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Book In The Belly of The Beast: Letters From Prison by Jack Henry Abbott (1982-03-01)


In The Belly of The Beast: Letters From Prison by Jack Henry Abbott (1982-03-01)

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  • Vintage Books (1822)
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Review Text

  • By Malipayon Puti on January 24, 2008

    I spent twelve and a half years in prison, but I have to agree with the correction professionals who have commented previously. The book is interesting in terms of describing what life behind the walls is like, but at some point, you have to take some responsibility for what you have done and where you are at, and Jack never seems to do that.I read this book during my first year of incarceration and was truly stunned. Heck, I even put him up on a dais. Jack is the MAN! Jack is the MAN! Then, as the years passed (whilst staring at the tops of trees over the prison walls), my perspective moved to something less black and white.My birth parents abandoned me. I hated the peeps that adopted me. I was smoking coke. I was doing steroids. I hit DYS and schools kicked me out. I was hanging out with the wrong people.But it wasn't their fault.I made the decisions that ended me up in prison for the best years of my life (23 to 36 - woot, where did my hairline go??). I decided to smoke base and shoot roids and rebel against that o sooooo terrible system. I made the decision to stick guns in peoples faces and rob them.Ya dig your grave and, durn it, you have to eventually lie in it.Prison wasn't nice. I saw men OD, hang themselves, and die right in front of me from multiple knife wounds. I was in riots and brutal fights. I witnessed it all, and it definitely left a whole lot of scars.But it was me that brought me there. Not the drugs. Not the social inequality. Just my own decisions.Actions and consequences, Jack, actions and consequences.And please don't read his second book - it's pathetic.A good book for describing the day to day life of prison and the attitudes that develop from it (I still don't like cops and have to sit at the far end of the restaurant so no one is behind me). But the whole "It's not my fault - it's the system" theme runs thin rather quickly.Recommend A Day in the Life (I lived three houses down from Alex Solz prior to the feds catching up with me) or The Hothouse over this.Finally (and another example of the carry over prison scarring issues), I have heard that Jack turned informant after his return to the Big House (before hanging himself).Babbling........ shutting up now - just read it.

  • By I. Gimlet on December 19, 2000

    "In the Belly of the Beast" is a selection from letters about prison life in America written by Jack Henry Abbott to Norman Mailer while Mailer was writing "The Executioner's Song." I figure there are more or less five reasons someone might decide to read it:First, you might be curious about what it is like to be stuck in prison -- a voyeuristic, or even macabre interest. Perhaps schadenfreude. You will be disappointed, I think. Less than a third of the book is devoted to Abbott recounting his experiences in prison. Although there are some terrifying or just plain creepy moments, the majority of the book is not devoted to an anecdotal account of prison life.However, Abbott does expend some effort explaining how prison life is structured to magnify the fear people experience in lock-up. For example, he explains how the authorities will take advantage of prison rivalries to off inmates they particularly dislike or just feel like taking down. The method I found most interesting is the "hands off list". The guards -- "pigs" in Abbott's parlance -- will decide amongst themselves to let one prisoner get away with anything he likes. He will basically be free to do as he pleases in the hopes that the fact that he is a "favorite" will irk the other prisoners so much that they will kill him. Apparently, the fact that a man in prison has this freedom means that he will feel compelled to abuse it -- in part because of the ethos he had to develop in order to survive. Give `em enough rope, basically. But he doesn't offer much prison jargon and there is almost no information on gang life, for example, or on how the drug trade is carried out or on how value is figured in the prison "market." There is nothing on the role of the mafia. Guess it would be bad karma in prison to be known as someone who tipped off the authorities as to how it's done. There's some information on how prisoners are "socialized" to prison. There is more information, but not much detail or many stories, about sexual life in prison.Second, you might be interested in how an intelligent man might develop politically in prison. Abbott obliges with a lot of grist for the mill. I believe that a significant portion of the prison population scores fairly high on IQ tests. (Abbott gives his as 139.) Given that there are more than a million inmates in the United States -- or a little less than .4% of the total population -- the book is rewarding sociological primary source material. In short, Abbott believes that our prison system is proof positive of the evil nature of our system and that it, like the society on the outside, is geared to make us less than men. As the Clash once asked, "What do you think they're gonna do to us" if they all got out at once? As others here have pointed out, two months after his parole, Abbott murdered another man.Third, you might be interested in it as "authentic" political theory. Although Abbott does make some interesting connections, "In the Belly of the Beast" is no work of genius and there are better political thinkers who did their work in prison. It is no Antonio Gramsci's "Prison Notebooks" or even Marquis de Sade's sexual socialism. Abbott does make some philosophical remarks about the psycho-sexual roles in prison, homosexuality and the idea of the male that are intriguing, if confusingly put. You get the sense that he, himself, is trying to figure out the consequences of what he's thinking as he's writing. In any case, he doesn't present a coherent, fleshed out, theory on this. Unfortunately, Abbott's political musings account for about a little more than a third of the book.Fourth, you could be interested in how inmates experience the "meta-structure" of prison. As I've explained above, there is some good material, but you should be warned you don't end up feeling like Abbott's given the complete picture. I thought it was interesting that a lot of torture methods used by prisons in the 1960's were the same as those used in the early 20th century as witnessed by Jack Black in "You Can't Win" -- a great book about hobos and life in prison at that time as well as William Burrough's favorite of all time. But Abbott gives examples from different times, never explaining it all for any given era. Still, should you be looking for points for or against Foucault's "Discipline and Punish" you would probably find Abbott useful.Finally, you might be interested in Norman Mailer's introduction. It's well written and somewhat insightful, but I think I'm safe in recommending that you just go down to your local bookshop or library, pull it off the shelves, and give it a read. Won't take you more than ten minutes. You won't be blown away, nor will you necessarily feel like you've wasted your time. But you probably won't feel like you have to have it for this reason alone.

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