In the summer of 2003 I was a Duke Public Policy student and eager intern for the Democratic Party in Des Moines, Iowa. I learned a lot about the democratic process that summer, but even more from the couple I boarded with–Jean and Bill Basinger. The Basingers are prison reform advocates, and the work goes on for Jean though Bill has now passed away. They introduced me to Shalonda Greene, who remains incarcerated in Iowa. I thought I left Iowa educated about our county’s prison system, but the letters from Shalonda are still teaching me things I think we all need to know. This poem grew out of those concerns though it makes leaps since as the former Director of Art for Cornell’s Prison Express projects, I have come to know other incarcerated people and I borrow from our interactions here.
“Dear Prison Industrial Complex” is part of American Letters, which total some 50 poems. These epistles function as love letters, complaints, and notes that inquire about the relationship between the personal and the bureaucratic, between our ideals, hopes, loves, and worries about America and the consequences of dealing with its institutions. This undertaking in reading and thinking feeds two separate writing projects: the letters will be cast as poems in American Letters and recast as flash fiction in American Strangers.
Rogers discuss American Letters here: https://www.cc-seas.columbia.edu/wkcr/audio/hannah-rogers-and-carla-stockton-studio (Radio Interview with WKCR New York)