Troubling Tales of `Jailface' Survival

BOOKS

By , JoAnne Page is executive director of the Fortune Society in New York City, a nonprofit organizaton that works with ex-offenders.

SING SOFT, SING LOUD by Patricia McConnel, New York: Atheneum, 246 pp., $18.95 `SING SOFT, SING LOUD'' is a troubling book: bitter and angry, manic, introspective, and lonely, at times funny with the knife-edge humor that has crying woven through it. The book is a series of stories told from the perspectives of two women serving time and hustling on the streets. Although fiction in name, it bears the life stamp of its author.

Patricia McConnel offers a portrait of two women involved in prostitution and drug-dealing. Neither experiences the high-rolling glamour played in novels and television. They just survive one day at a time. Few punches are pulled in the description of jail and prison life where helplessness, degradation, and a trapped feeling pervade. The stories, by and large, are not of physical abuse; rather, the subtle slashing at already damaged self-respect, at being caged and powerless.

Often, the women's efforts to end self-destructive habits result only in a tighter dependence on men who mean them no good; or, temporarily, in terrified joy that comes from the freedom of having hit bottom with nothing left to lose. It is clear that McConnel has lived through what she writes about and the pendulum swing and suppression of emotions and hope she describes were her own.

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Iva, the first woman we meet, is system-wise and hard-shelled. She has learned to wear a ``jailface,'' a way of hiding what life holds for her: ```Partly, jailface just happens when you been under everybody's heel too long, but after a while you learn to do it on purpose so you never let on that you're scared or feeling pain or worry or sickness. What you do is, you freeze your face so nothin' moves.... the minute a screw (guard) knows you're scared or weak, she's got the upper hand, and she jumps on you with both feet and she don't let up 'til she's had her satisfaction, which in most cases is to see your spirit dead.... Maybe you've given up, maybe you're a ... zombie, but just about anybody got a little life left in 'em that can spark up the minute they latch onto a little piece of hope, and if you got jailface you can keep that hid from the screws so they can't stomp it out of you.'''

She speaks of trying to break out of the cycle of prostitution, abuse, and incarceration that traps her. When her efforts fail, because she has neither a sense of worth nor job skills the working world will reward, she falls back on the emotional strengths she learned in prison to steel her through the return to the pimp she had walked out on.

Toni, the second woman, is younger and still dreaming of a more hopeful future. Her story starts as she runs to a drug dealer for protection against her violent boyfriend. This leads her, as night follows day, to prison after her arrest for transporting this new ``protector's'' drugs. We see prison through her eyes and watch her learn the same lessons of hardening and withdrawal that had both helped Iva survive in a street and prison world and trapped her in that world.

McConnel ends her book with an afterword that grounds the fictional work in her own experience. She closes with a plea to the reader to help provide prisoners with an alternative to the despair of repeated criminal activity and incarceration.

``We don't need excuses made for us. We need programs that are truly rehabilitative, run by sane and humane people. We need education and job training. We need options.'' She makes it clear that many go back, not because they want to, but because the experiences they live through further trap them in a world in which they feel nothing better is possible for them.

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