The Body Behind Bars

What happens to the human body in confinement? How do the incarcerated sleep, eat, workout, have sex and maintain their psychophysical needs behind bars?
Student Finesse Banks (Fall, 1996) explores the "bodies" of young Afro-American males in the prison system and investigates the conformity, peer pressure and spiritual transformations that occur from their conversion to Muslim. Excerpts from the next two poems show a common solution to emotional and sexual needs: the pen pal:


Locked in a place, yet I still may roam,
But it's not like the feeling of being at home.
Hundreds of people, still I feel all alone,
Surrounded by men who are hard to the bone.
I've encountered a pen pal, so gentle and sweet,
I've seen her photograph and someday I hope to meet.
This incredible creature who creates poetry in her letters,
I hope she excepts me for who I am, because now I know better.
We find ourselves falling in love,
but are these feelings for real?
When my time is up, will she be there,
Will she love me still?

The waiting woman is also suffering from

Promises, Promises

Yet where are you now, when
I need you to cry on,
Out of sight, out of mind, just
Simply gone.
The life that you have led has
brought you such distress,
For yourself, and myself and
for all the rest.

The following is an excerpt from an interview Finesse had with a corrections officer at Rikers Island:

Q: Is it possible to exist in jail without joining some group, organization or gang?
A: I have seen inmates go through the system as a neutral entity, but it takes inner strength, discipline and determination. It is extremely hard not to get sucked in by some group. There are many advantages in being involved with a group such as protection, camaraderie and distraction.
Q: Specifically, what groups are the Afro-American males associating with?
A:50% of the young black males are associated with various gangs, and the others are in various religious groups, boot camp programs and a very small percentage is neutral. 50% of older black males are Muslims, about 25 to 30% are in gangs and the rest are in other religious groups or neutral.
Q: Why are blacks joining the Muslim religion?
A:They can relate to it, but most of the followers are in this religion due to security. It has an extremely large following and other gangs respect it. The Muslims get better meals, the utensils are cleaned differently, they get props from the administration and they carry a powerful name.
Q: Specifically what props?
A: The administrators rely on the Muslim group to run the jails and keep the other gangs in check. Therefore the Muslims are addressed better, they are not as closely watched and they can take over the Rec room for their services....

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