A graphic, arresting account of prison as a way of life -- if you can call that joyless, numbing, regimented existence life -- as endured by the 400 women inmates the author has interviewed. Burkhart herself is basically an outraged humanitarian not a polemicist, and though she has seen enough to tell you that prisoners are ""the lepers"" of our society, she also says that these abandoned, misused and powerless creatures are ""like women I have known all my life. Just folk"" -- a statement that is either disingenuous or just plain maudlin. For as they describe their monotone, degraded existence in and out of ""the concrete womb,"" you realize just how far removed from the American mainstream most of them have been all their lives. Among the many who stand out: Pat, a beautiful Blackfoot Indian girl who came from a reservation, got lost in the big city, and fell in with a gang of forgers; Louise, white-haired and 71 years-old, railroaded through her trial, robbed by her parole officer, relegated to the refuse heap because being totally deaf she could not hear the evidence against her; Annestine who has ten children, has been in jail ""about ten times"" and says baldly ""I love to steal."" What impresses us most about this oversized book is not the analysis of why prison is a totalitarian and overwhelmingly negative environment, but the concrete particulars which begin with the ""reception"" when the women are stripped and fumigated to the day-to-day account of stinking food, maliciously withheld mail, appalling medical care -- all that constitutes the horrific ""normalcy"" of prison life.