Doing Time: 25 Years of Prison Writing is an anthology culled from the winners of the annual PEN (poets, playwrights, editors, essayists and novelists) writing contest for inmates. The 79 entries include many short poems, some short fiction (arranged mostly in various prison settings) and several autobiographical pieces and essays.
The editor, Bell Gale Chevigny, sets the tone by summarizing the recent period during which these pieces were written. The period began, she says, on a positive note, with wide acceptance of rehabilitative programs, a growing inmates' rights movement and great interest in inmates' writing. The period ends, however, with "punitive policies that have ... created a prison construction boom ... and eviscerated prisoners constitutional rights" (page xiii).
Those who agree with these sentiments will find Doing Time a valuable primary source of testimony to the failure of a repressive prison system to quash the inner human spirit of the underclass. Those who are skeptical that inmates' constitutional rights have been "eviscerated" during the past 25 years are more likely to reflect that many talented people have for one reason or another wasted substantial chunks of their adult lives.
Regarding the content of Doing Time, I proudly admit my inability to critique modern poetry. "A crime wave of kisses/bittersweet sensuality/flouting women-hating satraps/in their prison fiefdoms/furious/that love/cannot be arrested," concludes one paean on overcoming the difficulties of homosexual love in a women's prison. I do not know whether I should try scanning it or reflecting on the wisdom of prison sex policies.
The prose was much more to my taste, and I feel more confident in attesting to its artistic merit. I found Doing Time a bit of a nostalgia trip, a way of recalling the colorful inmates and their prison patois, spinning stories about themselves and the characters they have known. I could hear Detroit Willy talking to me between the lines. "Watch this one," he'd say, "he's runnin' game on ya."
The editor has arranged the material thematically, around topics such as initiations, players and games, family, the world, etc., and has prefaced each section with a commentary showing she has done her criminology homework.
Some of the pieces are indeed self-serving or polemical. Thus, "Pilots in the War on Drugs" blames a foolish drug policy for the deaths of those burned-out pilots who gamble their lives trying to make a fortune flying overloaded planes that would be unsafe at any speed. The author never realizes that these buddies of his would not exactly be the ones hired to fly the planes if all were safe and legal. Yet, it is a well-written and entertaining piece. Other pieces, such as "Ryan's Ruse," are colorful slices of prison life that ring true -- or at least represent an authentic exaggeration of a good prison yarn.
I do not see Doing Time as a reader for English classes unless one had a specific interest in offender-written literature. While it might make an interesting adjunct to a corrections course, one would have to be extremely careful to compensate for the bias in the writing. Perhaps its best market is former inmates and prison employees who like remembering that they were once insiders in a unique culture.
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|Author:||Homant, Robert J.|
|Article Type:||Book Review|
|Date:||Jun 1, 2000|
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