BASHAUN BROWN: In prison, one way you know if somebody’s trying to get close to you is if they bring out their photo album. Drug dealers and hustlers will start showing you things: This is my jewelry. This is my car. This is the type of women I get with. This is where I’m from. I’m more than these browns I’m wearing now. I’m more than these robes of disgrace. Even though my commissary doesn’t stay packed, even though I may have to borrow a soup sometimes — when I’m out there, I get it.

I was in a Connecticut state prison for more than six years before I was released to a halfway house. I had time to study the culture of the place. I tried to adapt to it without letting it change who I was. I don’t think of myself as a bank robber. I was a little desperate, and I robbed a bank out of desperation. I’m not proud to say I robbed a bank, but while I was locked up I would reveal it when I needed to. I used the story to create an image of myself. There’s something about telling someone — it puts them on their heels. I got something out of it. Being in control of the story is a kind of power.

For four of my years at Cheshire Correctional Institution, I was a student in Wesleyan University’s Center for Prison Education. Taking a class about American literature, reading seedy old books like Moby-Dick, I could see how writers had tried to articulate, in the first-person point of view, what it means to be an American individual, trying to hold true to the principles of liberty, justice, and equality. They were using stories to create images of themselves, too.

At the end of the class, my professor, Caleb Smith, brought in a draft of a book he was editing, The Life and the Adventures of a Haunted Convict, by Austin Reed. The author was a free black man from Rochester who wrote his story in a New York state prison in 1858, when most African Americans were still in slavery. Reed writes about growing up as an indentured servant and a juvenile delinquent, how he became a criminal, and what he suffered as a prisoner. Haunted Convict is the first prison memoir by a black writer, but for Austin Reed, being a convict is its own identity.

I think writing a book was Reed’s way of getting out the photo album. He might not have said it this way, but all his actions revealed that he chose his thug life. He would do crimes. He would shoot dice. He would hustle. I don’t know if pride is the right word, but he shows you that he’s going to do what it takes to survive. He’s not going to go down without a fight.

Reed is doing two things. On one hand, he is showing you, I’m a convict, I’m a criminal. On the other hand, he is showing you why: I came in contact with this institution, the department of punishment, and nothing was ever the same. This is how I became a convict. There’s a way to tell your story with one stream but hit two different targets. Reed wanted sympathy, and at the same time he wanted to be proud of his transgressions.

People who are powerless, people in prison, want to have their stories told. Maybe the punishment system compels us to give first-person accounts of ourselves — confessions, testimony, plea bargains — but often we are eager to give them. Austin Reed never got to publish his story while he was alive. When Haunted Convict finally came out in print this year, Caleb and I decided to write something together about literature and the lived experiences of prisoners, past and present. Here’s what we had to say.

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CALEB SMITH: Austin Reed wrote Haunted Convict under a pseudonym, in a blank journal and on loose sheets of paper. His manuscript was in private hands, unknown, for a century and a half before it surfaced at an estate sale in Rochester, and Yale’s Beinecke Rare Book Library acquired it in 2009. I had been writing about the cultural history of the American penal system for a long time, but in trying to reconstruct Reed’s life and circumstances, I had to call on experts with many different kinds of knowledge — conservators who knew the histories of ink and paper; a paleographer to analyze Reed’s handwriting; a specialist in African American genealogy to find whatever might remain in the records of Reed’s family. I brought it into our classroom at CCI to see what you all could teach me about how to read the book. I wondered what it might mean to the work of prison activism and education now.

BASHAUN BROWN: My first impression of Reed was that he was in for doom, from an early age. He was going to be a troubled kid. I think more important than Reed’s formal education, or equally as important, is the education that he received from other inmates, and from his experience. He was educated into vice, into crime, into torture, into the darkness.

