We’ve seen it all already, and it has been real enough, the cellblock riots, the black majority, what goes on inside prison walls. We’ve heard the clang of the lockdown, the vocabulary and prime-time tales of buried lives. What haven’t we had acted out for us at the multiplex and at the touch of the remote? Yet we are still readers, notwithstanding the screen’s potent and passing impact. We think better, reading, and perhaps we even think for ourselves. ”Doing Time” brings together fiction, essays and poems by 51 writers, and evokes a range of prison experience that is unusual in its personal news; there is a groping authenticity of language here that encourages us to think again about prison life.

One bitterly conflicted voice dismisses prison writing and with it the hopes a fellow inmate entertains for a magazine the warden plans to start. This essay, by Paul St. John, is a painful rumination on prison writing that dares to suggest that inmates sometimes exaggerate the violence they witness behind bars. Yet by the time he is done, St. John cannot avoid his own insights into what he sees around him, including an inmate’s suicide and a guard whose son has AIDS; everyone’s story is somehow accessible to his crescendos of reflection.

What we learn is contradictory. A grotesque, half-ludicrous image of a man trapped in a blazing cell, in the ”Initiations” section, twists in my memory, as does its point: if you fix up your cell, clutter it with books even, to ”make yourself believe you’re somewhere else,” you risk being made a target — perhaps by someone wielding a lighted match. How much solitude (and solitary), on the other hand, will an illiterate beginner go through to learn to write? In his essay ”Coming Into Language,” Jimmy Santiago Baca must protect and encourage what he hardly knew he had in him. To reach others he must be alone.

Tougher than solitude will be time. Listen to Chuck Culhane, in his poem ”After Almost Twenty Years”: ”This is getting difficult. / Perhaps there’s another formula / for happiness and contentment / I haven’t explored or exhausted yet.” Another poet, Roger Jaco, writes: ”unwanted time. . . . If only / we could give it to the dead.” The poets here often bring us back to the mere everyday piecing together of sense: a bright shirt is ”worn through months of / nursing.”

In ”Doing Time,” inmates wager what they can’t afford to lose in complex games of handball and in business scams; prison life is a den of lurking tests and survival rules. Prison inmates work at self-esteem (as Dostoyevsky observed). Judee Norton is told that her teenage son’s visitation rights are suspended because he has questioned the prison’s dress code; when she defends him, the captain tells her it’s obvious where her son’s bad attitude came from.

This teeming archive contains an argument, one that the volume’s editor, Bell Gale Chevigny, puts forward convincingly. Encourage writing and, as with other education programs, participants when they leave prison are less likely to wind up back inside. These programs have shrunk during the last 25 years, at a time when our costly prison population has increased by six times, largely because of mandatory drug sentences. Chevigny’s introductions to each of the book’s sections add up to a landmark essay on this crisis of waste. Yet if she defines the context, these contributors — whose work represents some of the best writing to emerge from the PEN American Center’s annual literary contest for prisoners — include her as much as she includes them. At a time when the nation wants less than ever to hear these voices, this book says to all readers, we are one — in the spirit of Whitman’s democracy. Some pieces in ”Doing Time” fall into polemic. Some are overwritten. We glimpse lives in progress, the difficult origins not always smoothed away in revision, the materials raw for our use.

Joseph McElroy is the author of Women and Men, The Letter Left to Me and other novels.

Copyright 1999 New York Times. All rights reserved.