Vignettes of prison life, as told from inside the ""big house."" Washington, who spent 16 years in federal jails after being convicted of murder (he claimed self-defense), serves an anedcotal smorgasbord of prison life and people. He goes for a nitty-gritty tone, as when he informs us that, in jail, ""criticism can come from the blade of a knife or a punch in the mouth."" The bulk of his text consists of thumbnail sketches of fellow felons, guards, escape attempts, and bureaucratic snafus -- all quite unevenly realized. His one-page portrait of ""Old Man Henry Carter"" is typical. Carter had come to the prison ""before rules were rules, and no records of him were kept."" Although old and stooped, he had a kind word and smile for everyone; even the warden was moved to create a job to uphold Carter's sense of self-worth: He swept floors and delivered empty envelopes to people who called him a ""good old boy."" Members of the Chaplain's Aid Committee took turns writing Carter so that he would receive mail, as did his fellow prisoners. When he died, the cause of death was listed by the doctor as ""PRISON."" Washington's sour attitude toward the inhuman and arbitrary prison bureaucracy -- it may be justified, but we've heard it all before -- contrasts with the cleanly expressed pathos of ""Carter"" and similar still lifes in this patchy collection. His peculiarly fecund material would probably be more powerfully realized as short stories. Righteous anger, pointed questioning, and a plaintive voice that cannot be denied -- but a far cry from the rage and fury of the best prison writing.