CS: Prison education is full of contradictions. On one hand, the original prison reformers saw it as a way to domesticate incarcerated students, to impose a discipline that would lead them away from the bad kinds of miseducation you’re describing. On the other hand, Reed sees how his education gives him ways of thinking and writing against the institution. He emphasizes that it was another inmate at the House of Refuge, not the schoolteacher, who taught him how to read, and he says he was punished for having more than one book in his desk. He presents even his formal education as something that the inmates are taking from the institution, instead of something that is being imposed on them.

BB: I never looked at it that way, but you’re right. He was taught by another inmate. His education gives him power over himself. It was definitely something he took pride in, and it made people think he could be better, that he was wasting his intelligence. Plenty of times the guard or the warden said, You’re the ringleader of the vice and crime that’s going on in this institution.

CS: When people find out you’re reading something that was written by a prisoner in prison, they sometimes expect that it’s going to be a journal or a diary, but Reed is recollecting his life and shaping his story. He knows where it ends.

BB: Absolutely. Looking at his life in the rearview mirror, I guess he couldn’t help but to have this spirit of doom around the beginning of the story. It just gave off that vibe: this is not going to end well.

CS: He has that sense of being haunted, of being surrounded by ghosts.

BB: Yeah, ghosts that sometimes jump in his body and take over.

CS: You think he gets possessed?

BB: From minute to minute. He could talk about not wanting to serve liquor, and in the next sentence talk about putting a bullet in someone. So you have this duality that lives within Reed. I’m pretty sure that we all have these contradictions, but with him it was obvious. It works both ways, hot and cold. He gets a hot temper, but then he gets super godly, real quick, when it comes to sins like masturbation or drinking. He calls himself a man of Temperance.

CS: He can be preachy. There’s a lot about becoming a man and gaining control over your appetites and over your body — but of course Reed finds out that no amount of self-discipline is really going to give him control over what happens to his body. No matter how much he tries to seal himself off, the prison keeps cutting him open. Even before he goes to prison, his condition as an indentured servant exposes him to being whipped. That’s one place where he makes the connection to slavery explicit. He says the farmer he was apprenticed to tied him up and lashed him “like a slave,” and this provokes his first crime, a crime of revenge: he tries to burn down his master’s house.

BB: I think what really motivates him to commit the arson, to set fire to the house, is the fact that his rights are being violated. He’s like, I’m a free man, an American citizen, and you cannot do this to me. He prided himself on being a free black man. For Reed to have to suffer like a slave must have been terrible. He didn’t just want to burn down the house. He wanted to kill someone.

CS: It matters that Reed came from a free, middle-class family. He was born into a certain amount of status, and after his father’s death he feels the loss of that relative security and autonomy. One of the things that’s most disturbing, for those of us who want to read his book as an episode in the prehistory of racialized mass incarceration, is his relation to some of the other African American characters he encounters. He doesn’t tend to identify with them.

BB: He calls them nigger. He doesn’t hesitate to say it. He is cut off from them, an individual without a strong connection to his race. He never called himself a nigger, so it was almost like it was a term that he used to define someone’s class. When we talk about mass incarceration now, it seems like it’s racialized. Looking at Reed’s book, it doesn’t seem as though incarceration was about race. It was more of a class dynamic, where you had people from a certain class flooding the prisons. This is probably still the case today. Yes, black men are incarcerated at a higher percentage than white men, but there are a lot of white men in prison, too. If you keep it racialized, people can get into identity politics. In reality, it’s everyone’s problem. What I see in Haunted Convict is that Reed’s friendships weren’t determined by race. His white friends suffered from the cat’s lashes too.

CS: He has a special feeling of affection and solidarity for the Irish.

BB: Absolutely. The Irish were oppressed too. They flooded the United States and found themselves at the bottom of the social hierarchy. The last immigrant waves always befriend black people, because we’re always at the very bottom. It just happened to be the Irish during Reed’s time. Later, somebody would have probably had that same feeling for the Italians, for any wave of immigrants, because they’re going to start at the bottom, and we’re always going to be at the bottom. Some individuals may rise, but not the group, not the black community in America.

