Doing Time: 25 Years of Prison Writing- A PEN American Center Prize Anthology, edited by Bell Gale Chevigny

Reading a book full of writing penned in prison wasn’t exactly on my mind at the start of the year, but when I took up Book Riot’s 2019 Read Harder Challenge in late February, this was one of the tasks on the list, and Doing Time: 25 Years of Prison Writing- A PEN American Center Prize Anthology, edited by Bell Gale Chevigny (Arcade Publishing, 1999), was the only suggestion I could easily get my hands on (I always go for what my library offers first, before resorting to interlibrary loan. Saves the library money that way!). Incarceration has always been a subject that has interested me, so I figured this wouldn’t be a difficult part of the challenge.

What I wasn’t counting on was reading 20 pages and then getting struck down by the stomach virus from Hades, so what should’ve been a book that lasted two or three days ended up lasting almost a week. Anyhoodle.

Doing Time is a collection of prison writing- essays, poetry, and fiction- by various inmates incarcerated in various places around America, the country that boasts the highest incarceration rate in the world. There’s no doubt that we have problems with crime in this country (for many, many reasons, too numerous to get into here), but this book helped me to put into words something that’s irritated me for a long time. One of the best predictors for successfully avoiding a return trip to prison is a higher level of education. Educate your prisoners and it’ll cut the recidivism rate. But unfortunately, in this country where prison is big business (a good look at this terrible truth is Going Up the River: Travels in a Prison Nation by Joseph T. Hallinan), we cut educational programs for prisoners- sometimes entirely- and focus on punishing, rather than rehabilitating, which in turn makes it more likely that the prisoner will reoffend and wind up back in prison. This is a process that not only creates repeat offenders, it creates more victims. Furthermore, education in prison is shown to affect the prisoners’ behavior: inmates who participate in education programs are calmer and provide a calming effect on the rest of the prison population, which in turn keeps the guards and prison staff safer. So the next time you hear a politician talk about how he or she is ‘tough on crime,’ ask yourself what ‘tough on crime’ really means, and how that person’s proposed policies match up with what actually lowers crime, because punishment alone makes harder criminals and leads to more violence both in and out of prisons.

This is a book that alternately made me angry, and then sad. Some of the writers admit to what they had done that landed them in prison; some never mention it. That’s neither here nor there, though, in the grand scheme of the book. Some of the writing here is remarkable. There are stories and poems based on things the authors experienced within prison walls, essays on prison riots and the drug problem in the US, poems about the grief of incarceration and a life thrown away. It struck me again while reading this what a deep shame it is that the US doesn’t focus on rehabilitation, because by not doing so, we are wasting so much potential. People who could, with a bit of time and work, be helped and be trained to make meaningful contributions to society are instead thrown away like trash, their lives wasted and humanity all the poorer for it. This book is a testament to that point; Jimmy Santiago Baca (poet and author; a movie based on his memoir, titled A Place to Stand, was released in 2014; find him on Goodreads) and the author Richard Stratton are two of the writers, are featured within its pages. These men were, through education, able to work their way into becoming model citizens- Baca was even illiterate when first incarcerated. The editor does mention that most of the inmates whose writing appears in this book are those lucky enough to receive higher or continuing education while incarcerated, and the short bios in back of the book advertise several people who became professionals such as college professors and business owners. Isn’t that a better outcome than a seven in ten chance of ending up back in prison (the current recidivism rate)?

The writing in this book isn’t pretty in content. It’s gritty and painful and desperate at times; even the hopeful stories are tinged with an edge of sadness. How could they not be? But they’re eye-opening, a glimpse at a world where (hopefully!) I’ll never have to travel, and a world that’s greatly in need of deep reform if ever we want to realize the true potential of people who have made a few wrong turns in life.

Learn more about PEN America by visiting their website here.

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