Doing Time: 25 Years of Prison Writing

“Doing time.” For prison writers, it means more than serving a sentence; it means staying alive and sane, preserving dignity, reinventing oneself, and somehow retaining one’s humanity.

For the last quarter century the prestigious writers’ organization PEN America has sponsored a contest for writers behind bars to help prisoners face these challenges. Bell Chevigny, a former prison teacher, has selected the best of these submissions from over the last 25 years to create Doing Time: 25 Years of Prison Writing—a vital work demonstrating that prison writing is a vibrant part of American literature. This new edition will contain updated biographies of all contributors.

The 51 original prisoners contributing to this volume deliver surprising tales, lyrics, and dispatches from an alien world covering the life span of imprisonment, from terrifying initiations to poignant friendships, from confrontations with family to death row, and sometimes share extraordinary breakthroughs. With 1.8 million men and women—roughly the population of Houston—in American jails and prisons, we must listen to “this small country of throwaway people,” in Prejean’s words. Doing Time frees them from their sentence of silence. We owe it to ourselves to listen to their voices.

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New York Times review of Doing Time on November 28, 1999

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.

Kirkus Reviews, May 7, 1999

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 collections 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.

—Copyright © 1999, Kirkus Associates, LP. All rights reserved.

Arcade Publishing, May 18, 1999

“As remarkable, as poignant, as mind-shattering as any other literature produced in the world. These are the voices of the people of the cage; the voices of some condemned to death, and those condemned to an eternity of years in hell. . . . You will be amazed by these pieces of work. You will be challenged. You will be struck. And that is as it should be, for these words are shaped into a mirror of consciousness, reflecting those who read them.”
—Mumia Abu-Jamal, author of Live from Death Row and Death Blossoms

“This volume of the best poems, short stories and essays from PEN’s twenty-five years of literary competition for prisoners could not be more timely. It comes at a time of renewed interest in American criminal justice policies, and the advent and expansion of the prison industrial complex. Mandatory minimum sentencing laws: the war on drugs with the disparities and irrationalities of the processes of sentencing . . . and the selective prosecution of minorities threaten the fragile and tenuous facade of American society. Still, from the depths and despair of incarceration emerges literature that is riveting, moving, and eloquent; open minds are revealed, rich ideas and thoughts roam free, unbounded by prison walls. This compilation offers invaluable insight into the struggle of prisoners to remain sane and whole. And for a time, writer and reader are transported between distinctly different worlds and become merged in each other’s humanity.”
—Mary Frances Berry, Chairperson, United States Commission on Civil Rights

“A book unlike any other, its authors the American entombed, the growing nation inside us. . . .”
—E. L. Doctorow, author of Ragtime, winner of the National Book Award

“This book as its title suggests is about time—stolen, lost, bought, served, abused, given away in, rage, sold for cigarettes or love, held still for a few minutes or hours. These are absorbing stories, essays, and wonderful poems by men and women, citizens, by edict or jury, of that huge colonized nation inside the USA—the one called Penitentiary or Prison. I want to thank them for their work, the art, the witness, the courage.”
—Grace Paley, author of Just as I Thought and The Collected Stories

“These essays, stories, and poems are essential reading. Dazzling, amazing, and very moving they are, all of them, gestures in the forms of literature. That is reason enough to turn to them for enlightenment. Yet they do more. These writers are reporting back to us, from a locale now inhabited by 1.8 million of our fellow citizens. We need to know them and what they see and do within the walls of their exile. We need to know how they manage. Do they change as they do time? Do we?”
—Marie Ponsot, author of The Bird Catcher: Poems, winner of the National Book Critic’s Circle Prize for Poetry

“Important and provocative, this collection tells us of an invisible world in voices compel a new kind of seeing.”
—Daniel Bergner, author of God of the Rodeo

“The literary messages in this collection work doubly as expressions of art and as documents of injustice. Doing Time constitutes a primary resource in the effort to gain full knowledge of what we have come to. We need to attend this bitter performance, all of us.”
—Norman Rush, winner of the National Book Award for Mating