Jailed, by Myra Sherman
Desperanto Press (December 2011)
Reviewed by Marko Fong
Everyone writes about prison, even Martha Stewart. We expect prison literature to include some mixture of horrific cruelty, myth, transformation, and poetry. Whether it’s The Green Mile, Papillon, or Falconer, prison has a mythic quality. Almost no one writes about jail, prison’s less romantic, more temporary cousin. In fact, Myra Sherman’s fine collection of fourteen short stories, Jailed, may be the only American jail fiction currently in print.
Sherman draws on fifteen years as a mental health director for a county jail to examine the institution through the lens of individuals affected by their ties to a fictional California jail. The result is an unsparing and wide-ranging look at jailer and jailed alike. Sherman even includes the perspectives of spouses who never set foot inside yet can’t escape its toxic shadow. Whether it’s a Berkeley-educated guard, a drug-ravaged man with a genius IQ, or even a therapist who spends a single eight hour shift there, her jail negatively affects everyone. Harry, the cop turned prisoner, muses, “He wasn’t worried about somebody recognizing him. It was more like he didn’t want to recognize himself.”
Jailed, though, is more than sociology disguised as fiction. Sherman builds setting through precise “been there” details like “food port interviews,” metal stairs, and the dishes in the “servery.” She also has an excellent ear. In “Third Strike,” an addict mother refers to her child’s “rose-petal ears” just before relinquishing custody. In “Arrested,” a retired school teacher in for drunk driving tells a guard, “Hope your day goes well,” as she slowly realizes that she’ll spend the night behind bars instead of her condo in Rossmore. In “Jewel of Oakland,” a bi-racial young woman touchingly summarizes the consequences of her mother’s disastrous choice with “I don’t see my mother, I don’t want to.”
Sherman delivers her take on the institution’s dysfunctional politics without editorial comment. An inexperienced therapist becomes clinical director. An African-American psychologist, who understands the system well enough to get her “guys” the services they need, gets passed over. A guard who communicates with prisoners retires quietly, while a guard who has sex with an inmate starts to move up.
In general, Sherman’s plotting is more about revealing characters than developing them. The best her characters can hope for is to retire or to minimize emotional damage. As a result, the stories go from bleak to really bleak. This is more a function of Sherman’s commitment to accuracy than any shortcoming as a writer. Her characters can’t rescue one another or their jail. They don’t grow or develop; as long as they’re in jail, they can’t.
Jailed is a rare example of socially-conscious fiction that also has literary integrity. It does not polemicize. The stories only ask that we look at the institution as it really is. If emotional honesty is the starting block for great fiction, Sherman is off to a very clean start. Her book should appeal to both those who work in or have an interest in our criminal justice system and to those who simply want to know the hearts of those inside it.