The House That Crack Built
By Kent H. Dixon
With The Inmates of the Clark County Jail
~The American Prospect, Summer 1993
Note: This is an interesting piece of journalism, if it can even be properly called that. One reviewer called it an “ethno-drama,” and it really is a kind of ethnography. It’s a collaboration between me and ultimately two or three dozen inmates of the Clark County Jail, in Springfield, Ohio.
I’d taught creative writing in the jail for a couple of years, and thus had read and also inherited dozens, maybe hundreds, of histories and testimonies and confessions and tales and even prayers, of some eight or ten generations of inmates (they tend to move on in about three months), most of whom were in for crack. I heard a lot of stories and had a couple of boxes of blue books of inmate writing. I’ll quote from the Afterword to the above article, published way back in 1993 and archived now in The American Prospect:
We talked a lot, the sessions usually resembling a kind of group therapy. But I couldn’t keep it all straight—Chore Boys and Dope Boys, geekers and fleecers, gank and yank—so one day I asked them to take me on a tour, on paper, of a crack house, and gradually the material for the article accumulated—written testimony, personal anecdote, Q & A, some of it taped, some even videotaped.
I patched and weaved the whole thing together, drawing from memory and tapes as well as the stack of blue books, unified it in one voice, theirs, and gave that voice a bit more of a singular personality than was possible from the polyphony of different informants and writing styles. When I read it now I mostly hear one particular inmate, call him Jimmie. This construct, ‘Jimmie,’ is speaking for, or over, or alongside the maybe 30 other inmates who contributed directly to the article over the better part of a year.
And so, herewith, I’ll dedicate it, as I have other Jail pieces, to: Jimmie
(last name withheld, but it rhymes with Snowman)
Second Note: on 48 Hours in the County Jail, also accessible from OPEN: The Journal of Art & Literature, and intended as background for the several flash fictions posted there, about, as my wife used to call them, “my friends in low places.”
I’d been teaching creative writing in the jail for about two years, and so knew some of the ropes quite well. I’d also supervised/trained some of my college students to go into the jail on a weekly basis, as part of their university requirement for community service, and do the same thing—run a creative writing class and a provide a chance for the inmates to get off the pod and doing something besides sleep.
I had backed off for a while, so I no longer knew any of the inmates—they spend only about 90 days there, on average; so I worked it out with the Sheriff to go into the jail myself for a couple of days, as an inmate, incognito to everyone except him, one deputy, and my lawyer. Why?
Why to do a story, a travel piece on spending two days and nights in the country jail, but the real story is more interesting—an insight midway through the travel piece.
Have a look. I think the editor nominated it for a Pushcart; so long ago I now forget:
Grand Tour: The Journal of Travel Literature, Spring 1997. (It took me a long time to get around to writing it!)