its Southern hemisphere politics away from leftist insurgents and criminalises the narcotics industry, creating a new criminal class. Comando Vermelho (Red Command) is Brasil are a drug-trafficking criminal gang that originate in prisons and go on to seize control of the urban favelas in Brasil and based on resitance tactics and influence from political prisoners their command structure do a lot for prisoner rights within South America. There are interesting references to the decadent tourist industry in La Paz where the Bolivian prison system has been opened up by a UK prisoner’s book (Marching Powder) which glamourises the capitalist excesses of the jail there.
I found Whitfield’s book to be neat and compact, well-researched, with clear translations from the author when excerpts of Spanish or Portuguese texts were required. There is a shock element to the book and it is hard to imagine what life is really like for these prisoners. Through literature they have discovered a means of dealing with their suffering and I think that one of the main points that Joey makes is that this prison literature is important if we wish to develop more progressive ideas about how to deal with this marginalised element of society. There is sympathy there but also we see excesses of the banality of evil that lurks in these bins of society and this is often mirrored in real life in the criminal enterprises that originally give birth to the prison.

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