“We ball. We bait bishops. We run money early and often. We tell comic stories, inflecting with machismo and swagger the hour when we might be cradling a loved one. We do push-ups in the dayroom and curl water bags for our biceps. We put apples and bread down our pants. We wait for our turn at the Securus telephones, where our calls are recorded and monitored. We wait on letters and visits with the ardor of a man at sea waiting for land. We barter soups and try to survive. We are not being corrected but feel the sting of rejection, our lives typified into a litany of charges on a piece of paper in the bail commissioner’s hand. Some of us will bond out, and others will be transferred up the way, where the leisure apparently multiplies, where there are handball courts and full contact visits and salad bars. If we are lucky, we will learn that even those of us on the outside are all doing time, that our own habits can constitute a kind of prison, and that, even enclosed within four walls, our mind has the extraordinary capacity to be free.”—from Chapter 7
By Ravi Shankar
“The first time I went to jail…I was innocent and indignant. Slurred a ‘sand nigger’ by the NYPD and wrongfully detained on an erroneous warrant in a city I once considered home, I became another statistic of NYC mayor Michael Bloomberg’s infamous stop-and-frisk policing, later deemed unconstitutional by [a] US District Court judge…At the time, I was a tenured associate professor of English at a state university in Connecticut, a married homeowner, and a father…I sued the city for racial discrimination and police misconduct, winning a modest settlement…The next time I was arrested, I was not so lucky. Nor was I guiltless.”
And so begins Indian American poet, editor, translator, and professor Ravi Shankar’s much anticipated memoir, Correctional.
In 2008, on his way home after a launch party in New York City for a magazine he had founded, Shankar was pulled over on the pretense of a minor traffic violation. He was subsequently arrested on a warrant for a 150 pound 5’10” white man and kept in jail for 72 hours. Shankar weighs 200 pounds and is 6’2”. He is a dark-skinned man of South Indian descent. The judge threw out the case, but only after Shankar was made to return to court with a hired attorney.
As any writer would, Shankar turned to words to make sense of what had happened to him. In the weeks after his release, he spoke out against racist policing on National Public Radio and penned an op-ed about his experience for the Hartford Courant. But the event had done its damage. Shankar, in his own words, had grown “jittery and insomniac after that fateful weekend… imperceptibly unhinged.” Filled with rage and shame, he became so leery of cops that he would take the nearest exit if he saw one behind him on the highway. The experience also touched the heart of the inferiority complex that comes with being the son of immigrant Americans.
Then Shankar’s life got further ensnared with the criminal justice system; he clumsily attempted to turn a mistaken credit card charge into a profit, then got a DUI after having a couple of beers with teammates after scoring the winning goal in a soccer game. In 2013, Shankar violated his probation for the DUI offense by driving while his license was suspended and was sentenced to a 90-day pretrial detention at Hartford Correctional Center, a level 4 high-security urban jail where he met men who shared harrowing and heartfelt stories that, like Shankar’s, revealed the persistence of structural racism at the same time they shed light on mental health policies that perpetuate inequity and harm.
Through Shankar, we come to know some of his fellow inmates, and we come to see the many ways the system has failed them: Chaos, an illiterate black kleptomaniac drug dealer who grew up in and out of foster care and who Shankar teaches to write his first words; Smurf, a black man convicted of assault in the second degree with a firearm who was so hooked on PCP that he made his own using Black Flag, embalming fluid, and tranquilizers; Lenny, a Vietnam vet doing time for repeatedly hunting and fishing without a license who suffered from apocalyptic—and prescient—visions of the future involving superviruses and climate-triggered earthquakes; and Junkie John, a white man who came from a solid middle-class family who was unable to kick his habit and who was afraid he’d get hit with persistent offender status, which would automatically triple the length of his sentence. As Shankar put it, “All the people I met…needed counseling, not incarceration.”
During his time in jail, Shankar’s elevation to full professor was finalized, making him the first American academic to be promoted while incarcerated—a decision that inflamed the local media and politicians, ultimately leading to his resignation from Central Connecticut State University. Amid it all, his marriage dissolved.
In Correctional, Shankar frames his unexpected encounters with the law and the unraveling of his life through the lenses of race, class, privilege, and his bicultural upbringing as the first and only son of South Indian immigrants. Vignettes from his life, as a child in colorful Chennai; an angsty adolescent fighting against the model minority myth in Washington, DC; an emerging writer in Brooklyn; and, later, an accomplished poet and academic, set the scene for his spectacular fall and subsequent struggle to come to terms with his own demons. Many of them, it turns out, are also our own.
At once the story of what led to Shankar’s incarceration and the revelations—both personal and societal—that came out of it, Correctional challenges us to rethink the way we view and treat the previously incarcerated, and to reexamine the justness of our criminal justice system.
RAVI SHANKAR is a Pushcart Prize-winning poet and editor of more than fifteen books and chapbooks of poetry. The founder of Drunken Boat, one of the world’s oldest electronic journals of the arts, he has been featured in the New York Times, NPR, BBC, and PBS NewsHour. He lives in Providence, Rhode Island.
Advance Praise for Correctional
“A brave voyage of discovery, Correctional is a real odyssey, barely making it home after navigating treacherous cultural and psychological waters. Thanks to Shankar’s brilliant writing and admirable honesty, we relive his harrowing, but eventually inspiring, personal saga. And his deep insights into our justice system are alone worth the price of admission.”
—H. Bruce Franklin, author of Crash Course: From the Good War to the Forever War
“Shankar is an absolutely brilliant writer; his prose, finessed from years of writing and teaching the craft of writing, is rhapsodic, punchy, profound, and discursively sound.”
—Shreerekha Pillai Subramanian, University of Houston—Clear Lake
Order your copy of Correctional here.
Courtesy of University of Wisconsin Press