Behind bars: might as well mean left behind, given up on, out of sight-out of mind. In effect, our criminal justice system routinely throws away the key—to helping prisoners rejoin society, support themselves and their families, pursue the constitutional right to happiness. Jail is a waste of human potential, and too often a barbaric injustice.
This week, Ravi Shankar takes us inside the prison walls in a way few writers can. The author of
his newly released memoir Correctional, he reminisces about his ninety days of incarceration, of the men he met, respected, feared, and befriended. The fact that he’s such a compelling thinker and storyteller makes this interview with Suzanne Kamata a must-read.
As I read this book, I thought about mistakes that I had made—or that any one of us might have made—in the past that could have had far-reaching repercussions if I had gotten caught. It seems as if one seemingly minor transgression can mess up your life and haunt you forever, compounding whatever mistakes you might make in the future. Would you agree with me, and do you think this is more true for people of color? Do you have any ideas for how this could be remedied?
Wholeheartedly agreed and that’s not just based on my own experiences, but on the conversations I had with various men at Hartford Correctional Center. One of them, a Haitian American, had been arrested for smoking a joint and because he couldn’t afford the bond, had stayed two months in jail, at which point he had lost his job, failed out of night school, and hadn’t seen his very first child being born! Another could never get a job above minimum wage because of a decade old felony. He was also a person of color as were 95 percent of the men around me.
I attribute some of this to the inborn Puritanical urge towards shaming as a disciplinary mechanism, even though, America is meant to be a guilt-based society. Guilt differentiates between the doer and the deed in some way, so there’s a possibility of redemption, but in the shame of criminality you didn’t do something wrong that you can atone for but are yourself wrong. The logic makes a kind of twisted sense: if you want to continue racist, imperialist practices but want to preach reform and tolerance and assuage your guilty conscience, you can use the vehicle of incarceration and the rhetoric of “public safety” to disrupt generations worth of poor, marginalized families.
I continue to experience this phenomenon firsthand, most recently during the fall of 2020 when I was hired to teach in-person classes at Bryant College in Rhode Island during the pandemic. I had to undergo a background check and was heartened when my misdemeanors didn’t disqualify me from teaching. I had a great semester, received excellent evaluations, and was promised more classes by the chair; then two days before the semester was to begin, much too late to be hired elsewhere, I was told that due to the results of my background check, I would not be allowed to continue my employment. A former tenured full professor being told I could not even work as an adjunct and the greatest irony of all is that this year, for their “Day of Understanding” to promote diversity and inclusion, they are all reading Bryan Stevenson’s Just Mercy! That’s the gulf between deed and action, and what people of color must deal with regularly. In my experience, a person of color must work twice as hard to get to any position of success and they fall ten times as far when they experience any setback.
In the rhetoric of hiring practice there’s a buzz phrase: intentional inclusion. To remedy systematic discrimination, I think we need to actively include those who are different from us, including diverse ethnicities, the aged, the differently abled, the neurodivergent and the gender-nonconforming, but also those who might have had an encounter with the criminal justice system. We live in a country where, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, greater than one in four black men will go to prison during their lifetime. If we are as disgusted by the blatant racism in policing and adjudication as we claim by our re-tweets and likes of FB posts, then we could work much harder to include those who have paid their debt to society and hope to reintegrate and find a community.
I’m guessing that some of the men you encountered were surprised to meet an educated, cultured, Indian American behind bars. Were you surprised by the kinds of people that you met while incarcerated?
Absolutely. None of my expectations of what prison would be liked turned out to be accurate. I wasn’t in a cell block, but in a dorm with sixty other men; I rarely feared for my physical safety, yet I found a strong streak of sadism running through everything from health services to random searches and very little work towards rehabilitation; I realized that I am better at basketball and much worse at chess than I imagined myself to be. I write about some of the men I got to know well, like illiterate Chaos who displayed the widest emotional range of nearly any one I have ever met and who I taught to write his first letters; or Leonard, a disaffected Vietnam War vet plagued by PTSD and substandard healthcare.
I met a grizzled OG [original gangster] whose brother played in the NBA, an Islamic convert who could recite entire surahs from the Quran from memory, a gang banger who claimed to have riven an axe through someone’s back, a Mexican American grandfather who had worked as an accountant and had an addiction problem but didn’t belong in jail. I was blown away by the ingenuity of some of these men, how they could turn a nail into a conductor for a homemade convection oven or an antenna for a broken radio. I saw bravado and hypermasculinity, misogynistic and homophobic speech, casual and persistent references to violence. But I also saw men in tattoos and scars braiding each other’s hair and playing bridge and cooking together on the prison benches. The sense of family, in which I was briefly included, despite my difference, was one of the most surprising aspects of all.
