Riots I Have Known is a slice-of-prisoner-life novella. An unnamed prisoner, who is hiding alone in the prison’s Media Center during a riot, describes his two year journey within the prison walls and the riot that is occurring around him.
The narrator is the editor of the literary-lauded prison monthly magazine, The Holding Pen. The warden likes the prestige the magazine gives him and so throws money at the project. He also approves the poetry and stories within the magazine including “Mi Corazon en Fuego y Mi Plan de Fuga”. Unfortunately, neither the narrator nor the warden understands Spanish or that the poem details the poet’s escape plan. The escape, and by extension the poem, begin the riot.
The narrator casually mentions the horrors of prison life. He meets his companion McNairy by being violently raped by him. The narrator meets a long-time prisoner who has survived three famous prison riots. The narrator pays him a carton of cigarettes for three rules of surviving prison riots:
- “Stay in your cell and lock yourself in.”
- “Hide your cigarettes under the bed slab.”
- “If you possess the fortitude to knock yourself unconscious, it’s a useful alibi for the exhausting post-riot investigations.”
Unfortunately, the narrator is too short of cigs to pay for the other nine rules…
While not for sensitive readers, I enjoyed Riots I Have Known. It is different from most mockumentary-type books. It is written with a literary voice. Rather than being laugh-out-loud funny, it requires some thought to see the humor, and irony, in the narrator’s situation. The book has an underlying theme that echoes One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Prison has its own culture that doesn’t work to “fix” law breakers. If anything, it encourages violence to prevent victimization by other inmates.
Whether you read it for the prison stories at a purely surface level or drill-down to the weightier themes, Riots I Have Known is an excellent short read. 4 stars!
Thanks to Simon & Schuster and NetGalley for a copy in exchange for my honest review.