By Clare Walker, JAC Intern
In February 2022 JAC had the opportunity to talk with Dr. Ravi Shankar, professor, author, and pushcart award winning poet, about his newly released book Correctional, A Memoir. Dr. Shankar discussed his experiences leading up to the release of his memoir, along with what inspired him to put pen to paper in the first place, culminating in what he describes as the most important work he has completed thus far.
“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.”
This is an excerpt from Chapter 7 of Dr. Shankar’s book Correctional. A reflection of the greater gifts of Shankar’s writing throughout the memoir, the excerpt illustrates his ability to weave intense, tangible emotion and visual description into a single paragraph. Here alone he speaks to the underlying pain of isolation and physical captivity and the way in which such emotions become taboo in the stifling environment of a jail: “we tell comic stories, inflecting with machismo and swagger the hour when we might be cradling a loved one.” He exposes the intense censorship and lack of privacy in carceral settings: “we wait for our turn at the Securus telephones, where our calls are recorded and monitored.” He visualizes the desperation for connection and destabilization incurred by its lack when he writes that “we wait on letters and visits with the ardor of a man at sea waiting for land.” He sums up the system’s failures in one incredibly compelling line: “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.” But above all else, he undermines the power which the carceral system attempts to hold over individuals. He writes, “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.” In doing so, he not only upsets the notion of “outside” space as free, exposing the confinement that persists throughout society, but therefore upsets the notion of “inside” space as total captivity. Though the body may be “free” outside of prison, the mind can create prisons of its own which hold our beings captive all the same. It is in this same way that Shankar offers an account of resilience and possibility, stating that “even enclosed within four walls, our mind has the extraordinary capacity to be free.”
The entirety of Correctional paints a tale of trauma and resilience and asks the reader to reexamine the justice of our criminal justice system and our complicity in it. But now…we encourage you to read on! Order your own copy of Correctional here.
“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
“Through deft characterizations and snippets of inmates’ vernacular, Shankar creates vibrant portraits of his jailmates that are written with tolerance, sympathy, and often affection…Shankar’s honesty and humility render him a sympathetic figure. His elegant prose is strewn with references to philosophy and poetry, helping to make his storytelling compelling—even entertaining. Correctional is the story of a beleaguered man on the road to redemption, trying to set the record straight.”—Foreword Reviews
“Elegantly wrought and emotionally transparent.”—Public Libraries Online
“A story that is by turns moving, horrifying, funny, and provocative. . . . Shankar has a poet’s ear and a journalist’s eye. . . . He magics personalities, places and events onto the page with such vividness that this story compels from the first page to the last.”—Linda Jaivin, Sydney Review of Books
“A candid and often excruciating exposure not only of the protagonist’s inner workings, but those of his real-world mise-en-scène. . . . A fall is a seed for the growth of a via negativa, which only gains by losing, and Shankar’s hard-won words on the page are the telling trace of what has already been shed. We learn to see, as he does, from the reversed view granted in the falling.”—Martin Kovan, Ploughshares