Helen Elaine Lee

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About Life Without

This novel of interlocking stories is about the lives of 10 characters who are incarcerated in two neighboring American prisons, Oak Ridge for men, and Oak Hills for women. The characters are connected by common experience and proximity, daily routine and interactions, and rolling domino and bid whist games through which they gather to socialize. They are serving various sentences for different kinds of crimes. Each one has his or her own story of loss, despair, imagination and survival.

The stories of three characters, Vernon, Ranita, and Keisha, form the skeleton of the novel and are most central to the narrative. Vernon, who is just beginning his sentence, searches for a means to own his past and imagine himself differently. Ranita, a recovering addict who gets released, strives to re-enter the world outside of prison and begins a journey to find her children, who have been taken into foster care. And Keisha, who is doing time for serving as her boyfriend Quake’s drug mule, tries to figure out whether to survive through kinship and join a constellation, or remain a solitary star.

You will come to know many other prisoners, as well. There is Kelvin, haunted by generations of imprisoned and enslaved African Americans, whose cry that he is more than his very worst thing is universal. And there is Avis, who is serving a life sentence for killing the husband who battered and humiliated her daily. You will hear Quake’s story of rage and pride, as well. There is Maxine, Ranita's lover on the inside, whose crime, at least in part, is political action Boo, who has only recently learned to read, will tell you about the power of words as he reclaims the alphabet and makes it his, and Marcus will rant from solitary confinement about being both predator and prey. You will meet Eldora, who acts as mother for the women prisoners who make up a family inside, and Monroe, who is so aged and out of touch that although he lives in the shifting moments of his past, he is unable to remember the crime for which he is imprisoned.

Each character struggles with violence and memory, and seeks a way to keep alive. Some try to confront both hurting and being hurt, and some, more than others, achieve healing and momentary grace. And although they do not begin to comprise an exhaustive portrait of the men and women who fill American prisons, all are part of the whole of prison life.

My work on Life Without has involved volunteer work teaching writing and storytelling workshops with prison inmates over the last 9 years, and many interviews with ex-offenders and people who work with prisoners. This work has nourished my novel and allowed me to speak out about those who live behind the walls of American prisons.

Why Life Without?

This book has been growing in me since I was a child. Its seed was my father’s lifelong work as a criminal defense attorney in Detroit. I understood my father’s work as his way of serving as advocate for people who did not have full voices or the full set of choices and means to participate in American society. Because the circumstances of my father's clients, as well as related social and political issues, were part of the daily life and dialogue of my family, prisoners have never been invisible to me. They were not “other." They were part of our lives, our community, our people.

The staggering and growing rates of incarceration for African Americans makes the examination of the lives of prisoners a matter of urgency. While in 1978 there were roughly 450,000 people in prison in the U.S., there are now 2.3 million people behind bars. Currently, a black male in the U.S. has a 1 in 3 chance of going to prison during his lifetime. For a Hispanic male, it is 1 in 6, and for a white male, 1 in 17. Rates of incarceration for women have increased at nearly double the rate for men since 1980, and the impact of the absence of these primary caregivers on families is devastating. Approximately 75% of incarcerated women are mothers. And almost 1 in 3 women in prison are serving time for drug-related crimes.

Every week, it seems, there is a front page story about the plight of prisoners, the failures of the prison system, the struggle to get out and stay out. Growing numbers of DNA exonerees have led to a shift in public opinion about the death penalty. More and more questions are being raised about incarceration’s effects on entire families. And just today, National Public Radio ran a story on what is perhaps the greatest outrage: Massachusetts spends more on “corrections” than it does on education; it costs $44,000 a year per prisoner to lock somebody up.

What is happening to my people, I have asked myself while absorbing these statistics and news stories. We are a people who have lived through slavery, Reconstruction and the Ku Klux Klan, Jim Crow segregation, the Great Migration, the Civil Rights Movement, Black nationalist struggles, urban poverty and government repression. We are a people who have somehow made art from all of these experiences. How will we survive our current trials of drugs, violence and incarceration? How long can the rest of society ignore these crises? How can I raise my voice about these things?

When I decided to try to speak through fiction about some of the people who are behind bars, those who are either exiled to invisibility, reduced to stereotypes in the media, or used as pawns in electoral politics, I knew I needed to spend time with people who were locked up and people who had worked with them. My parents instilled in me a sense of social responsibility, but I wondered how I, a second-generation Harvard-educated academic with all manner of privilege and access, could manage to tell the stories of black people who lived in a very different America than I did? How could I speak for them? How could I use my literary voice to make readers see and feel the lives of so many of my people who exist across a widening class divide, without hope, or safety, or economic power, or opportunity? I knew I needed to earn the story.

I began volunteering by teaching storytelling and writing to men who were locked up at a county house of correction, and at a medium security prison. At first, I went because of my novel. But I was astonished by what went on in those workshop sessions. I was overwhelmed by the things people had endured, by the survival of dignity, by the laughter that was inspired by good memories, by the self-interrogation, as well as the generosity and gentleness I witnessed. Through sharing and hearing their stories, these men were able to bring forward their best selves. Through words, they had a different conception of power, not derived from domination or material things, but power from within. These men felt like my brothers. And in this classroom, these words which were published into the stale and recycled air, were soil in which something besides bitterness and fear and violence might grow.

After volunteering for 5 years through several different organizations and programs, I helped to establish a creative writing program at 3 Massachusetts prisons which is staffed by writer volunteers through PEN New England’s Freedom to Write Committee. And I continue to teach workshops to the men whom I have known for 9 years at the medium security prison. I have been so enriched by the charged experience of teaching inside that I can’t imagine quitting. I think I’m a lifer as a prison volunteer.

My work as a prison writing teacher and novelist fits within the public conversations about examining and reforming the prison system. There is growing consciousness and debate about the absurdity of expecting prisoners to become straight-world citizens when they receive neither education nor treatment while they are locked up, despite the fact that overwhelming numbers of them have histories of addiction and abuse. And although prison-based education is the single most effective tool for lowering recidivism, in 1994 Congress abolished PELL grants, the means of financial aid for higher education, for prisoners. Once prisoners are released, the fact of incarceration prevents them from obtaining employment, public housing, education grants, and even food stamps. More than 4 million prisoners or former prisoners are denied the right to vote, and in 12 states, the ban is for life.

Most of these people who are temporarily invisible will return. Lifers comprise a little less than 10% of state and federal prisoners. And because most of those who are locked up will eventually be released, and many who are sentenced under mandatory minimum laws are already getting out and returning to their old territories and ways of life, there is a growing movement focusing on re-thinking the obstacles to re-entry. There is growing public attention to the prevalence of rape and alarming suicide rates in prison, and national debate on reforming offender reporting laws, disenfranchisement laws, mandatory minimum sentences, and treatment access. Increasingly, people are questioning the dismantling of programs which could support the education and rehabilitation of prisoners, and are criticizing a prison system which has become a punitive, revolving door.

I knew, from my father’s life work, that each person who is locked up has a story. By making visible some of these human stories, I add my voice to these urgent public debates about a crisis which none of us can continue to ignore.

Selected Works

"To read The Serpent's Gift is to experience rebirth."
--Walter Mosley
"An ambitious saga, written with the skill of someone born to the art of storytelling."
--Paule Marshall
"A novel of great ambition and achievement. . . about the power and the pain of memory, about the stumbling, staccato rhythms of family, about finding a way to go home again."
--Valerie Boyd, The Washington Post
Short Story
This story (quick link on the left) is part of the novel, "Life Without," about the lives of 10 characters who are incarcerated in two neighboring prisons, serving various sentences for a range of offenses.