Q&A with Nonfiction Contributor John Langenfeld

John Langenfeld has a master’s degree in literature from University of Houston at Clear Lake. He has been published in Threepenny Review, Southampton Review, Bayou Magazine, Roanoke Review, and Barnstorm Journal, and was a finalist for the Frank McCourt Memoir Prize 2017. You can follow him on Twitter: @John_Langenfeld.

John’s piece “Henway” will appear in the Fall 2018 issue of Carve. Preorder or subscribe by Tuesday, October 2, for special savings and discounts.

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“Henway,” takes us inside the Texas prison system and offers a window into a day working in the “sign shop.” John, at what point did you start drafting stories about your time in prison, and what has that process been like?

I was paroled in 1990, but didn’t start writing about my prison experience until around five years ago. The process has been both a blessing and a burden. In one sense, it’s refreshing to shape the experience into a narrative that brings out the humanity of those involved, but reaching back into that regrettable decade-and-a-half has been a struggle at times as well. I’m out, gratefully, and writing about it is a way of re-entering it, which isn’t what most of us on this side of the fence yearn to do. I choose to because I want to share the experience with people who have never served, and probably never will serve, time.

“Henway” paints a portrait of how men often create social bonds in group atmospheres, and it offers a humorous scene in which one inmate becomes the butt of a group joke. What do you believe is the innate reason men do this when bound together, and was it more pronounced in the constant all-male environment?

Good question, Cameron. There are plenty of cliques in prison, and within those cliques there is a lot of joking around. It seemed to me a way that the guys could feel more tight-knit within their group, and in a dangerous environment like Beto, that feeling of kinship provided a sense of security. The incident I wrote about in “Henway” was unique, though. The joke flowed over from our little group, and other groups joined in. It brought people together who usually kept their distance from one another, albeit at one guy’s expense. We wanted to laugh with him about it, but he simply wouldn’t admit that he didn’t know what a henway was, so the joke took off on its own.

As for whether cliquing up is more pronounced in all-male environments, I don’t believe so. There’s safety in numbers. When locked in a hyper-predatory environment, women are as apt as men to hang with those they feel can protect them.

From John Oliver’s recent episode on restoring the right-to-vote for felons to former President Obama’s 2015 visit to the El Reno prison in Oklahoma, the topic of prison reform has become more visible to American citizens who may not think regularly about the way our prison systems work. Is there anything on this front, and outside of the story we are publishing, that you would like to share with Carve readers?

YES! First, I’d like to point out that at least 95% of all state prisoners will be released at some point in their lives. If society would focus on rehabilitating inmates instead of exclusively punishing them, society at large would benefit. Studies show that the higher an education one achieves while incarcerated, the less chance they have of re-offending, which translates to fewer victims. Also, vocational and substance abuse programs help tremendously to turn lives around.

However, once released, ex-inmates need jobs. Employment is imperative for success on the outside. Understandably there is a lot of resentment and distrust by citizens in general towards people who commit crimes, but until employers become more willing to hire convicted felons, a large and ever-growing swath of our population will remain effectively disenfranchised.