Prison NoirPrison Noir by Joyce Carol Oates

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

currently 2.2 million citizens are locked up in prisons and jails in the US. we are apparently the world leader in incarcerating our own, by a long shot–we have 25% of the world’s inmates, with only 5% of the world’s population.

go USA! we’re #1… what a lot of lives we throw away.

Prison Noir is a collection of short stories written by inmates and edited by JCO, and good for her, by the way. prison is a subculture the majority of americans don’t know anything about, don’t want to know anything about. would probably run away if you tried to tell them anything about.

the stories are written by men and women incarcerated at the time of writing (some have gotten out since, one was executed by the State of Florida). they make for horrific reading–tales (most, i think, barely if at all fictional) of fear and sheer awfulness not many of us could withstand. violent horrors, the horror of boredom, the horror of having no exit but suicide (the suicide rate, probably underreported, comes in at 29% of deaths, according to a DOJ report)–the book does not make for cozy reading.

but 2.2 million people? that’s more than four times the population of Sacramento. more than twice San Francisco. 2/3 that of LA. that’s a lot of people.

they deserve to be heard.

the stories vary from the intensely immediate to the oddly philosophical, with every variation in between. all are deeply affecting, a few entirely unforgettable. i find “Bardos” and “Angel Eyes” the standouts–the first for its rather cerebral and disaffected horror, the second for the unbearable suspense. “A Message in the Breath of Allah” is a story of psychologically unmoored morality. “Milk and Tea” introduces us to a life so deranged–and yet so common–that killing is the only rational response.

every one of these stories has a crucial message for those of us not bound to the treadmill of repeat incarceration, or struck by the lightning of the justice system: that those we lock away are still human beings not fundamentally different from ourselves. these writers deserve our ears, because they have a lot to tell us about who they are, and who we are to so cavalierly throw them away.