This anthology of material by winners of PEN America's annual prison writing contests provides a polyphonic chorus of rejoinder to our policies of maximum incarceration. The collection's prose is honed and direct, with many contributors striking a hypnotic balance between the urgency inherent in writing as survival and the punishingly absurd nature of their circumstances: though their literary imaginations range widely, bodily, they—re going no place. Most at issue is the individual reader's openness toward otherwise shunned figures. Several pieces are from longtime death-row inmates, presenting lucid, provocative narratives that don—t excuse their youthful brutality. A thick sheaf of entries represent the hapless POWs of the Drug War (often disadvantaged women), serving long sentences for semantic and violence-free crimes. The distribution of fiction, poetry, and essays into 11 topical sections (e.g. "Players, Games—) allows a textured diversity of excellent pieces, such as Paul Mulryan's scorching account of the 11-day Lucasville, Ohio, riot; Jimmy Santiago Baca's poetic reach toward lost family; Dax Xenos's O. Henry-winning fiction, "Death of a Duke—; and Robert Moriarty's droll, harrowing memoir, "Pilots in the War on Drugs." Introductory essays by Dead Man Walking author Sister Helen Prejean and SUNY Purchase professor emeritus Chevigny provide a moral chassis; the latter's piece charts the prison writing movement as a response to the fluctuations of penal theory between reform and retribution, offering a chilling vision of our current maximum-time, hard-labor model as a machine of social control, devouring ever more persons of color and of the underclass even as the crime rate declines. Essential reading for those concerned by this imbalance—and it should be more than essential for lawmakers and citizens who support the hard bargain of liberty for order without considering the darkness created.
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