Prison Reading and the Life of Eldridge Cleaver

face of a prisoner

In a scholarly article entitled “Reading in Prison: Structures and Strictures,” a leading scholar of prison libraries and of publications by prisoners explained:

The very act of entering a prison is a critical cultural change at its most basic level. The convict’s first thought, as he sees and hears the gates close around him, is of escape. Reading is one primary strategy for escape and survival when the gates slam shut.^

Public texts help to construct the conventional starkness of imprisonment:

The prisoner’s strategy is to justify his behavior and to survive his confinement by any means necessary. His primary goal is to escape from the control of his keepers. Lacking the means to effect physical escape, he finds a release from and adaptation to the carceral world through literature. No middle ground exists. The keepers use literature to control, the kept to resist.^

This literary effect can be perceived in a brochure that the San Quentin State Prison Library produced in 1963 to celebrate National Library Week. The highly professional prison librarian at San Quentin State Prison apparently asked prisoners to write essays about “what the prison library means to me.”^ An introductory essay by the prison librarian, followed by thirty-one of these essays by prisoners, made up the prison’s National Library Week brochure. Introducing the essays, the prison librarian wrote: “these essays may yet be the deepest and truest responses of the inmates’ attempt at describing their efforts to obtain a deeper awareness of the realities of living.”^ An abridged version of the brochure was printed in the journal California Librarian under the title “…Nor Iron Bars a Cage.”

The prisoners’ essays show considerable appreciation for the realities of writing and reading. One prisoner began his essay thus:

To the imprisoned, books are an extension reaching beyond the walls; an extension which can, quite possibly, save a long-termer from that final de-humanization – the accumulative effect of living for many years in a uniform, officially sexless society. Between the covers of a novel, a man can commune vicariously (but almost tangibly) with the other half of humanity.^

The contrast between “that final de-humanization” and communing vicariously (“but almost tangibly”) between the covers with the opposite sex demonstrates literary control over desire and anxiety about desire. Literary skill — diction and abstraction above that of ordinary communication — help make that writing work. Another prisoner, L. Eldridge Cleaver, also showed high literary skill:

We do not want to suggest that one can read one’s way out of prison, although the point, doubtless, could be argued. But it is largely in books that mankind’s heritage is preserved and transmitted from generation to generation, and a man adequately equipped with this legacy should be equal to the tasks of his age or else civilization is a lie, and hope a delusion.^

Eldridge Cleaver explained, “information is the raw material out of which new ideas are formed.” Yet he also wrote of an “awakening to ourselves” that seems to be related not to particular information transmitted in books, but to a general orientation to the world and to other persons:

if, awakening to ourselves, we can grasp the truth of the universality of humanity and learn to value no man less nor more than another, we will cease to sell or allow ourselves to be sold short, having grown so large that a painted corner, a prison cell, can’t contain us.^

Cleaver’s famous phrase “a prison cell can’t contain us” draws on the ideas of Walt Whitman’s influential work, Leaves of Grass (1855). He and other prisoners showed considerable literary skill in fulfilling a writing assignment that the prison librarian gave them.^

view through text

Immersion in reading and writing affects communication. Thirty-six years after writing about awakening to ourselves for the San Quentin State Prison’s National Library Week brochure, Eldridge Cleaver described a scene of awaking in a much more concrete, conversational style:

I had to change my life. It was heavy, because I was a fugitive. My wife was not a fugitive, my children were not fugitives, but because of me they were locked outside of our country. I began to think I should just check on out. Maybe I’d just blow myself away, and then they could be free to come back home. We had a house in Paris, and I also had an apartment down south on the Mediterranean, a place that my publisher had gotten for me to write. I thought I’d just go down there and blow myself away. I felt so sad, thinking my whole life had come to an end.

I remember that night sitting out on the balcony with my pistol, just waiting for the right feeling to come over me.^

Then, in a less confident voice Eldridge Cleaver spoke again of a stylistically uncanny vision he had written out in a text twenty years earlier:

It was a beautiful Mediterranean night – sky, stars, moon hanging there in a sable void. I was brooding, downcast, at the end of my rope. I looked up at the moon and saw certain shadows … and the shadows became a man in the moon, and I saw a profile of myself (a profile that we had used on posters for the Black Panther Party – something I had seen a thousand times). I was already upset and this scared me. When I saw that image, I started trembling. It was a shaking that came from deep inside, and it had a threat about it that this mood was getting worse, that I could possibly disintegrate on the scene and fall apart. As I stared at this image, it changed, and I saw my former heroes paraded before my eyes. Here were Fidel Castro, Mao Tse-tung, Karl Marx, Frederick Engels, passing in review – each one appearing for a moment of time, then dropping out of sight, like fallen heroes. Finally at the end of the procession, in dazzling, shimmering light, the image of Jesus Christ appeared. That was the last straw.

