Behind Bars – Jailers and the Jailed


Cathy’s Hidden Gems features favorites & lesser known selections from the fiction shelves of the Portsmouth Public Library.

OITNBIn an interview with NPR, Piper Kerman says the Netflix series Orange Is the New Black is “…actually very closely derived from what’s in the book and from my own life. But there are other parts of the show which are tremendous departures and pure fiction.”

The popularity of the show, based on Kerman’s memoir of the same name about her year in that minimum-security women’s prison, confirms that we are fascinated with what goes on behind bars.

EdgeNew to the Portsmouth Public Library collection is The Edge of Lost by Kristina Morris (2015). Two stories, one beginning at the infamous Alcatraz prison in 1937 and the other an immigrant story, are woven together with heartwarming characters, especially Shanley Keegan of Ireland.

Prayers-for-the-Stolen-pbk-coverFor a hidden gem, we head south of the border to Mexico. Prayers for the Stolen by Jennifer Clement (2014) is her first novel published in the US and based on 10 years of interviews.

In Ladydi Garcia Martinez’s village in the tropical mountains near Acapulco, she and her friends are “made ugly” by their mothers, to protect them from the roving drug traffickers and criminal groups that plague the region. After her involvement with Mike and drugs she ends up in a women’s prison as a teenager.

The Santa Marta jail in the south of Mexico City was the biggest beauty parlor in the world. The bitter and citric scent of hair dyes, hair sprays, and nail polish permeated the rooms… In the prison office where I was booked there was a blackboard on the wall. A scrawl of white chalk kept track of the foreign inmates and children. In the jail there were seventy-three children who were all under the age of six. There were three inmates from Columbia, three from Guatemala, one from the United Kingdom, two from Costa Rica, one from Argentina, and one from the United States.

Her life has been a trail of fear and broken promises but the women in the prison stuck together just as the women in the village were there for each other.

Because of her age, they couldn’t keep her in that “jailbird birdhouse,” but Ladydi would have to return to jail when she turns 18… if she stays in Mexico. An intense story of family and friendships.

PrisonerofBirthPrison friendships can be life altering, as we read in Prisoner of Birth by Jeffrey Archer (2008).

Danny isn’t responsible for the death of his best friend; he was just in the wrong place at the wrong time. Nick did his best to be a good officer to his men and would not leave them in the lurch. The two look eerily similar…..

Soon after Nick has his release interview, where he gets glowing recommendations from the staff, the heat comes up from the underbelly of the prison.

When the cell door was pulled open, Hagen was standing in the doorway. “Cell search.” Nick, Danny and Big Al made their way out onto the landing… Hagen marched into their cell and pulled the door closed behind him. The surprise was not that a screw was carrying out a pad search. They were common enough – officers were always on the lookout for drugs, drink, knives, and even guns. But whenever a cell search had taken place in the past, there were always three officers present, and the cell door was left wide open so that prisoners couldn’t claim something had been planted… A few moments later the door swung open and Hagen reappeared, unable to hide the grin on this face. “OK, lads.” He said. “you’re clean.”

Archer, member of Parliament and author of over 30 books, served two years in prison for perjury, so was well acquainted with the prison community: a whole society of who gets the best jobs – food vs. library vs. records, who is shunned, and who gets privileges.

As the twists and turns continue, in classic Archer fashion, we don’t know whose plotting will win.

SwallowsA book group pick for 2016, we taste the dust and despair of Kabul in Swallows of Kabul by Yasmina Khadra, pen name of an Algerian military officer and translated from the French in 2005. As we meet Mosheen, who has no work or direction, and Atiq, a jailer, we wonder how their lives will intersect.

The darkness of the walls has got the better of his reason, and his dark employment is taking root deep in his soul. When a man spends his nights guarding condemned prisoners and his days turning them over to the executioner, he doesn’t have high expectations of his leisure time.

In fact, it is the lovely Zunaira, wife of Mosheen, and long suffering Musarrat, wife of Atiq, who weave the destinies for the two couples, with harsh consequences for them all.

TalkTalkAll Dana did was run a 4 way stop sign. Identity theft is one of the themes of Talk Talk by T.C. Boyle (2006) which begins with a frightening account of her weekend in jail.

They booked her, fingerprinted her, took away her pager and cell phone… The lips of the policemen flailed at her… “I teach at the San Roque School for the Deaf… You’ve got the wrong person.”

The handcuffs prevented her from “talking” when the ASL interpreter arrives but in spite of his clumsy signing he makes it clear there are multiple outstanding warrants.

After posting bail, Dana and boyfriend Bridger trek across the country to uncover the truth of Dana’s innocence. They dig deeply into issues of identity and language as well their own relationship. We see prisons of silence and anger as hard lessons, also.

They stopped one night at a motel in a college town in western Pennsylvania, both of them so keen to escape the torture chamber of the car they no longer cared whether Frank Calabrese got to New York ahead of them or if he’d defrauded another half-dozen people in the interval… Bridger was ready to let it go, give it up, repair the damage and move on, but Dana was intractable.

A compelling journey not neatly tied up, which is true of many of Boyle’s books.

For further reading check out the BOOKS BEHIND BARS list by ABE BOOKS and the non-fiction book Pruno, Ramen, and a Side of Hope: Stories of Surviving Wrongful Conviction (2015) by Courtney B. Lance.

Hidden gems is a blog series by Cathy Okhuysen of the Public Services staff at PPL, lover of historical and general fiction and contemplative music singer. If you have suggestions for something that should be included in a future blog post, email her

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