Tuesday, February 20, 2024

Jailhouse write! Riker's Island has become an incubator for literary production

Corey Kilgannon, How a Notorious Jail Became a Literary Hotbed, NYTimes, Feb. 18, 2024.

A female inmate falls for a handsome guard. He’s really a former con man in witness protection. Their forbidden flirtations smolder toward a climax: Murder!

It happened not on Rikers Island, but in “Rikers Island.”

The book, a 406-page romantic drama that sells for $18.99 on Amazon, is part of a expansive genre inspired by New York’s troubled jail complex. The authors are detainees and correction officers who have written scores of Rikers books, many self-published, that are available online, at neighborhood stores or from the trunks of authors’ cars across New York City.

This particular entry in the canon was self-published in December by Michele Evans, who began writing it while serving 18 months at Rikers. She had an eye for detail, a pencil cadged from a counselor and material all around.

“I knew I had gold as far as content was concerned,” said Ms. Evans, whose real-life crush on a jail officer inspired the plotline.

Riddled with dysfunction, violence and lawlessness, Rikers has produced a constant loop of lurid headlines, as well as a decade-long movement to close it. But it has also spawned an awful lot of literature.

The books include harrowing memoirs by guards, inspirational accounts by educators and thinly veiled fictional hellscape narratives by detainees. There are romances, fights and jailbreaks. Often, what the stories lack in polish they make up for in details observed firsthand.

Time on your hands:

“You have a lot of time to reflect on things, and your basic needs are met with three meals a day,” Mr. Campbell, a writer and translator, said. “When I was a starving artist in New York, I spent most of my time trying to make ends meet.”

There is a long history of literature written by authors who have served time, from Fyodor Dostoevsky and Jean Genet to Oscar Wilde and E.E. Cummings. To those names, add Deborah “Sexy” Cardona.

Ms. Cardona began writing in 2001 when she was locked up for a year on drug charges. She churned out two manuscripts at Rikers, then 11 more during six years in state prison. She self-published all 13 after being released and, she said, “sold 100,000 books in six months.”


Caleb Smith, an English professor at Yale University who specializes in prison writing and culture, said that inmates were often motivated to write about being rehabilitated, or to expose horrid conditions or just to put out something racy and entertaining.

There's more at the link.

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