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What No One Else Sees: A Portfolio of Incarceration Literature

In five works from our initiative A World Without Cages, writers witness life inside.

Elizabeth Hawes is incarcerated in Minnesota’s only state prison for women, and one of her jobs is to sit in a glass-encased room and take pictures of prisoners and their loved ones. In “The Prison Diary of Elizabeth Hawes,” recently published on The Margins, Hawes becomes an observer of their most intimate moments. “It is here that we talk and laugh and love without touching,” Hawes writes. “After the pictures are taken, I go back to my small glass room by the door and am forgotten. But then I see what no one else sees: the faces as they leave.”

A World Without Cages, our collection of literature on mass incarceration and migrant detention, exists to see what no one else sees. In “Dreaming of Fresh Fish in ICE Custody,” Kevin Chun Hoi Lo, an immigration lawyer, takes the reader inside detention centers. He is surprised to find ugliness and beauty in such close proximity. “One has tiny Japanese bridges that connect landscaped lawns,” he writes. “As we pass the incarcerated gardeners, they stand silently on the other side of a colored line.”

These writers are not the only ones doing the watching: they are also the people being watched. “Security,” a poem by Leigh Sugar, directs its gaze at a correctional officer who oversees the entrance to a prison. Before the speaker of the poem can cross the threshold, she empties her pockets, walks through a metal detector, and tries to make small talk. “I hope I get out on time today,” the officer says, while examining each of the speaker’s possessions. “Arms out like an airplane,” the officer says, while inspecting the speaker herself.

“Canary Robin and the Place Without Cages” by CM Campbell

AAWW’s first comic on mass incarceration, “Canary Robin and the Place Without Cages,” adopts a bird’s eye view of the prison system. It could be mistaken for a children’s book: its protagonist is a canary named Robin, and he gazes out of his cage with a kind of cynical curiosity. Each frame, drawn by CM Campbell, is locked inside an intricate, baby-blue rectangle. But there is a view through the bars. “No matter what cage he was in,” Campbell writes, “he could always see a world where cages didn’t exist.”

Our final poem of 2018, “Autumn in Prison,” marks the deepening of the winter season. Connie Leung, who has been incarcerated since she was 17, writes about the leaves that blow into the prison yard.

these leaves are robust & hearty still
sneaking their way onto a stage
of concrete like renegade
prima donnas at burlesque
they dance and flicker
bare glimpses of saffron & sepia
blow kisses from lips a tint of rouge
i am certain
no man can recreate

In this portfolio, observation is a kind of alchemy. What we see, we have the power to transform.

—Daniel A. Gross, Editor