Because of all we’ve seen, Because of all we’ve said, We are the dead
What are prisons for?
It’s an easy question to answer quickly, but then the answers pile up. Prisons are designed to keep criminals off the street, but not forever. They’re intended to punish those who do harm to society. They satisfy the need to bring wrongdoers to justice. They are an expression of the values and taboos the larger society. They are perhaps the most rational way we have to deal with our vengeance impulse. By the same token, they are intended to help the prisoner by reforming him and reshaping his character, grinding the rogue out of him, a goal somewhat at odds with the need to punish. The prisoner is expected to repay society for his crimes, but it’s not quite atonement since it’s taken, not offered. We imagine that prisons are treatment for them, when really they’re therapy for us.
House of the Dead is a novel, in an oblique sort of way, about incarceration whose seeming formlessness evokes the shapelessness of days in prison. Tolstoy considered the novel to be Dostoevsky’s finest and perhaps the greatest of all novels. I have to say I agree on the first point, although it’s strange to admit because, after all, Crime and Punishment and the Idiot. Yet, House of the Dead, based on Dostoevsky’s own four-year term in a Siberian labor camp for political subversion, is more measured and true to life, if “life” is really the right word here. Dostoevsky is among the greatest novelists because he reaches moral and emotional peaks that few others can, while at moments his novels seem to soar on the wings of hysterics. Here, the volume is turned down and all is subdued beneath the weight of facts and character sketches. And what characters in Shakespearean abundance! From the servile Sushilov to Isaiah, the beloved prison Jew, to the cruel martinet Major, the characters ring true in a way that perhaps Prince Myshkin, more of an archetype, does not. When the notes of despair or triumph, or the great moments of comedy, do sound out in House of the Dead they have more of an effect. The novel’s last line brings well-earned tears.
It’s also a great work of anthropology. Prisons are fascinating because their culture is an inverted mirror-version of our own, where cruelty is more naked and actions are more managed and other-determined. They form a shadow society within the larger community, ever-present by what they conceal, like the image in Islam. There are communities I’ve lived in where prison was a part of everyday life: who was there, who had been there, who was likely to wind up there. And yet prison remains not-here by definition. It’s a foreign country with different customs. But the borders are porous. Intended as a sort of quarantine, prisons are often overused and strained. As prisons proliferate and are normalized within communities, prison values leak outwards and culture on the outside resembles prison life. I’ve lived in many communities in which nearly all young men put on the so-called “prison yard stare” to leave the house.
One of the most effective turns in the book is the way that the prisoners see their crimes, including murder, as justified. This is something true to nearly every criminal I’ve ever known and undoubtedly figured into the portrayal of Raskolnikov in Crime and Punishment. I remember sharing a flophouse apartment with one former inmate who believed strongly that his welfare payments were the state’s guarantee that he would not return to the criminal underworld and, conversely, if they stopped arriving, he could not be blamed for helping his former associates with murders and the like. Dostoevsky’s greatness as a moralist is that he does not condescend to this mentality, as so many others do.
Prison is perhaps an unsolvable problem for that reason: so many of the people who wind up incarcerated already live by a moral code that is incompatible with the civilized world, yet incarceration with their peers does little to change that state of affairs and much to reinforce it. We know on some level that prison doesn’t work, yet we struggle to understand the problem or come up with better solutions. Fearing Hell and unable to pull off Heaven, we settle for building Purgatories.