CS: One fascinating thing about Reed is how sophisticated he is in positioning himself as a performer, especially for white audiences. There are some moments of scripted performance. At the House of Refuge, he acts in an “Indian play” on stage, in a fancy costume. At the American Hotel, he recites an antislavery poem. And then there are other moments that we might see as performance, even though they’re not literally theatrical. When he needs a ride on the steamboat, and he doesn’t have any money, he lifts up his shirt and shows the captain his scars. He gets a sympathetic response and a free ride up the river. Scenes like that make me wonder how Reed is thinking about his own readers.

BB: He was writing for a specific audience, just like Freddy D. At the time, some black men were marketing their writings to the Temperance movement. I think they felt that they would get the most sympathy there. One section of this book is all about the adverse effects of alcohol. Through the whole thing Reed was saying he was a man of Temperance. That’s a performance in itself. But he performed for the inmates, too. When he suffered from the lash, it was his thing to make it seem like it didn’t hurt.

CS: That’s true! He says, I didn’t flinch. I didn’t cry. It’s the opposite of the sentimental response that we see in those other situations, where he recites the antislavery poem and people cry. He’s demonstrating that he can control his affect in the moment when the prison wants him to cry. It’s an act of refusal.

BB: He knows his audience well. It depends on who’s the spectator. When he wants to, he can cry on cue. It seems like every time a man in a position of power around him gives him some words of wisdom, he cries. Let’s quote him:

As he said these words, I wipe the tears from my eyes with my coat sleeve and went into the shop with a determination to do better during the remainder of my time in the prison. As I entered the shop door, I met with just what I expected from the inmates, and nothing but scorns and sneers and derisions was my companion during the working hours of the day.

You know, it’s hard for a convict.

CS: He goes through a cycle of reform, transgression, and reform again. Later, one of the prison officers, Colonel Ritchardson, tells him that his suffering is his own fault, and he needs to learn how to be a man and take responsibility. Reed writes:

Listening to the good advice of this venerable old man, I made up my mind at once that I would go on and try to reform and become a better man — and from that day to this I have had no trouble nor no punishments, for the terror of that day seems to prick me still to the heart.

And then, in the very next line, he says this:

But in that day when I shall stand before God, I’ll show him my back where the tyrant has printed it with the cats, and I will point him to a dark and a gloomy dungeon where I’ve laid my head many a cold night […] and I will point him to the showering bath and tell him of the water that has been showered on my head. I will show him the tyrants that has tortured and tormented me during my confinement within the gloomy walls of a prison. Those who might have done me a heap of good turned to be my destroyers.

Just as he says he’s finally going to reform, he imagines testifying in front of this higher judge, the heavenly court, and what does he imagine doing? Lifting up his shirt to show his scars. The same thing he did for the steamboat captain, earlier. He feels that he’s going to be exonerated when he appears before God. Not because he was innocent of the crimes that he’s been convicted of. He never claims that he was innocent. But because the suffering and the torture inside these institutions have made him what he is. This is the argument he’s making: it’s not that the world needs prisons to deal with its criminals. It’s that the brutality in prisons turns people into hardened criminals, into haunted convicts.

BB: It’s like, If you want to know why I did what I did, you have to know what I’ve been through. This is why I am the way I am. This is what I’ve been through, and this is what makes me who I am. Reed does an excellent job of showing how your humanity is alienated when you come into prison. There’s a passage where he writes about not being able to talk to another inmate, not being able to look people in the eye, not being able to share your food. These are the essential qualities of humanity. Communicating, sharing food, things of this nature. And these things are taken from you during your stay in prison.

Reed shows you how the prison can be a spectacle, too. The warden and the guards invite visitors into the workshops and charge them a quarter to see the inmates at work. Reed has the feeling that he and the other inmates are being put on display. It’s a zoo-like atmosphere: Twenty-five cents! Come see the show! Come to the zoo, where we keep our animals. We got ’em busy at work. They don’t even talk. We got ’em trained.

