Jessica Pishko’s “High Desert Suicide: Was a Prison Guard Hazed to Death?” in Rolling Stone
In this deeply reported narrative, Pishko investigates the events leading up to the 2011 suicide of Scott Jones, a former correctional officer of High Desert State Prison in Susanville, California–one of the country’s most dangerous prisons. She begins with the night where Jones injured his knee–not mopping the floor, as the official workman’s compensation form declares, but in a tussling match with a co-worker following what reads like a hazing from a college fraternity’s initiation ritual. After that night, Jones is forced by his co-workers to keep mum about actual events, and from there the situation escalates, or rather de-escalates, and Jones soon finds himself a target. Pishko traces a series of pranks, threats, and ultimatums that increase in severity, that drive Jones to decide to quit:
Jones felt like a marked man in the eyes of prison staff and inmates alike. According to his medical records, he was taking the antidepressant Paxil at the time. He had endured years of harassment and unwarranted scrutiny, the constant suggestion that he wasn’t man enough for the job or his wife, and fear of being caught in a lie and losing his workers’ compensation.
But clearly, the stress had already etched its way into him, and he committed suicide before he could quit. The story of Jones’s death would be interesting in and of itself, but what Pishko’s reporting really reveals is the deeply entrenched corruption of a prison system–a convoluted network that involves the power of correctional officers at the top of the hierarchy, the desires of inmates with a lot of sway, and the whims of the guy working on the shift right before you. As one of Jones’s former co-workers says, “When you see something like that happening, and your bosses are standing there watching it, or sometimes participating in such, who am I to report it to?”
Virginia Sole-Smith’s “Getting Jobbed” in Harper’s
In this piece about the current state of welfare reform, Virginia Sole-Smith weaves together history with on-the-ground reporting in Philadelphia. She starts the essay at West Philadelphia’s Employment, Advancement, and Retention Network Center, moves to the story of a woman who has been a repeat client at the center, and then discusses Bill Clinton’s 1996 welfare-reform bill, which took away a person’s “fundamental right to assistance” in order to “push people harder to work.”
She focuses on the differences between Bill Clinton and Hillary Clinton’s attitudes towards welfare. “As secretary of state, Hillary Clinton often spoke about the need for greater ‘financial inclusion’ of the poor around the world,” Sole-Smith writes. But she goes on to say that Hillary Clinton “touted” Bill Clinton’s welfare reform.
Sole-Smith uses the stories of three women to show the problematic aspects of welfare reform — time limits on assistance, the insistence on paying for just one training program (even when that program does not result in increased job prospects), a focus on getting people to work as quickly as possible rather than on education (which would result in better, more stable jobs). But because the three women highlighted in the article were part of “half a dozen women on welfare in Philadelphia [that she] followed for more than a year,” they are more than just examples. Even the brief versions of their stories included here have breadth.
In the end, Sole-Smith uses these individual stories to ask a big question: What Hillary Clinton would we get in office? “Would a Hillary Clinton presidency create an opportunity to correct the flaws of her husband’s welfare reform?” Or would she be bogged down by facing “the same challenges that Bill Clinton did in the 1990s: a Republican Congress and a country that has decided that accepting government help is a sign of personal failure rather than a legal right”?
Stephanie Danler’s “The Unravelers” in The Paris Review
Ever read an essay where you’re just like, “man, I’d love to sit down and have a drink with this writer”? That. That’s the feeling I had reading this essay. It is such a raw and real, smart and original examination of all the ways knitting is a metaphor for life. The author cleverly uses the skill and practice of knitting to explore the differences between herself, the non-knitter, and her best friend, the knitter. The bigger picture of the author’s life hasn’t taken shape because she has trouble envisioning it. She’s followed the path of every loose thread available; she is an unraveler. Her best friend works loose threads back into their rightful place; she perseveres because she can see what she is building toward. She is a knitter. She is married with children.
A real unraveler develops a series of controls in order to live a productive life. Mine are in my spine. When I get scared I sit up straighter. I count my glasses of wine. I don’t miss therapy. Unravelers are often certain that they have been fixed. They will tell you so with their eyes full of conviction. They are usually over informed about their neuroses, and over perform in their profession. But at any second, it can go. Unraveling is all about the momentary pleasure, ignoring the losses unspooling to the ground. I can’t lie; it is a dizzy, gorgeous free fall. The clean up is awful…Women who knit are able to sit still. They can sit with themselves for hours and not want to crawl out of their own skin. They can forget themselves for a minute and pick themselves back up again. They can give and not take.
The essay is delightfully unassuming and deliciously self-aware; uncovering both introspection and universality. The author isn’t congratulating herself on finding a great metaphor, she’s humbly walking the reader through her thought process of discovering the many ways this metaphor is meaningful. One of the most stunningly beautiful things about the piece is the economy of language: the author tells you just as much as you need to know and goes in just enough detail to make every word purposeful and sparkling.