Sky, stars, man in the moon, a procession of textually and practically influential revolutionary figures, the last straw – this is a difficult text. The relationship to a text then becomes a central focus of the account:

I just crumbled and started crying. I fell to my knees, grabbing hold of the banister; and in the midst of this shaking and crying the Lord’s Prayer and the 23rd Psalm came into my mind. I hadn’t thought about these prayers for years. I started repeating them, and after a time I gained some control over the trembling and crying. Then I jumped up and ran to my bookshelf and got the Bible. It was the family Bible my mother had given to me because I am the oldest boy – the oldest son.

He then links that material text to a more recent memory:

And this Bible… when Kathleen left the United States, she brought with her a very small bag, and instead of grabbing the Communist Manifesto or Das Kapital, she packed that Bible. That is the Bible that I grabbed from the shelf that night and in which I turned to the 23rd Psalm.

Then he describes difficulties with the text:

I discovered that my memory really had not served me that well. I got lost somewhere between the Valley of the Shadow of Death and the overflowing cup. But it was the Bible in which I searched and found that psalm. I read through it. At the time I didn’t even know where to find the Lord’s Prayer. I looked for it desperately. Pretty soon the type started swimming before my eyes, and I lay down on the bed and went to sleep.^

While this personal transformation presents many interpretative difficulties, one point is clear: public texts saturated Eldridge Cleaver’s communication. Cleaver’s biography has similarities with that of the great nineteenth-century prison reformer and spiritualist John W. Edmonds. Both experienced harsh public criticism. A book reviewer in the Los Angeles Times described Cleaver’s conversion account as presenting:

a scene so palpably false it defies criticism. And what of Kathleen, his beautiful wife, once as fiery a radical as her husband? Did she too experience a spiritual rebirth? We never find out. There are so many things about Cleaver we never find out it is impossible to believe he has really found the peace he claims.^

Kathleen Cleaver subsequently answered some of the questions about her and Eldridge Cleaver’s relationship:

his public role as a famous “born again Christian” put tremendous strains on our marriage. We grew distant from each other, no longer sharing the same aspirations and beliefs. By the time he ultimately pled guilty to weapons possession and was sentenced in Oakland in 1980, our relationship had fallen apart. During the later summer of 1981, we separated. I took our two children then twelve and eleven with me when I moved to Connecticut, where I went back to college {Yale University}, and then entered Yale Law School. In 1987 we divorced.^

Kathleen Cleaver then worked for the law firm of Cravath, Swaine and Moore and for Yale University. By the 1990s, Eldridge Cleaver was poor, unemployed, and in bad health. Kathleen Cleaver observed in 1997:

Eldridge looked far older than his sixty-one years – his hair had turned white, his shoulders seemed stooped, and his mismatched, poorly fitting suit looked like one salvaged by Goodwill. … Eldridge walked up to me. Still a tall, imposing presence, I looked up as we greeted each other. Suddenly, as if he’d been holding his breath, he blurted out, “Kathleen, I love you!” His words evoked such intensely conflicting emotions, I didn’t know what to say. I scurried away, mumbling something about getting back into the courtroom; seeing how he had deteriorated distressed me.^

Eldridge Cleaver’s conversion narrative has similar literary form and substance to other written conversion narratives throughout history.^ Cleaver’s conversion narrative differs greatly from Cleaver’s personal words to his ex-wife, “Kathleen, I love you!” The public importance of personal communication like those words has not been adequately recognized.

Historical Policy Bias Favoring Newspaper over Personal Letters

face of a prisoner

Early U.S. communications policy heavily subsidized newspapers relative to personal letters. From 1792 to 1845, a four-sheet newspaper letter sent thirty miles cost only about 4% as much in postage as a four-sheet personal letter sent that distance. For distances over 500 miles, a personal letter cost sixty-seven times as much in postage as a newspaper did. Early nineteenth-century U.S. postal rates made the cost of sending a personal letter about equal to one day’s wage for a male laborer.^ The high cost of postage for letters biased letter-writing toward wealthy persons and business purposes.

The relatively low cost of newspaper postage allowed big-city newspapers to be distributed to far-away rural readers. In 1832, at least 750,000 newspaper copies published in Boston were mailed more than 100 miles away. In 1838, five major cities were the source of about half the newspapers posted. Small-town newspapers bitterly complained about the influx of big-city newspapers. Small-town newspapers fought for higher news postal rates that would improve the position of local newspapers.^

Public figures forcefully expressed the importance of newspapers to the public. Samuel Adams helped to organize the Boston Tea Party, helped to draft the Massachusetts Constitution, and participated in the writing of the Articles of Confederation. Writing to him in 1776, a leading New York newspaper publisher declared:

As a mere Conveniency, the Carriage of News papers is of Importance to more than twenty Times as Many persons as the Carriage of Letters is, and there are very few persons but who are much more solicitous to receive their News papers, than Letters, by the Post. But the great Use of News papers is that they form the best opportunities of Intelligence, that could be devised, of every publick Matter that concerns us, besides communicating many Useful Discoveries in Arts and Manufactories & many moral & religious Truths &c. It was by the means of News papers, that we receiv’d & spread the Notice of the tyrannical Designs formed against America, and Kindled a Sprit that has been sufficient to repel them. But I need not to enumerate the advantages & Importance of a general Circulation of Newspapers, which I think are greater than all of the Letters carried by the Post.^

Benjamin Rush, another leading public figure in the founding of the U.S., proclaimed in an “Address to the People of the United States”:

To conform the principles, morals, and manners of our citizens to our republican forms of government, it is absolutely necessary that knowledge of every kind, should be disseminated through every part of the united states. … For the purpose of diffusing knowledge, as well as extending the living principle of government to every part of the United States – every state – city – county – village – and township in the union, should be tied together by means of the post-office. This is the true non-electric wire of government. It is the only means of conveying heat and light to every individual in the federal commonwealth. … It should be a constant injunction to the postmasters, to convey newspapers free of all charge for postage.^

A bias in favor of public works relative to personal communication is deeply embedded in the historical development of U.S. democracy.

The bias in favor of public works is strongest with respect to prisoners. Benjamin Rush, the U.S. founding father who advocated conveying newspapers “free of all charge for postage,” also advocated constructing penitentiaries. His idea was to replace public punishments, particularly public executions and public penal labor, with private punishments directed toward moral reformation. Solitude and silence Rush described as conducive to moral reformation. With novelistic imagination, Rush wrote:

Methinks I already hear the inhabitants of our villages and townships counting the years that shall complete the reformation of one of their citizens. I behold them running to meet him on the day of his deliverance. His friends and family bathe his cheeks with tears of joy; and the universal shout of the neighbourhood is, “this our brother was lost, and is found – was dead and is alive.” ^ ^

A scholar described Rush’s proposal thus:

Rush proposed placing narrative over sight as the source of penal terror. Separating the public from punishment done in its name, Rush opened up the space for new forms of imaginary identifications. Despite his distrust of novel reading, Rush presumed the very structures of imaginary communion that novelists from Samuel Richardson onward had sought to cultivate. Like eighteenth-century authors who hoped to create a new public through reading and discussion of novels, a public joined together through acts of imagination, Rush suggested that stories and imagined suffering would seal together the community.^ ^

Benjamin Rush was a leading citizen in the leading revolutionary-era city of Philadelphia. In 1790, a “penitentiary house” with sixteen cells designed for solitary confinement was built within the Walnut Street Jail in Philadelphia. In 1821, the Pennsylvania legislature approved funding to build a much larger penitentiary in Philadelphia. This penitentiary, known as the Eastern State Penitentiary, became a world famous model for prison reform. The Eastern State Penitentiary was designed and operated to suppress communication, as completely as possible, for years, for hundreds of prisoners. Suppressing prisoners’ communication subsequently dissipated as a practice and as an ideal. But Rush’s prioritization of public works over personal communication has endured in the balance of prisoners’ access to books, music, radio, and television relative to personal communication with their families and friends.

Prisoners’ Relative Deprivation in Personal Communication

face of a prisoner

Prisoners have had relatively poor opportunities to use widely available personal communications technologies. From an early-nineteenth-century ideal of suppressing communication through ad hoc liberalization to the present, prisons have significantly restricted visits, mail, and telephone calls between prisoners and their family and friends. In 2005, more than three decades after the development of email, prisoners could not use the Internet or send email.^ Prisoners were not allowed to use mobile phones. Prisoners could not use text messaging, social networks, or other new communications technology. Prices for telephone calls with prisoners were much higher than prices for telephone calls with non-prisoners. That situation remains largely unchanged.

Prisoners have been much better integrated into the public circulation of informative and narrative texts. Most prisoners in U.S. state prisons had access to library services by 1850. About 1875, prison libraries held more books per prisoner than public libraries held books per person outside prisons. At least some state prisoners had access to a wider range of reading material than was typically available in public libraries of that time. In the late 1920s, most prisons had twice weekly film showings for prisoners. Less than a decade after the first public radio broadcasts, a few prisons were wiring individual prison cells to distribute programs from central radios.^ Television is now widely available both inside and outside prisons. While prisoners currently spend about as much time watching television as do free persons, prisoners spend about seven times as much time reading as do free persons.

Lack of concern for prisoners in democratic society isn’t a consequence of prisoners being marginalized in the circulation of public works. Prisoners aren’t marginalized in the circulation of public works. Prisoners are marginalized in personal communication with their families and friends.