The Ghosts of Prisons Past (Preview)

This is a horror story.

Illustration by Jon Key

By David Lamb

The kind of parable Ralph Ellison crafted in Invisible Man, which is to say, not a work of science fiction or fantasy, but of the phantasmagorical effects of systematic racism.

Like many writers I am haunted by ghosts. Many times, these ghouls are tangible: the specter of family trauma or glimmers of relationship drama. Sometimes, however, these phantoms are more elusive. They haunt me and I don’t even realize they are plaguing my thoughts; fighting to express themselves and forcing their way into dialogue, characters, and plots.

For many years, I was haunted by the ghost of the prison industrial complex, both as a result of my exposure as a potential victim and my experience as a potential enabler. This guilty presence forced its way into my novel, On Top of the World—a reimagining of the story of Ebenezer Scrooge in a modern hip hop context. Instead of old Scrooge fashioned as a Victorian money lender, he takes the shape of music’s biggest star and biggest sellout. Young, Black, and handsome, he is at one and the same time a potential victim of the relationship between prisons and profit—and through his thuggish, materialist messaging— one of its foremost enablers.

But where did this story come from? From the visions that haunted me. As writers we draw inspiration from our own lives for source material. And without truly realizing it, I was drawing from the horror I experienced when I connected the dots between what on the surface was the seemingly innocuous work I was doing as an attorney working as Bond Counsel on Wall Street in the early 90s and my witness of the concurrent terrors of the federal government’s War on Drugs. The sudden, shocking realization that these deals—worth tens to hundreds of millions of dollars for prisons, euphemistically branded “youth facilities”— were in fact part and parcel of the acceleration of mass incarceration for profit…

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From Design Museum Magazine Issue 018