CS: Reed feels that what has happened to him is unjust, even though he never claims to be innocent. It’s an easy thing to protest wrongful punishment. The way Reed sees it, this system is excessive and extreme even for people like him, who have committed some crimes of vengeance or petty crimes of poverty.

BB: He clearly paints a picture that this is hell on earth, right in front of your eyes. If you ever hope to imagine hell, come to a prison, and I’ll show you what hell is like. Most people just couldn’t imagine their bodies being tormented in the way that his body was tormented. Obviously, one might argue that Reed got himself into the situation by his own actions, where slaves didn’t have a choice. But both institutions took your humanity. Both institutions were brutal. Slavery was identified as not being fit to exist, while prison is still operating. That’s something to look at.

For me the true power of the book was that, here it is 1840, and it’s eerily similar to the prison of today. The process Reed went through upon entering prison is the same process I went through. The intake interview. Putting on the clothes of disgrace. I don’t know what color clothes he was wearing, but in Connecticut we wear browns, and it’s definitely the clothes of disgrace. I can totally relate.

In a lot of ways, prison is softer today. You have more distractions. Reed talks about the conversation between the old convict and the newcomer, and the newcomer has to do four and a half years, and the old-timer tells him it’s going to feel like 10 years. It’s the opposite nowadays. The new-timer will come in with 10 years, and the old-timer will tell him, That’s nothing, that’s going to go by fast.

They softened it. They make prison a little more bearable, I guess. You can buy a TV, a radio. You can go to commissary for food. Unless you’re determined to change yourself, unless you decide to get an education, you can sit there and waste your day. Austin Reed was forced to work. Now it’s a privilege to be able to work in prison. If you can make 90 cents a day, you’re doing good. People sell their mother down the river and tell on everything just to keep that job.

CS: Auburn State Prison, where Reed spent most of 20 years, was the birthplace of penal servitude. The whole system of discipline in the 1840s and 1850s was designed to extract labor from the inmates, to make a profit for prison contractors and to cover the cost of running the institution. By the Civil War, penal servitude was so ingrained in the system that it was written into the 13th Amendment: “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as punishment for a crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States.” The South would figure out how to use the exception to build huge prison farms in the late 19th century, and some of those are still operating, and so is Auburn, in its 201st year. But for the most part the prison system today isn’t really about exploiting labor in that same, direct way. The money goes through other channels — prison construction and supplies, all the fees and expenses that people charged with crimes are expected to pay. So you’re right: the continuities between Reed’s time and ours have less to do with labor and more to do with exclusion and incapacitation, with dehumanizing certain groups on a massive scale.

BB: It was good to see the similarities and the differences. One of the similarities is that you’re set up to fail. You spend all this time in prison, and you get a little gate money to get home, but what do you do next? You’re out here in the world. You have a felony. You’re marked with the scar of Cain. And we still have the same basic prison set-up, where we’re throwing people into spaces with a bunch of like-minded people who are most likely — according to statistics — going to return to prison. You could see from 1840 that that method didn’t work. Here is Reed, explaining what happens when you send a malleable person into this setting, what type of person can come from that. I’ve seen it so many times. This is constantly happening. What other institution would you allow to operate like that, if it was being counterproductive?

I think I know why Austin Reed’s book never came out in his lifetime. Reed represented a new kind of black man, one who just wasn’t going to bow down every time somebody stamped their feet. He wasn’t just fearful Sambo. He wasn’t that type of guy. Do what you’ve got to do. Hurt me. But I’m going to do what I’ve got to do. Can you imagine extrapolating his attitude to the population of free and enslaved black people? White people wouldn’t want the world to know that black people like this existed. If I was the one in control, if I wanted to keep everybody in their place, I would have tucked that book away, too.

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Bashaun Brown is co-founder and CEO of TRAP House — a business incubator that helps drug dealers become legal entrepreneurs.

Caleb Smith is professor of English at Yale University and the author of The Prison and the American Imagination and The Oracle and the Curse.