Prisons in Venezuela- “The Fifth Circle of Hell”

“The standoff at El Rodeo has drawn attention to the conditions of Venezuela’s prisons, which Hugo Chávez, the president, has famously called “the gateway to the fifth circle of hell.” When he was inaugurated in 1999—five years after the end of his own jail stint for leading an attempted coup—22,000 inmates were crammed into prisons built for 17,000. Mr Chávez promised a “humanisation” programme.” […]    —The Economist, July 14, 2011

Robert A. Ferguson, Inferno: An Anatomy of American Punishment (2014)

Robert-Ferguson-Inferno-Punishment-Prisons-DanteColumbia Law professor Robert A. Ferguson published a study of the theory informing American systems of punishment in penal institutions. Calling for a new model that emphasizes correction over condemnation, Ferguson writes, “Punishment is a reflexive response to misbehavior, and punishers in their anger are always spontaneously at the ready. Rehabilitation requires thought, a plan, work, and the willingness to probe slow changes in more mundane objects of attrition. It will always be easier to ask for punishment than to institute a treatment program in a prison system where punishment comes first. The answer, to the extent that we can give one, lies in something separate, something either beyond or after punishment.

“The Divine Comedy is a limited guide, but it does reveal the pernicious parameters in the psychology of punishment and gives a response to them. [. . .] Criminal justice has gone astray, lost in a dark wood of its own making. It is time, more than time, to find a way out.” — Robert A. Ferguson, Inferno: An Anatomy of American Punishment, 249.

From David Cole’s review in the New York Times: “[Ferguson] insists that the only way out is to reconceptualize punishment. Invoking the circles of hell in Dante’s Divine Comedy, Ferguson argues that we need to reorient our prisons away from punishment and debasement and instead model them on Purgatorio, where individuals are restored to heaven through the care and love of others.” — David Cole, “Punitive Damage,” New York Times Sunday Book Review (May 16, 2014)


“The Price of Loyalty in Syria”

the-price-of-loyalty-in-syria“. . .One night in Damascus, I met a 33-year-old computer programmer named Amir who had been part of the nonviolent protest movement from the beginning. . .
I asked if he was still active in the rebellion. ‘They put me in prison for two days,’ he said. ‘I was not tortured, no one even said a bad word to me. But for me it was — ‘ He stumbled for words, then turned toward me. ‘You know how Dante went to hell and was allowed to return? This cell was 10 meters square, with 152 people in it. It was two stories underground. There is no air, you feel constantly that you will choke. They had an undeclared system: for the first week, you stand, all day and all night. Then you get to lean against the wall for a few days. Then you get to sit. When you are standing, you are terrified to fall asleep, because you may never get up. Some people were there for only a few hours, some for days or weeks, and some had been tortured in ways I never imagined. For food, you get a bit of bread and some water, but that does not matter. You get about 30 seconds, once a day, in the bathroom, but trust me, you are not even worried about that. Because there are people in there who are literally asking for death.'” [. . .]    –Robert F. Worth, The New York Times, June 19, 2013

Willie Sutton

willie-sutton “There are two ways to read Sutton, by J. R. Moehringer: as a third-rate novel with a deep and crippling cornball streak, or as a loose and journalistic speculative biography of a famous bank robber. Either way, you lose. But you lose less if you decide to read it as semi-true biography. You can at least enjoy the ragtime shuffle of the author’s better sentences.
“The bank robber is Willie Sutton, the man famous for supposedly saying, when asked why he held up banks, “That’s where the money is.” Sutton robbed dozens of them during his four-decade-long career. He also escaped from three maximum-security prisons, prompting frantic manhunts, and became a folk hero in the process. His dapper Irish good looks didn’t hurt. When young, he somewhat resembled Jack Kerouac.” […]
“Sutton’s famous quotation has always made him seem like a lovable dunce, Yogi Berra with a gun moll and a getaway car. In Sutton Mr. Moehringer reminds us that he was a shrewd fellow and a committed reader, with copies of Dante and Tennyson tucked into his prison cell. Sutton wrote two memoirs (they contradicted each other) and an unpublished novel.” […]    –Dwight Garner, New York Times, October 9, 2012

Ron Jenkins “To See the Stars” (2012)


“Lynda Gardner, Saundra Duncan, and Deborah Ranger will give a reading of a new play at a Harvard University conference next week. A different kind of alma mater qualifies them for this appearance: York Correctional Institution in Niantic, Conn., a high-security state facility for female offenders.
While behind bars at York, all three joined theater workshops with Wesleyan University professor Ron Jenkins and students from his Activism and Outreach Through Theater course. They got to know Shakespeare and Dante, and it changed their lives.
I spent my first six months [in York] trying to figure out ways to kill myself, and the next four and a half years trying to see how much more I can live,” says Gardner.
Inspired by these three and other inmates he worked with, Jenkins wrote a play about their existence behind bars, ‘To See the Stars,’ which mingles inmates’ stories with bits of Dante’s epic 14th-century poem, ‘Divine Comedy.’
The women have their own perspective on ‘Divine Comedy.’ They tend to say that they are still working on its third part (Paradise) but that they are well versed in the first two (Hell and Purgatory).
‘I’ve been in a lot of the circles of hell,’ says Gardner, 63. ‘It really isn’t about hell; it is about hope. Climbing out of those circles.’
The trio will perform ‘To See the Stars’ on March 3 in a lightly staged reading at a Harvard conference on race, class, and education called Disrupting the Discourse: Discussing the ‘Undiscussable,’ sponsored by the Graduate School of Education’s Alumni of Color. The Harvard performance is open to conference participants only, but the public can attend a free performance at Brown University’s Lyman Hall in Providence on March 2 at 3:30 p.m.”    –Joel Brown,, February 12, 2012 (retrieved on July 9, 2012)

Dante Project, Wesleyan University – Prison Outreach

dante-project-wesleyan-university-prison-outreach“. . .Dr. Jenkins, who has taught in Wesleyan’s theater department for 11 years, introduced prison outreach into the curriculum in 2007, bringing students to the York Correctional Institution, a women’s prison in Niantic, to work with inmates on literary classics. In 2009 and 2010, they began concentrating on ‘Inferno’; this year, because of construction at York, the class took place at the men’s facility in Niantic, the J.B. Gates Correctional Institution. . .
The semester culminated with performances. The Gates inmates presented their work to their peers, and at Wesleyan, the students performed the writings of the inmates for the college community. In the classroom at Sing Sing, the inmates performed for the Wesleyan students, and then the students presented the Gates men’s words, for which they received a standing ovation from the inmates. All of the performances ended with the same line, the last of the poem: ‘E quindi uscimmo a riveder le stelle.’ “And then we emerged to look again at the stars.” [. . .]    –Susan Hodara, The New York Times, December 24, 2010

“Mafia boss reads Dante Alighieri in prison”

mafia-boss-reads-dante-alighieri-in-prison“Bernardo Provenzano, the former Godfather of the Sicilian Mafia who is serving life in prison, is spending his time reading Dante and writing to a pen pal. . . ‘I have read the Inferno,’ he wrote. ‘And especially where it says that on life’s journey, I found myself in dark woods, the right road lost.’ The former boss of all the bosses–who ordered the assassination of Giovanni Falcone and Paolo Borsellino, a pair of anti-Mafia investigators–told Bonavota that ‘when reason and force collide, force wins and reason is lacking.'” [. . .]    –Malcolm Moore, The Telegraph, January 28, 2008

Contributed by Aisha Woodward (Bowdoin, ’08)