Damascus James on Witnessing, Letter Writing, and Solitary Confinement
In January 2023, people incarcerated throughout the state of Texas organized a collective hunger strike to demand better living conditions. Months before, Canada native Damascus James had relocated to Texas from New York City, and began to write letters to incarcerated people in the state in order to develop connections with isolated communities. From his initial correspondence with one writer, James got connected with several people, including many who had been placed in solitary confinement for years. The letters he received multiplied as word spread within the prison systems, with people reaching out to share their experiences with the Texas Department of Criminal Justice and other personal stories. From these letters, James developed TEXAS LETTERS, an anthology series of letters penned by individuals in Texas living in solitary confinement.
In the latest episode of PEN America’s Works of Justice podcast, Malcolm Tariq, senior manager of editorial projects, speaks with James about his inspiration to start the project, his process of compiling the first volume of the series, and what he has learned from developing friendships with one of the nation’s most vulnerable populations.
Below is an excerpt from the transcript of the podcast. Click here to read the full transcript.
Malcolm Tariq: So today we’re joined by Damascus James, editor of TEXAS LETTERS. Thank you so much for joining us today.
Damascus James: Thanks for having me, Malcolm.
Malcolm Tariq: I’m really excited to talk to you about this project, when the book came into the office, we were all very excited. I think it’s a very big book. And you have the original letters in there, the transcribed letters. And it just seems like a really dope project and a lot to learn about, an immersive experience almost. So, thank you for all of the work you did to bring this book to life and to bring more attention to solitary confinement.
Damascus James: Thank you. No, thank you for having me and for helping, you know, bring awareness to it and to showcase these letters that are very, very important to me, but will hopefully become a catalyst for something down the road as well.
Malcolm Tariq: So, I think. Maybe getting started, if you can tell us what TEXAS LETTERS is.
Damascus James: TEXAS LETTERS is an anthological work, revolving around life sentences and solitary confinement in Texas specifically—at the heart of this journey. It’s really the notion of the misuse of power. It’s a collective work, which explores loss of sanity, humanness, and oftentimes hope through the personal writings of a diverse and growing ensemble of people who have spent months, years, and sometimes decades, within the bowels of these harsh run relenting conditions. That’s the basic overview, but it’s really so much more than that. It’s an ever-evolving project, really.
Malcolm Tariq: Right. And to just paint a picture for listeners, I have volume one. TEXAS LETTERS is almost a 400-page book. Exclusively black and white. How many letters are included?
Damascus James: It’s around 30. There’s 21 contributors in the book. And, and yeah, 31 letters, I believe.
Malcolm Tariq: And each letter there’s a short introduction, there’s the transcribed letter that the person wrote, and then we get a scan of the original letter. When it’s available, there’s a picture of the person. So, about 30 letters and 21 contributors. Some people wrote multiple letters, and it’s in order of when they were written, correct?
Damascus James: Yeah, it’s chronological. So the first letter was in June of 2021. By a person named Aaron Striz, who spent 20 years in solitary confinement. And then from there it was, you know, a consecutive series of letters by various people. And there was never any limitation on how many letters a person could contribute, it was as much or as little as they wanted to share about their experiences.
Malcolm Tariq: We’ll talk later about some of the specific letters and some of the specific people that are included in the project later, but can you tell us a bit about how this project started? What was the inspiration? What inspired you to do this?
Damascus James: Yeah, of course. Yeah. So, to backtrack a little bit, I myself grew up in Vancouver Canada. I moved to New York City in my early twenties to study film and theater, and in my early thirties, I moved to Houston where my wife is from. While there, I started writing to and visiting people, throughout the TDCJ, which is the Texas Department of Criminal Justice System, primarily people in solitary confinement and on death row. The first person I wrote to was in the general population. You know, people often ask why. Was I incarcerated? Did I have family members affected by the system? I didn’t. Rather, it really came from an indwelt interest in getting to know people that are in communities that are hidden away, far removed from society, and often in these rural regions.
It was curiosity, really, at the outset. A natural impulse to know and learn about those who are hidden away, and that was really kind of the catalyst for it. From there, it became, you know, an over-pen relationship. It turned into the opportunity to go and visit in person. Living in Houston, Houston’s kind of at the center of the Texas prison system in many ways. A lot of the larger units are within an hour to two-hour’s drive from the city itself. I would, you know, drive out to Livingston, which is where the Polunsky unit is that houses death row. They also have a large solitary confinement population as well.
