Let me start by saying that despite the criticisms I’ll bring up later in this review, I was hooked on this book from the first page, and I read it quickly. My attention didn’t wane once and when I had a spare moment or two, you could probably find me pulling out the bookmark and reading this thing. Ferranti is a decent writer and the subject matter was captivating as hell.
Essentially, Prison Stories is a fictionalized, first-person account of Guero, a new inmate recently sentenced to a federal penitentiary for possession of massive amounts of marijuana. Between sections of the novel are shorter vignettes in which Ferranti writes about various aspects of prison life (“Snitch Culture,” “Lockdown,” and “Gumps”) through still more fictionalized characters or, possibly, true stories of guys that Ferranti’s done time with.
The novel starts when Guero has just rolled into the penitentiary, where he immediately befriends two of the biggest, most menacing guys he can find in an attempt to associate himself with a larger group and therefore keep himself from getting preyed on by other inmates. It turns out these two guys are actually two of the biggest drug dealers in the prison, and Guero quickly finds himself locked in the arms of the same shit that got him thrown in prison in the first place. A self-confessed “pothead,” this starts a chain of events that will shape him from a “kid from the suburbs” into a hardened vato loco convict—complete with his learning of the requisite moral code that convicts must adopt to survive, i.e., a snitch is the worst thing you can be in prison, respect is determined by how hard you are, how willing you are to fuck someone up or shank them, and loyalty to your crew is of paramount importance.
Guero, who’s actually a likeable character, eventually finds himself involved in a massive drug distribution network which the whole prison is soon reliant upon. Loyalties are crossed and constantly broken in the name of money, power, and prestige. There are beatings, murders, broken friendships, vengeance, the whole sordid mess. It’s a good story, and like I said, I read the thing quickly.
But I do have points of contention with the book. On one hand, I feel lame even questioning the accuracy of this novel or capping on it at all; it’s so far removed from my own life and way of thinking, and there’s that old adage of walking a mile in someone else’s shoes. I’ve never been to prison and my contact with prisoners is delegated to sending dudes zines when they write me and ask for one. That’s it. I’m not versed in the culture at all, and I’m not claiming I know what’s up.
That said, the characters in this book smoke more dope, drink more hooch, snort more coke, and shoot more heroin than the entire fucking population of metro Portland combined. The inmates do so with impunity; at best they have a “lookout” posted outside the cell, watching for a guard while they do their things, but even that seems rare. There are parts in the book where entire rooms or sections of the prison are taken over by various gangs where they just hang out, smoke dope out in the open, drink and fight, and there’s apparently not a guard anywhere. I’d always thought that the movement of guys in prison were at least mildly monitored and restricted. In Prison Stories, the inmates are rarely alone in their cells except at lights out—they’re constantly hanging out in each other’s cells or making dope deals in the yard, shooting pool, smoking each other out, tossing joints to each other, and walking the track while they blatantly light up. Again, it’s difficult because I’ve never been to prison, but my understanding, however ignorant, of how the penal system works was really put to the test with just the sheer ease, volume, and frequency with which these inmates acquire and use dope, commit acts of violence toward each other without retribution from the authorities, and pretty much seem to be given the run of the prison. Ferranti’s writings seem factual enough that he’s often believable, but it really flies in the face of what I always thought was a strict, vicious, and rigid structure designed to keep inmates isolated from each other. In Prison Stories, the main characters’ cell doors seem to be always open as they lackadaisically meander from one place to another.
Ferranti’s details are much of what is captivating about the book—his writings about the hierarchy of the prison economy is fascinating. The way he writes about “gumps” (prisoners who are raped or “kept” by other inmates, either through coercion or for protection), the way in which dope is traded for commissary (everything from books of stamps to sweat suits to chips to Walkmans, all purchased through the prison store), or money sent from inmates’ families straight to drug-drop locations out of state, to the simple fact that Ferranti says a chapstick cap full of pot is worth twenty-five dollars in prison, constituted much of what was so interesting about the novel. But again, it’s just hard to reconcile the ease of these guys’ movements and the total lack of rigidity in the system to what I thought I understood about prison life.
Like I said, I really did enjoy the book, and I’d recommend it to others. Still, as with many independently published books, there’s some problems here with editing. I liked the book enough to check out the publisher’s website—turns out Ferranti has both an AA and BA in English from college correspondence courses he’s taken since he was sentenced. That said, he really should’ve paid a bit more attention to his spelling. Grammatical errors are rife throughout the book, and one reader posted a comment on the site that about half of Ferranti’s Spanish spellings are incorrect. As well, there’s the occasional line that just makes me wince. Lines like, “It would be hard for him to make it but I held out hope that my carnal would make it,” really could’ve been put down better on the page. The frequent dialogue that consists entirely of (misspelled?) Spanish made it hard for a non-bilingual guy like me to really grasp what was taking place much of the time.
But as a whole, Prison Stories is a great read; there’s a comprehensive beginning, middle, and ending. It is definitely a novel. That said, if the book ever makes it to a second printing, more editing is definitely in order. And possibly a glossary, both of frequent Spanish sayings and prison lingo—hell, it took me thirty pages to figure out that “hitting rocks” was when two dudes hit fists together, their version of the handshake. Still, Ferranti’s voice is gritty and tough, his character makes plenty of mistakes but remains likeable, and I found myself absolutely entrenched in the book. I wouldn’t say it’s the consummate “prison novel,” but it’s emotional and gripping, and I sure as hell didn’t feel that I’d wasted my time when I turned the past page. –Keith Rosson (Gorilla Convict Publications, PO Box 492, St. Louis, MO 63376, <www.gorillaconvict.com>)