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Not about Nightingales—A Play about an AtrocityTennessee Williams’ Not about Nightingales is about a prison atrocity. Written in 1938, the play was originally titled The Rest is Silence: This play is dedicated to the memory of four men who died by torture in an American prison, August 1938. The events portrayed in the play are real. Not about Nightingales was inspired by newspaper accounts of atrocities in a Pennsylvania prison and written when Williams was just twenty-seven years old. It was the first time Thomas Lanair Williams III signed his name as “Tennessee” to anything he wrote.

Tennessee Williams’ play illuminated an incident of cruelty by men against men in the dark, murky goings-on behind prison walls. The incident foreshadowed the macabre sociopathy of the Nazis in their cruelty enacted upon Jews, Gypsies, Poles, and people with physical or mental disabilities—the list of groups is long. This history of man’s cruelty upon men, women, and children predates written history.

Newsweek reported the story on September 5, 1938:

Inside the wall of Philadelphia County’s model prison at Harrisburg, PA, sits a small building resembling a cowshed. Fifty feet long, 12 feet wide, and 8 feet high, it is ventilated only by three windows. Yet this dingy brick structure, containing twelve barren 9 by 12 cells, is equipped with a bank of steam radiators nearly sufficient to heat a baby skyscraper— six huge ones of 50 coils each, capable of producing heat of 200 degrees, only 12 [degrees] below boiling point.

Into this oven last week were crowded 25 rebellious prisoners, alleged ringleaders of a hunger strike . . . .Windows had been closed; water in the cell basins had been cut off by removal of the keys from the faucets. By morning, the shrieks of torture had been stilled. When guards opened Cells 6 and 7, there were three men in each, two were dead in each cell. They were [names given], victims of Holmesburg’s dread “Klondike.” . . . The result was a major scandal, entangled in politics. When the deaths became known city police were the first to investigate. They attempted to whitewash the situation, saying the victims had killed each other. But, coroner Charles H. Hersch was skeptical and jumped in. First off he arrested two guards, then he sought the “higher ups” believed to be responsible for one of the worst prison horrors in American history. But by the week’s end he was making little progress amid what he labeled “a conspiracy of silence.”


The Human Desire to Destroy Other Humans

Prison atrocities happen every day. Little or no light is shed upon the daily incidents because the press’s access to prisons is limited (for safety purposes) and because inmates’ mail and phone calls are monitored by prison officials. Only when the media gets a glimpse of cruel and unusual punishment being perpetrated on inmates do the civil rights lawyers get involved. United States Supreme Court cases involving prisoners’ rights reflect the accuracy of my observations. Does the average person on the street give a hoot about prisoners’ suffering? No, not really. For people in prison, most common folk think no holds are barred: the inmates broke society’s rules, so why should those same rules protect them?


I Experienced Abuse by Guards behind Secret Walls

While being temporarily housed in the Orange County Jail (OCJ) in 2004, I experienced a similar abuse of power by jail personnel. I’m sure all inmates have personal stories of state-enacted abuse gone unreported. Here is mine:

I experienced how guards can intentionally withhold air in a deliberate act of cruelty. In August of 2004, I sat in a holding cell in OCJ waiting to testify in my codefendant’s case. The room was a strange shape; it had bars on the front cell wall, gang graffiti scrawled on walls, and the ubiquitous stainless-steel toilet in the corner. The holding cell, made entirely of cement, was in a hallway leading to the transportation sally port (doorway) where prison buses belched their stale diesel fumes into the halls. In the late afternoon of that day, I was crammed with 110 other men into a cell built to hold eighty. The cement benches were covered with inmates sitting and sleeping. Others were on the cement floor, resting and sleeping in myriad configurations, using sneakers as pillows.

In a holding cell, time passes in slow, incremental measurements of changing shadows, changing of guards, and pangs of hunger deep in the belly. Many of the men were Mexican, and one young man began to lead the others in Spanish songs. The music was light and fun, lifting everyone’s spirits, but suddenly a white guard appeared at the front of the cell, ran his baton over the bars, and shouted, “Shut the fuck up; you’re not in Mexico, and I don’t want to hear that shit.” The English speakers in the group stopped singing. The non-English speakers started to sing again, and the guard reappeared, red faced, rattling his key chain until he found the key to the cell door.

The sound of the sliding door brought all of us to attention. Doors that open in confinement are truly worth noticing since they signal that something is going to happen and that change is coming.

The guard, accompanied by a few other white male and female guards, ordered us to walk down a short hallway into the women’s holding-cell area. The sign above the door read “Maximum Capacity: 35.” All one hundred plus of us crammed into this smaller, graffiti-marred room with its one sliding door and single Plexiglas window to the outside. There were no other windows; it was just this odd-shaped holding cell encased in cement. Quickly the air grew heavy, and I heard the offended guard through the Plexiglas, his voice cruel and condescending, “See how you like it without air conditioning—you fuckers won’t be singing no more.”

I looked up fast. What? He wasn’t going to shut off the air! In my mind’s eye I envisioned World War II concentration-camp-bound boxcars stuffed so full with people no one could lie down. We were shoulder to shoulder and cool air continued to pump into the room, but hungry lungs ramped up, sucking for something to breathe. Soon the chirp of the air conditioning system fell silent. I took shallow, rapid breaths, and within moments a haze fell over my oxygen-deprived mind. I kneeled and put my nose to the concrete floor to try to inhale some cooler, fresher air there. In minutes, all the men were on the ground seeking oxygen. A few passed out. Others kneeled in prayer. Beads of condensation covered the ceiling and the Plexiglas as we starved for oxygen. I fantasized about garnering magical strength and ripping apart that confining cement to get to air.

I heard the keys again, and a head poked into the doorway. A rush of fresh air seeped into the cotton-candy air in the room. I could hear the guards laughing. “Ever see such a mob of pussies?” one chortled, and a few minutes later we were handcuffed and hustled onto buses. As my mind cleared a little—still numb from the experience—I began to understand the unchecked power of the guards. It could be deadly.

I had no time to think about lodging a complaint. The moment I returned to the stone-cold jail cell, I focused again only on survival. For some reason, I never wrote about this event, let alone filed a complaint. The programmed routine of prison puts incidents like this in perspective—I was glad to be alive, and my attention was transfixed, again, on staying alive each coming day.


Lessons to be Learned

I learned a lot from this experience:

  • Prison reform requires an understanding that abuses by state-sanctioned authoritarians take place every day.
  • Because incidents of prison abuse are not covered by mainstream media, doesn’t mean they do not happen.
  • Television programs such as MSNBC’s Lockup Extended Stay don’t always give accurate accounts of what happens when the cameras are turned off and the cloak of silence returns to a prison’s otherwise impenetrable halls and walls.
  • Movies such as The Big House and The Shawshank Redemption give more accurate accounts of abuse by guards and the marginalized world of prison inmates.


What Can You Do?

You are not powerless—you can bring about change.

  • To reduce the incidence of abuse in the prisons, join your local ACLU chapter and receive the monthly reports about the legal challenges occurring all around the country.
  • Don’t immediately dismiss an ex-con’s report of state-sanctioned abuse. Remain objective—that single element can lead to prison reform. Get energized by the unchecked atrocities!


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