After time, it just became a realization that there was a need here, in terms of people wanting to express themselves, and vouch for themselves. I think for the vast majority of people, myself included, who haven’t spent time in prison, your understanding of prison is based primarily off of media, news, film, television, and you’re not usually getting the entire picture. And this is what I quickly discovered after meeting these people in person and becoming friends with them, was that there was…there’s so much more to the story than meets the headlines or, what you’re taught. So, from here, it became a collective process and ideation period of, you know, how can we shed light on what’s happening?
I started to learn about their grievances and their, their personal trials and tribulations with, you know, the torture that is solitary confinement. I began to learn how it’s euphemized, it’s rebranded, and yet it persists, kind of, you know, abated really. So that was the catalyst for the beginning of the anthology. It was really with one letter and then it grew, spreading by word of mouth, within the prison walls, eventually evolving into this book that you mentioned, which is 392 pages. And really an unorthodox anthology that really covers the gamut from a web of violence and complicity to racism that’s really entangled with this statewide system, which, you know, is the largest in America. And that’s how it came to be.
Malcolm Tariq: That’s amazing that you wanted to learn more about this subject and you just did it and it turned into this really thoughtful project and you’ve maintained connections with the people who are included in it. Who was the first person that you contacted and how did you go about that? Did you ask someone if they knew anyone who was inside or did you search your people on the internet?
Damascus James: Yeah, there’s a large platform online called WriteAPrisoner.com, and that’s where I started. And from there you can write to people incarcerated throughout the country in different states.
I specifically focused on Texas, being that I lived there and that’s how it began. I wrote to a person named Mark to begin with, and then Mark was released. And, you know, I didn’t hear much from Mark after that period. And from there, I connected with Aaron. And then from there, Paul. And it went on and on like that, over a series of weeks and months. It just began to prod me, if that’s the right word, to ask the bigger questions of why do we have a system like this? What’s propping it up? How am I, and are we, reflected in it? I got to know the human beings behind these walls and they were some of, and are, some of the most eloquent, smart, compassionate people I’ve ever met in my life.
So, it’s been an eye-opening, you know, pondering deeply and beholding and bearing witness to this pain and suffering. It’s, you know, it’s not introspection for the sake of introspection. I’ve always been really interested in just civilization. And, also, Dostoevsky once said the degree of civilization in society can be judged by entering its prisons. And the more prisons I entered in Texas, the more I realized how true this was. And, the more I learned, the more it became apparent that silence becomes violence. And to not speak out about this, or somehow raise awareness, would be complicitness. And I just couldn’t be a part of that.
So, by being inactive and remaining mute, that’s in essence what I’d be doing. So I thought of a way, in tandem with these people, of how could we share. Because they would mention grievances they were filing through the TDCJ process to help their situations depending on what they’re going through specifically, you know. Most of them in indefinite solitary confinement for a variety of reasons, which we can get into, and having no reprieve, no release from the suffering. And really just stuck in a system that’s set up for failure really and I, honestly speaking with my, my wife who grew up in Texas, she was appalled and, and had had no idea that this kind of atrocity took place in, in her home state, to such a degree where people were locked in 6 by 9 cages for 22 to 24 hours a day for 20 plus years.
Which, in Texas you have over 500 people who have spent more than a decade in this type of environment. So, it’s been, like I mentioned at the outset, an evolving learning thing for myself. So, it’s been an evolution.
Damascus James is the publisher of TEXASLETTERS.ORG, an ongoing anthological work revolving around lives spent in solitary confinement in Texas. He is also the founder of ANTHOLOGIC (anthologicpublications.org), a non-profit publishing house amplifying writings that advance our awareness of oppression and injustice to foster conversation, break down barriers, and promote empathy.
Malcolm Tariq is the senior manager of editorial projects for PEN America’s Prison and Justice Writing program. His collection, Heed the Hollow(Graywolf Press, 2019), is the recipient of the Cave Canem Poetry Prize and the Georgia Author of the Year Award in Poetry. Originally from Savannah, Georgia, Tariq lives and writes in Brooklyn, New York.