Richard Shelton in Orion Magazine:
FOR FORTY YEARS I have worked at the nexus where language intersects with the lives of prison inmates, and it has proven to be one of the most exciting intersections imaginable. Much of it involves unlearning. Unlearning the language of excuses and the refusal to accept responsibility for one’s acts. Unlearning outmoded and no longer effective literary devices and attitudes. Unlearning, in short, by means of the honest and creative use of language, one’s orientation toward oneself and the world. Then building—building a renewed awareness of the natural world—a kind of wonder, a kind of hope that one is not entirely alone, not entirely lost as long as the swallows come back each spring and can be seen even from the narrow slot called a window in a prison cell.
There seems to be no limit to the evil we are capable of doing to one another. This includes both the assailant waiting for his victim and the state treating an inmate with deprivation so severe it amounts to torture, including the ultimate version of it—sensory deprivation. Early American prisons were designed so that an inmate would have no contact with anyone else, not even his keeper. Each man (and there were no prison facilities for women then) was given work to do in a totally private cell, a cell designed in such a way that he could neither see nor hear any other humans. He could not, as well, have any contact with the natural world. He was deprived of rain, snow, birds, plants, sunsets, animals, insects—everything. The shadow of this early practice hangs over today’s prisons like a cloud, producing policies by prison administrators who are often completely unaware of the history of those policies.