The Books of My Numberless Dreams

Letters from an American prisoner by James Blake

Posted on: September 2, 2007

The two letters are from a collection that was “written during the period September 20, 1950 — May 20, 1952, while James Blake, a night club pianist by profession, was a convict in a southern country jail. The Mr. X to whom a number of the letters are addressed is a well-known American author”.

FEB. 25, 1951

Dear Bud:

Thanks for your note and the enclosed dollar. It couldn’t have come at a better time, at the end of a long week of diggin’ and dyin’.

I’m doing two years altogether here, two six-months sentences on counts of petit larceny, and a one-year sentence for breaking and entering.

As far as my fall is concerned, the only mistake I made was one of judgment in choosing a partner for my small depredations — we did some boosting together and everything was cool, until he got drunk and was picked up for prowling cars.

Then he was seized with an attack of compulsive garrulity and voluntarily directed them straight to me. I copped out on the larceny charges, figuring to get six months at the most, but they sprang a breaking and entering rap that I knew nothing about. What happened, Don H. got drunk and went on the prowl again, but in the boarding house where we were staying. How about that? My presence on the burglarized premises was established, and that was enough to get me a year.

Briefly, my fall partner was a southerner, with a brother on the force, and I was a Yankee ripe for burning. I got two years, he got six months.

I’ve been here since last September 20, and it’s rugged back-breaking labor on the bull gang. We work out on the road under three shotgun guards. On the occasions when I simply wasn’t able to keep up, and tired of trying, I was sent to the Box, a solitary cell, high and narrow (3 x 8 x 8 ) with no window or bed and a tin can for sanitation. Five slices of bread a day and all the water you want. At first it just made me mad, but now I’ll admit I’m scared of it. As a result I spend most of the time in a haze of anxiety, trying to work hard enough to please the head-guard, Piggy, a fat sadistic Georgia cracker, real high-type Southern gent.

All of it has got my nerves to a dangerous point, and I must get away. It’s been done by a lot of prisoners, running right out from under the gun. It isn’t as hard as it might seem, because one of the guards will grease for twenty-five bucks. Once over the line, only about twenty miles away, there’s no serious pursuit, because the County is too broke to finance sending after anyone any distance. So I’m trying to raise the loot and just waiting.

Incoming mail is not opened at all, and it’s easy to kite a letter out, as I’m doing with this. We’re allowed to receive just about anything except firearms, so if you have a white T-shirt and a pair of old tennis sneakers, I could use them, not only for working in, but they’ll be handy when I hang it up. Stamps and envelopes are hard to come by here too, and writing and receiving mail is really the only thing to look forward to.

What I do need though, to help me hold on to my fading wits, is a radio. Being without music is like being deprived of light and air. It is as though all the color and shape and meaning have gone out of my life. Please, Bud, if you can get hold of any kind of beat-up little radio, send it along.

Anything you do, any loot you can send will be repaid — I’ve got a little over 300 bucks stashed in a safe place neaby [sic], the remains of the proceeds from a gas station we pilfered before we fell. I guess the only reason my voluble chum failed to spill his guts about that was the faint hope that he’ll be able to lay hands on it when he gets out, but it’s safe enough, the poor child.

Well that is the whole loused-up deal, and the only good, if it is that, to come out of it is that now I have muscles in my eyebrows and all elsewhere.

And that somewhere along the line in all this tohu-bohu I’ve come of age. And am I bitter? Bébé!

Yours, B.

P.S. There is another and better way to hang it up, which is to have a car pick me up on the road where the crew is working. I’ve looked at it from all angles, and it’s practically foolproof, since the guards aren’t allowed to fire at a moving vehicle. So if you have a taste for a little B-movie action, let me know. Seriously, Bud, I know it’s too much to ask but Jesus, I godda get odda here.

P.P.S. When you get this, please send me a postcard — just checking on the mail connection.

MAR. 4, 1951.

Dear Bud:

Many thanks for your note and the enclosed buck; I was able to purchase some tobacco to supplement the weekly ration of yak dung they issue here.

For good behaviour [sic] I get a big four months out of two years, leaving twenty months. As for parole, nobody within memory has ever made it out of here by that route. County needs the free labor, man.

I have carefully considered all the ways of hanging it up, believe me, and the simplest way is to be picked up by a car. The crew is in the same spot ever day to fill the water barrels for the road — from there it is simple to follow the truck until it arrives at the work location for the day, and await the proper opportunity.

As I explained, the next easiest way is to grease one of the guards. He’s a young guy and under no suspicion of accepting bribes. When all the conditions are right, he’ll take twenty-five bucks and give you about ten minutes before sounding an alarm.

Even the hardest way, running right out from under the gun — after you have maneuvered so that you have a good distance between yourself and the guard, and his back is turned — is workable. In the past three months three guys have done it, but even that entails a certain amount of cash for buying clothes in town, and taxi fare into town. (Nobody has ever been turned in by a cab driver.)

Having very little else to think about, I have worked out detailed plans along each of these lines, too involved to be explained here, but I’m sure they would be successful. If not, I would probably get from six months to a year additional, wear the chains for sixty to ninety days, and try again.

You advise checking these plans against reality, which I assume means calculating my chances of success. In an existence of days of heart-tearing labor and nights of dreary bestiality, any chance is worth taking. I’m just trying to get the best odds I can and a little wherewithal will supply that — I don’t mean from you Bud; if you’re having it rough I’m damned sorry to hear it, you were so great to me, and I was pretty much chicken-shit — but I’ll get it somehow.

I’m going into a solitary cell at my own request sometime this week, to put an end to that part of my troubles that stems from my fellow-inmates and aberrant sex run wild — so I sincerely hope you will find it possible to send a radio. I can’t possibly convey how hungry I am for music, how starved for it, and I know it would do so much to fill this horrible gray emptiness, and to relieve this tension, this anxiety —

When, I shall have to resort to the ultimate refuge of the inarticulate — it stinks!

Yours, B.

From “Letters from an American prisoner” by James Blake, The Paris Review No. 13, 1956

4 Responses to "Letters from an American prisoner by James Blake"

He’s not very subtle, is he?

Well, you know, that attribute probably doesn’t do much for in prison.

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Enjoyed reading this, very good stuff, thanks .

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