Have you shared this book with any of the individuals you met in the criminal justice system, including men that you were incarcerated with? If so, what were their reactions? Also, I wonder if you are planning to continue in your advocacy for the incarcerated, or perhaps involve yourself with them in some way? Or are you just hoping to move beyond all that?
I tried to keep in touch with the men I met, but none of the letters I ever wrote were ever responded to. Given what I know about prison bureaucracy, it’s hard to say if they were even received at all. A phone number that Leonard gave me for his son was dead when I rang it. Chaos faced a ten-year sentence due to being a persistent offender and would have been moved to a more high-security facility. I won’t stop trying to reach those men, however, because I made a promise to them that I would help share their stories; they harangued me, reminding me that I had a voice and a platform they would never have. Their lives have meaning and their experience with the legal system needs to be acknowledged, and that was the silver lining in this experience, the most traumatic time of my life. I met people I never would have otherwise met and saw a side of America that continues to haunt me today.
I can’t unsee the conditions I saw these men living in and so in response to your question, yes, I am now a lifelong advocate for criminal justice reform. I’ve taught writing workshops at the York Correctional Institute and Harvest Kitchen, a culinary job training program for teenagers involved with the RI Department of Children, Youth, and Families (DCYF). I’ve written an essay about my experience “Nothing Has Made me Feel More American than Going to Jail” for The Marshall Project. And I’ve joined a theatrical company, And Still We Rise, a theater company comprised of actors who have been impacted by the criminal justice system, and I made my debut as an actor in their annual production last year! The work I did at the University of Sydney investigated the racialized roots of mass incarceration and I continue to research in that field, with the hope that I can contribute my voice to the ongoing dialogue about transforming a broken system that is costing us financially, economically, socially, and spiritually.
A certain segment of the American population seems to be very harsh and unforgiving at the moment. What was it like to be in Australia? Is cancel culture prevalent there, too? Were you able to find a kind of refuge?
Australia is refreshing in a lot of ways—there’s sensible gun control, universal health care, everyone is paid a living wage, the welcome to country that prefaces public events at least acknowledges indigenous lives, and their Singapore noodles puts to shame anything I’ve had in America; however, the Aboriginal population are over-policed and underserved in ways that parallels the US’s own racial dynamics. However, as in the words of the immortal Buckaroo Banzai, “no matter where you go, there you are!”, I found that even on the other side of the globe I could not escape the long arm of cancel culture.
Though I only alight upon the subject in the epilogue, a well-established white feminist poet wrote an essay in which she accused half a dozen men of having sexually assaulted her in some way. She named the men by using their first name and last initial, thereby providing cloak of cover to the John F. and Frank P’s, but much to my dismay, casting an enormous spotlight on the Ravi S. whom she claimed kissed her on the mouth instead of the cheek in a crowded hotel lobby over a decade earlier and who was struggling in the aftermath of his own troubles to survive. I made the mistake of trying to engage in a dialogue with this woman; not a day passes where I don’t wish I had simply ignored her and moved forward. None of the other men responded and nothing happened to them (no one knew who they were in any event). But within hours of her claim, which she deemed “sexual assault,” and for years afterwards, I lost fellowships, gigs, residencies, publication contracts, teaching positions, invitations. This followed me all the way to Australia. When I confronted this poet about what was happening to me, she first responded with surprise that anyone had even read her post, then by saying she had never been lucky enough to win any of the fellowships or publication opportunities that I was losing, but that it hurt her heart to see I was having trouble. She sent a heart and butterfly emoji and promised to take down her essay.
She never did. I had to write to her blog provider because her post contained doxing and slanderous material, and they removed her post. So just like you can be black and racist, you can also be a feminist and sexist; you can be treated misogynistically, but also have immense amounts of power relative to others, like white women in American academia and publishing have and that we rarely discuss. Over 90 percent of the editors at large publishing houses are white women for example! You can be a victim and still use your sense of victimization to bludgeon another. Maybe it’s the fault of language that we can’t talk about difference without devolving into a contest comparing one’s victimisation to another’s. I have a more fluid dynamic in mind, whereby binary logic breaks down and someone can be simultaneously a victim and a perpetrator, or sometimes one, sometimes the other, and sometimes neither.
