On “Left Behind” by Chasity West (2nd in a series on African American Women’s Prison Writing)

Second in the series on African American’s Women Writing, this post is my own reflection and analysis of “Left Behind” by Chasity West, featured in the American Prison Writing Archive.

 More narratively driven than many of the other pieces featured in the American Prison Writing Archive, West wrote dialogue that personalized and humanized the incarcerated women she wrote about. Themes of mental illness, suicide, rape, and violence are prominent features of West’s narrative, but the relationships between incarcerated women and their support systems in the face of rape and violence by prison guards stood out to me. In this narrative, West tells the story of a woman’s, suicide attempt and eventual death. Not only does West amplify the pain felt by the other women she was incarcerated with, but shows the ways in which prison policy (lockdowns, searches, etc) re traumatize already grieving women. There was no memorial service, no acknowledgement of the death, much less the cause. Only fear that other women would act out and speak up.

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What’s in a book? My Prison Library Copy of Wall Tappings.

I’m writing a paper on rage in African American women’s prison writing this semester (I am very very excited). I had been searching for a copy of Wall Tappings: An International Anthology of Women’s Prison Writings from 200 to the Present, edited by Judith Scheffler, one of the only anthologies of women’s prison writing, ever (which seems ridiculous to me). The volume’s contents are diverse (ranging from Ancient Rome to Apartheid South Africa to Iran) and incredibly useful, in a world in which published women’s prison writing is rare. The library didn’t have a copy, it’s out of print, and I didn’t want to spend 40 dollars on a used book (evidence of the broader lack of scholarship on women’s prison writing, but that’s a rant for another time). I finally found a copy on amazon for 20 and bit the bullet (I love buying books, but I am so firm about spending no more than 15 dollars for them). When I opened the package with the book, I found out that my copy of Wall Tappings had been deaccessioned from the Tennessee Prison for Women’s Library. The Tennessee Prison for Women was opened in 1966 and is a maximum security prison for women in Nashville Tennessee. The Prison also houses death row for female inmates for the state of Tennessee.

The prison has been shrouded in controversy lately, as the top three Warden’s were recently under investigation by the Tennessee Department of Corrections, after medications were not being administered to incarcerated women and essential positions remained vacant. I searched for information on the prison’s library, but I couldn’t find any. That doesn’t mean one doesn’t exist, but after the 1994 crime bill and the elimination of pell grants for the incarcerated, prison libraries and education programs for the incarcerated aren’t as common as they once were.

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