U.S. Intellectual History Blog

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.

For many women incarcerated with West, prison involves frequent sexual harassment and rape. For women who speak out about it, their only solace is mental health treatment. According to West, this area of the prison is not a reprieve but simply an even stricter area of the prison. West’s essay is personal, so personal in fact, that she humanizes the women in prison and their experiences within. Her own personal account, and suggestions for change, could not be garnered in the same way by people without direct experience with the carceral state. In a relatively short narrative at 16 pages, West engages with important ideas about mental health, rape and sexual assault, trauma, and inferior healthcare within women’s prison.

While the majority of West’s writing is narrative, the conclusion of her piece is a reflection on her renewed determination to leave prison. West wrote “”We’ll get out of the system one day, Chas. We’ll do it together. They can’t keep us in here forever, Amiga.” Panic clutched my heart. Thoughts of my own desperation and mortality ricocheted through my skull. Rosa was half-right. She had found her way out of the system but she’d left me behind.”

Fitting Chastity West’s story into intellectual history, into a canon of prison writing, is something that I have been thinking a lot about. It’s much more narratively driven than a lot of prison writing: while West clearly makes important points about the carceral state, she does it with story rather than direct argument. But I think that makes West, as an intellectual, even more important. Rather than discount her work as narrative, we can see her personal reflections and hope for freedom as an important engagement with the problems of the carceral state. Chastity West does not state that the carceral state is unjust, that prisons are exploitative and abusive, that women are at risk for rape and violence and are not taken seriously. But her narrative very effectively demonstrates these points. By focus on storytelling and memoir in intellectual history, the voices of underrepresented groups, are amplified.