It was roughly two weeks after the end of my final Final Exam of my 1L year at University of New Mexico School of Law. I'd barely been on the job a week as a summer law clerk at Rothstein Donatelli LLP, when my life as an artist and my relatively recent life as an aspiring attorney intersected in a most meaningful way. As serendipity would have it, Mark Donatelli (of Rothstein Donatelli LLP) would attend my author conversation with Chain-Gang All-Stars author Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah at the Santa Fe Literary Festival on Saturday, May 20th of this year.
Firm partner since 1983, Mark Donatelli has advocated for prisoners' rights for over 40 years. After years of service as a public defender, Mark began specializing in death penalty defense as Director of the New Mexico Prison Riot Defense Office. Currently regarded as a sought after expert on capital trials, Mark currently represents prisoners across the country who are held in solitary confinement and who face the federal death penalty.
So… I should have known he would be interested in Adjei-Brenyah's latest book.
“Anytime someone with his background, talent and perspectives is in Santa Fe, I want to hear,” says Mark. “I was thrilled that there was so much interest in Nana and the subject matter and was heartened that so many people would be exposed to, consumed by the experience.”
Unironically, Adjei-Brenyah's Chain-Gang All-Stars is categorically confined to the fiction genre by the publishing houses. Not all fiction is satire… however, all satire is “based on a true story.” If you can imagine a world in which the privacy rights and human rights of incarcerated populations are stripped and monetized by a for-profit prison industrial complex (read: government) that appropriates prisoners name, image, likeness and lives for a life-or-death American Gladiators-esque reality show … then you will understand that reading Chain-Gang All-Stars is more Hitchcock than horror. All the enjoyment and pace of fiction with a sobering and superb amount of historical context and critical analysis about the current state incarceration in America.
So yeah, I should have known that Mark would be in attendance.
“The average citizen,” he continues. “No matter how many books and movies they have seen ever really understand what life in custody does to humans. Don't get me wrong, I love how fiction attracts public attention to the social issues underlying the experiences and I hope books and movies will continue to expose the experience. However, even at its best, it only serves to operate as a filter…just like the plexiglass barrier that prison visitors face when they visit a prisoner at a facility. I just want more folks to walk in the prisoners' shoes.”
Agreed. Books can only do so much. They can cultivate compassion, however compassion alone is only feel-good potential energy until it becomes action. Adjei-Brenyah's book serves as a mirror. Leaving America to ask itself a critical question, what do you do when you do not like what you see in the mirror?
“Nana does an excellent job of describing what prisoners actually experience.” according to Mark. “In some of the scenes, I flashed on real life stories I have heard from prisoners or seen on homicide videos.” However, when I asked Mark what his observations were on society's compulsion to confine and execute its own, he had this to say…
“Many people watching the news want to see sentencings where judges lambast defendants and impose long sentences. The same people hope that prisons are horrible environments where prisoners face physical abuse, threats, extortion, etc. It is an important part of the sentence to them and it fits their sense of justice. Those same people don't understand how much of what Nana describes is really what private operators are doing with their tax dollars.”
Mark went on to say he could've talked to me for hours about what happened in our state with medical care, treatment of female prisoners and prison/jail safety as privatization metastasized in New Mexico beginning in the mid 1990s.
“New Mexico has had a checkered history of periodic fixation with the horrors of incarceration with a couple of deadly riots and court show downs,” he says. “But sadly, I don't detect an overall consciousness of what our state has been doing in the way of torture and jeopardizing public safety through the operations of the New Mexico Corrections Department.”
For now, all we have is books (though actually getting books to incarcerated individuals inside of New Mexico Correctional facilities is quickly becoming its own First Amendment fight). Brazilian poet Mário Quintana once said, “Books don't change the world, people change the world, books only change people.” Therefore, we should be careful what we ban… and burn… and forget. It's easy to forget the incarcerated. That's often why we incarcerate them. However, stories are extremely hard to confine. Thankfully, humans are storytelling machines.
I asked Mark what else is on his reading list. “I'm a Rachel Kushner addict. Flamethrowers and especially Mars Room. I need to read them both again.”
I'm back at University of New Mexico School of Law for my 2L year after a mind-expanding summer at Rothstein Donatelli, so I don't have much time to read for leisure. But if you do, I'd recommend begin with Mark's list and Chain-Gang All-Stars. And remember, stay human.
Inaugural Poet Laureate of Albuquerque, New Mexico (2012-2014
W. K. Kellogg Foundation Global Fellow
Founder & CEO of Beyond Poetry LLC