Why this 1970 memoir is required reading

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One of my best friends in prison introduced me to Papillon, the 1970 memoir by Henri Charriere about his 14 years in a French penal colony until finally, after numerous attempts to escape, he succeeded and made it to Venezuela. He recommends the book to everyone — to the extent that when I meet another friend of Donnie’s, I can pretty much bet he’s read it too. And I understand why. Amidst the drama of prison brutality and high-stakes attempts to escape, Charriere shares observations that are as profound today as they were then — and very relevant to the life people like me live every day:

During his first escape attempt, Charriere ends up in Trinidad and is taken in by a “Mr. Bowen,” his wife and daughter. One day, Mr. Bowen goes into town:

“The fact that this man could go away, leaving three escaped convicts in his house was a priceless lesson to us. He seemed to be saying, ‘I consider you perfectly normal men; I have known you only 12 hours, but I have enough confidence in you to leave you in my home alone with my wife and daughter. After talking to you, I cannot believe you are capable of behaving badly in my home, so I am leaving you there just as if you were old friends.’

This demonstration of faith moved us a great deal. I am not a good enough writer to convey the intense emotion I felt over my newfound self-respect. It was rehabilitation, if not yet a new life. This imaginary baptism, the immersion in purity, the elevation of my being above the filth in which I’d been mired and, overnight, this sense of responsibility, made me into a different man. The convict’s complexes that make him hear his chains and suspect he’s being watched even after he’s freed — everything I’d seen, gone through, suffered; everything that made me tarnished, rotten and dangerous, passively obedient on the surface but terribly dangerous in rebellion — all that had disappeared as if by a miracle.”

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In other words, Papillon (Charriere’s nickname, due to the butterfly tattoo on his chest) and his fellow convicts wanted to live up to Mr. Bowen’s expectations — so much so that they felt like new men.

But in prison, we’re treated like criminals all the time, and that in turn breeds a violent sub-culture. It is important to realize the disservice not only to prisoners but also to society writ large when the system doesn’t communicate a belief that they can be something other than a criminal. No wonder, when we get out, so many of us fall back on our old norms and recidivate.

Too often, whether consciously or not, our identity is shaped by what others say about us. When I was a child, my teachers told me I was bad, that I’d be like my father who was in and out of jail. Was it really any surprise that I fulfilled their expectations? That continued when I came to jail and was indoctrinated into the “system.” The people I found there told me how it goes inside; they taught me the difference between a convict and an inmate. A convict knows how to do time, doesn’t put up with shit, knows how to deal with the officers. And soon, I became a convict too. I was identified by my manhood and a man is the one willing to resort to violence if need be, who’s tough. For instance, once I got into an argument; I had to defend myself because people were watching and if I didn’t, I’d be considered a punk. So, I stabbed the guy. From that time on, every time I got into a situation, I had to deal with it in the same way because now that’s what people expected.

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If you think you would not succumb to the pressure of labels and roles, remember the Stanford University prison simulation. Conducted in 1971, the study assigned volunteers to be either “guards” or “prisoners” by the flip of a coin. The two groups quickly adapted to their roles: Guards forced prisoners to repeat their assigned numbers to reinforce the message that this was their new identity. Several became increasingly cruel as the experiment continued; about a third exhibited genuine sadistic tendencies. Meanwhile, after only 35 hours, one prisoner began to act “crazy,” flying into a rage at the slightest provocation. When another refused to eat the food he was given, saying he was on hunger strike, the guards confined him to solitary confinement and said he would be released only if the other prisoners gave up their blankets and slept on their bare mattresses. All but one refused.

The simulation has been criticized for some aspects of its conduct; for example, the assigned guards were instructed on proper behavior. But the fact remains that they followed orders even when it was obvious some of the assigned prisoners were reacting as if it was real.

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That’s why programs like the Georgetown Prison Scholars are so transformative. We could call it the “Mr. Bowen effect.” They empower “convicts” to believe in themselves and develop a network beyond their usual peer group. They break the pattern that drives kids from a broken family or broken neighborhood to a broken environment in prison to a broken life. In the prison scholars program, the students looked to me as a leader. They treated me like Rob the teacher, Rob the businessman and Rob the founder of an innovative nonprofit initiative. They believed in me and, in turn, it confirmed in my mind that I could be all these things.

For 25 years I knew only one way of being. I thought I had to be a certain way to survive. But the Georgetown program showed me another way. It showed me I could be someone other than how I’d been treated. And it nurtured the skills I needed to be that person when I am released. As a “prisoner,” I am molded into a robot: I wake up in the morning when the lights are turned on and sleep when they turn off. I am fed three times a day at the same time and I have no choice in what I eat. My clothes are chosen for me. You have no real responsibility. Some people are able to develop positive leadership skills regardless; we call them “unicorns.” But healthy, constructive behavior is beaten out in the majority — another reason why so many ex-prisoners do so poorly when they are released, thus ending up behind bars again. (Yet, parole boards and judges seem to expect everybody to be unicorns.)

When Charriere first lands in Venezuela in his last and successful escape, he is greeted warmly by the residents of a village called Irapa. When the Caracas police arrive to take him and his fellow escapees off to the local jail, one of the village men tries to stop them by saying, “No main is ruined forever. No matter what he’s done, there comes a moment in his life when he can be saved, when he can be made into someone good and useful to the community.”

Shouldn’t this be required reading for everyone?

This post was co-written with Pam Bailey, Rob’s collaborator and editor. It is difficult for him to write these days due to his jail conditions, so increasingly, these posts are the product of phone conversations between the two. Email Pam with questions or to contact Rob: pam@morethanourcrimes.org.

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Rob Barton has been incarcerated for 25 years. Pam Bailey is his collaborator/editor. Learn more at MoreThanOurCrimes.org

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