Young Voices From The Cell Essay

Posted on by Dill

I_n February, Jennifer Lackey, a philosophy professor at Northwestern University, where I teach journalism, invited me to speak to a class she teaches at the Stateville Correctional Center, a maximum-security prison an hour outside of Chicago. Her students, fifteen men, are all serving long sentences, mostly for violent crimes. Some will be at Stateville until they die. I talked with the students about storytelling, and had them complete an exercise in which they described their cells._

I was so taken by what they wrote that I suggested that they develop these stories about the space, which, for some, had been home for twenty years. Over the past ten months, I have worked with them from draft to draft to draft. This process was not without obstacles. Sometimes, Jennifer couldn’t return my marked-up drafts because the prison was on lockdown. One student missed class for a month because, after surgery, he had to wear a knee brace, which the prison considered a potential weapon. Another student was transferred to a different prison. (I continued working with him by mail and phone.) One despaired at my comments and edits, writing to me that “this must be my last draft because clearly I’m incapable of doing it correctly.” But with encouragement and gentle nudging they kept going. Below is one of five of these stories that will appear on the site this week.

—Alex Kotlowitz

After a long day of landscaping work, I walked into the cell house and stood outside my cell, waiting for the gallery officer to let me in. Leaning against the bars, I noticed something moving in the back of the cell. I couldn’t tell what it was because it was hiding behind the steel bunk bed.

When the officer opened the door, I walked straight to the back and moved a laundry bag from the wall. To my surprise, it was a bird, a robin or wren—I’m not sure. I’m six feet seven and three hundred pounds, and when the bird caught sight of me it undoubtedly feared for its life. It scurried away, taking cover under the bunk bed. Its little legs moved so fast that it looked like the Roadrunner character. It found safety between two gray property boxes. I couldn’t help but laugh at its cartoonish ways. I lay down on the cold concrete floor and reached under the bed to grab it, but it hopped out of my reach. As I lay on the floor, it made its way to the front of the cell and jumped on a slot between the bars. It perched for a moment there. I sat up and admired its beauty. Its beak was bright yellow. Even its brown plumage, amid all the prison gray, seemed colorful. Sitting on the bars, it no longer seemed afraid. It barely moved; just its head swivelled from left to right and back again. It seemed so delicate. Its little black eyes were no longer looking at me. Instead, it appeared to be trying to figure out which direction to fly. I hoped it would find its way out of the building, so I waved my hand, shooing it toward the door, but it flew further into the cell house.

For a few minutes, I felt like I was somewhere else. It was a small crack in a routine that sets my life every day. My encounter with the bird brought a rare moment of pure joy, and so I’ve held on to this small memory. Ten years later, it still makes me smile.

Read the other stories in this series: “Learning to Hear on a Cardboard Piano,” by Demetrius Cunningham; “The Refuge of a Recluse,” by Marcos Gray; “A War Against the Roaches,” by Oscar Parham.

Leah Pileggi, author of Prisoner 88, is my guest at Reading the Past today.  Prisoner 88 is categorized as a middle-grade historical novel, yet I believe it will also intrigue adult readers due to its young hero and his experiences which are based on a true story.  Please read on!


A Young Voice from the Past

Leah Pileggi

I stumbled onto the inspiration for Prisoner 88 while touring the Old Idaho Penitentiary in Boise on a blazing hot day in June of 2007. Built in the 1870s and closed as a prison since riots in the 1970s, the remains of the “Old Pen” bake under the summer sun and frost over in winter. I couldn’t help thinking How could anyone have survived in this place? Toward the end of the tour, the docent said, “The youngest prisoner ever held here was ten years old.” What? “It was in the 1880s,” he said. “He shot a man.” I had to read that book. Not only were there no books about that particular ten-year-old boy, there wasn’t very much known about him at all other than the fact that he had been there, he was 4’ 6” when he arrived, and his name was James Oscar Baker.

From the Idaho Register, 1885
Since I live in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, the Idaho Historical Society was my lifeline to primary sources. Vintage newspaper clippings set the stage. In 1885, James Oscar Baker was in a saloon in Soda Springs, Idaho, with his father when an argument erupted. A man threatened to shoot James Oscar’s father. The son stepped in, grabbed a gun and took a shot. The man died right there in the saloon.

The trial transcripts, written in the elaborate cursive of the day, included witness statements. Even though the assortment of witnesses didn’t all remember what happened in exactly the same way, it was pretty clear that it was James Oscar and not his father who fired the shot. But even if that was true, how was it that a ten-year-old was sent to serve time in the penitentiary? A retired Idaho judge agreed to read the transcripts for me, and he explained how that happened.

Someone (perhaps his attorney) had told James Oscar that he should plead guilty to manslaughter, that if he didn’t do that, he might end up being convicted of murder and spend the rest of his life in prison. So he pleaded guilty to manslaughter, and because of that, he had to serve time. There was only one place to do that in 1885 Idaho: The Idaho Territorial Penitentiary. It didn’t matter his age. Guilty = Must serve time.

Through letters from the attorneys for James Oscar’s parents, I found that James Oscar had been disowned by his parents while in prison. When he was released, it was to the custody of a man named Cyrenius Mulkey a friend of the governor and his wife. That information was corroborated by a book called Eighty-Three Years of Frontier Life, the autobiography of Cyrenius Mulkey written when he was eighty-one years old and revised two years later.

What I didn’t find was a day-to-day record of the boy’s time behind bars or of any inmate at that time. So I immersed myself in 1880s Idaho including everything I could find about the Old Pen.

Close-up of stone wall, Old Pen

The penitentiary was self-sustaining all the way up through the Depression with the inmates working in an orchard, in gardens and with livestock. The prison walls were built of local sandstone blasted from the hills nearby, blasting that was done by prisoners (who handled the dynamite) due to a lack of money to hire workers. Prisoners included Chinese men who had come to America to discover gold or perhaps were brought over to work on the railroads. Some prisoners were Mormon “cohabs,” polygamy still being supported by the Mormons at that time.

Old Pen, three layers of cells

Once I had 1880s Idaho absorbed into my consciousness, I let my protagonist, Jake, write his story. There were days when I would pick up from my previous day’s writing and I would think, Where did that come from? I like that, but I don’t remember writing it. As though Jake truly was writing his own story. And for me, that’s the beauty of historical fiction. Finding that voice – in this case, a young voice – and letting the past speak for itself.


Leah Pileggi has published in The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, the Chautauquan Daily and Hopscotch Magazine. She has been writing for about ten years, and her first book of nonfiction, How to Design a World-Class Engineering College: A History of Engineering at Carnegie Mellon University, was just released. She lives in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, where she bikes whenever possible, practices yoga and occasionally plays the mandolin.  Visit her website at and follow her on Twitter at @pileggi88.

Prisoner 88 was published in 2013 by Charlesbridge ($16.95, hardcover, 144pp).
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