Writer Joyce Carol Oates tends to veer away from the lighthearted. She's a Princeton professor, the author of more than 70 books, the recipient of the National Book Award among other prizes, and the so-called "Dark Lady of Fiction" since her writing is so unflinchingly violent. Most recently, Oates edited Prison Noir, an anthology of 15 short stories written by current and former prisoners. Unlike "Orange Is the New Black," most of these stories aren't funny and they offer no sense of redemption.
But they are realistic. I helped run a theater workshop at a women's correctional facility in Michigan for a semester and Prison Noir is like one of those weekly visits. The writing might be a bit uneven, but overall the stories capture what prison is like: the fear and hostility emanating from prisoners and guards alike, the inevitable outbreaks of violence, and the pervasive grimness.
Like in Oates' own work, even the mundane becomes menacing. In "Foxhole" by the pseudonymous B.M. Dolarman, a prisoner in solitary recounts how in the summer, the air conditioning was only turned on if there was an execution. On those days "you could hear the men on H-South singing some kind of song all the way over on H-West. I could never make out the words, but it was the most mournful sound my ears have ever heard."
Oates also taught in prison. She led a writing workshop in California's San Quentin State Prison in 2011. Oates read through the submissions to Prison Noir while out west. There were over a hundred of them, from all over the country, written by convicted bank robbers, second-degree murderers, and aggravated assaulters. "I would sit in a window looking out towards San Francisco Bay. I had all these manuscripts. And I was marking them. It was an intensely emotional time," Oates told me.
Writing might be one of the most important things that prisoners can do to prepare themselves for the outside world. "My students at San Quentin [used] fiction as a way of diving into the psyche. I think that that's the idea of a penitentiary. The prisoner was supposed to be penitent. He looked into his soul and he gave a kind of penance for his crime," says Oates.
But why read their stories? The Prison Policy Initiative estimates that there are 2.4 million people incarcerated in the United States. The stories in Prison Noir reveal what their lives might be like. Contributor Christopher M. Stephen describes the charred meatloaf served through a slot in a cell door in "Shuffle," and a character in Sin Soracco's "I Saw An Angel" wakes up to "the stomp and rattle of the changing of the guard."
"In fiction you sort of become the person. You're living that life," says Oates. At the end of Prison Noir it's a relief to get back to your own life, though it probably won't feel the same after.
One of the contributors to Prison Noir is Eric Boyd, 25, who served about a year in Pennsylvania's Allegheny County Jail for aggravated assault, in 2010. I called him on a Tuesday morning, as he was sitting at the kitchen table of his house in Pittsburgh, to talk about writing in jail. He also told me about the time he got in trouble with a jail sergeant over a stack of books. His voice is low, and he chooses his words deliberately.
The job I did -- street gang -- I was fired from for smuggling books up to my cellblock. Someone dropped off some books, but they dropped them off to the wrong entrance. So this one [sergeant,] he goes, "Boyd, go pick up these books and toss 'em."
What books were they?
It was a treasure trove. I mean, for jail, it was some of the most unbelievable stuff. A lot of Stephen King, which I don't care for, but a lot of people did. Hemingway, Bukowski, A Clockwork Orange, Hunter S. Thompson.
So you took them?
Well, I hid them behind the control panel of the garbage compactor. The ones that looked good. At night, street gang always did garbage runs. So I took my brown paper bag and filled it up with all the books.
Next morning, everything's fine. I had chicken goo, that was the meat used for spaghetti there. It looks like an orange milkshake. The sergeant comes up to me, slaps me on the back really friendly, and goes, "You think you're gonna pull one over on me?" Then he started yelling. I had to give back all the books.
Was it hard to adjust to life outside, once you got out?
There are things you just don't get used to. For a couple days afterwards, you don't understand that you can open your own doors.
How did your writing change in jail?
I've been writing since I was 14. I go back and read older stuff -- I have all these flowery metaphors, I think I would sometimes write "indeed." It was just pitiful. Jail was kind of nice because it just strips you down to the bone. You're left with exactly what you need. Something about the jail had a very good way of killing off pretense. What did [Raymond] Carver say, "get in, get out." Jail will make you do that. You get in, and you try and get out.
What were writing workshops like?
When you're in the classroom, everything's permitted. The things that you aren't allowed to say in your cellblock, you can say here. That would all come out at once for some people. Because you know, you're not allowed to cry in jail. No one was concerned about if their story was getting published. No one was looking at it from a craft level. It was more: 'Does what you're writing mean something to you?' Because that's the first step to recovery -- whatever term you want to give it.
Was there anything beautiful about jail?
Yeah. I would say the most beautiful things actually came from the most disgusting things. And the need for human connection.
So the pipes in Alleghany County jail -- they go straight down, from toilet to toilet they all lead straight down. There were women on, I think, the 4th level. A lot of men would somehow strike up these relationships with the women. They would talk to each other through the toilets. They would empty out the toilets, best they could -- they would scoop out the water and put it in the sink or something. And they would talk to each other, because the pipes led straight up and down. You always know who would do that because they would get these terrible bacterial infections on their faces. But these guys, they couldn't care less. They'd [say,] "Yeah, I talked to my girl today."
Eric Boyd is a student at the Writers Foundry at St. Joseph's College in New York. He commutes weekly from Pittsburgh.