My trouble with #BLM or #MeToo is that it sometimes feels like it shuts down conversations, instead of allowing for them to happen, making it easy for those who most need to participate in the dialogue to disengage, while sometimes its adherents mobilise social causes for their own personal gain. It feels so treacherous to discuss reverse racism or to question “believe all women,” when the legacy of white racism has yet to be adequately dismantled and untold percentages of women experience abuse and harassment that goes unreported, but if our ultimate goal is seeing each other’s shared humanness without any of these discriminatory categories, then I think that we need to strive towards a language that moves beyond blame. I hope Correctional contributes to that lexicon and that we can begin to have difficult conversations around race and class and privilege without the reflexive defensiveness and denunciation.
What do you hope this book will ultimately accomplish?
After having worked on this book for five years and seven excruciating drafts, I am relieved—and terrified—about Correctional being out in the world. The normal South Asian response to trauma is to repress it, yet I have chosen to air out my dirty laundry in public, which makes my family wary and displeases my attorney; however, I know I had to tell this story just in the way I’ve told it. I’m someone that has both benefitted immensely from systems of privilege and been racially discriminated against, so I believe my perspective is a unique contribution to the genre of the prison memoir. I also hope that this book opens conversations about the limitations of mass media, the strengths and weakness of our carceral and mental health system, the persistence of structural racism and the need for radical empathy and real dialogue between one another.
On a personal level, I hope this book touches many readers around the world and that it allows me to move forward with my life and do what I’m most proficient at doing, which is write and teach with enough stability to provide for my family and enough community to feel at home. On a more holistic level, however, even as I hope it is recognized for its craft and linguistic prowess, I hope that Correctional is more than a mere literary artifact but that it is a genuine call to action that recognizes that individual and collective inertia, regardless of our political beliefs, means being complicit in harm. We are all ineradicably interconnected, I write in the book, and I mean that with every fiber of my being; by sharing the stories of my parents’ immigration from South India, recollecting what it was like to live through 9/11 as a New Yorker, struggling with my own inner defiance and recklessness, writing letters to my biracial daughters and my former best friends, and paying homage to the dignity of incarcerated men’s lives, I offer you a portrait of what it means to be American in the twenty-first century. May readers use it to grow a little less strident in their beliefs and more empathetic, compassionate, and forgiving in their actions.
Do you have any updates (on your life, your career, your “rehabilitation”, etc.)?
After publishing The Many Uses of Mint: New and Selected Poems, finishing my fellowship and receiving my PhD at the University of Sydney, I’ve moved back to Providence, Rhode Island, with my partner Julie and our two dogs, Rishi and Annie. I’m teaching nonfiction and journalism at Tufts University, am the Chairman of the Asia Pacific Writers and Translators, still publishing books with Drunken Boat and serving on the Board of the New York Writers Workshop (where we are organizing an immersive writing retreat in Athens, Greece in 2022). My eldest daughter just turned sixteen and got her driver’s license and my youngest is turning twelve. I continue to write and to act for And Still We Rise and search for a full-time position. I’m thrilled that Correctional is launching in so many places and am looking forward to being in conversation with folks like Tina Chang, Nick Flynn, Sholeh Wolpe, Caleb Smith, Brian Turner, Jennifer Acker and others. I’m donating five percent of the proceeds to the Marshall Project and to Garden Time, an organization dedicated to creating garden programs for incarcerated men and women at the Rhode Island Adult Correctional Institution (ACI). I feel so lucky to have a great therapist and agent, a loving partner, siblings, parents, and friends who have helped me navigate this dreadful time and come out of it even stronger, with a lasting work of art. The time I spent at HCC makes me so grateful for the freedom of each moment and I know I will use my voice to help advocate for a more inclusive and equitable society.
Anything else you wish I’d asked and want to answer?
Thanks for not asking me what I’m doing next, because I don’t know yet! Though I have a sneaking suspicion that it will be as far from the private self as possible. Perhaps speculative fabulist erotic noir? Just teasing, although not about my exhaustion with confession. I am finishing work on my next book of poems which is written in over fifty received and invented forms, including many Asian ones to supplement the sonnet and villanelle. If I have the time, I have also been asked to turn my critical exegesis into a book analyzing prison memoirs by American men of color, beginning with Austin Reed and going by way of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. to Iceberg Slim, Leonard Peltier, Jimmy Santiago Baca, Lil Wayne, and Mitchell Jackson. I continue to be active on the socials @empurpler and I would be keen to visit a book club or salon, greenroom or classroom to discuss the ideas in and creation of Correctional. Stay safe and keep your eyes and heart open.