Hard Time: A Brit in America’s Toughest Jail
By Shaun Attwood
Mainstream Publishing 2010
Reviewed by Christopher Zoukis
Most people are happily ignorant of the difference between the term ‘jail’ and ‘prison.’ And since you don’t learn the difference until after you’ve been arrested, ignorance is indeed bliss. Jail is where prisoners are held while their cases are pending. If convicted, prisoners are sentenced and shipped off to prison, where they serve out their time.
Most prisoners, whether in jail or prison, are not inclined toward literary endeavors. Which pretty much explains why so few jail or prison memoirs are published. Of those that are published, only a few are good. Two ‘good’ ones that immediately come to mind include Kenneth Hartman’s Mother California and Jimmy Lerner’s You Got Nothing Coming.
A third one can now be added to the list – Hard Time.
Hard Time is the true story of Shaun Attwood. Attwood was born and raised in England. After taking a degree from Liverpool University, Attwood migrated to Phoenix, Arizona, where he worked as a stockbroker. Attwood flourished in his career, bringing home $500,000 a year.
When he wasn’t making money, Attwood was raving. Raving is a combination of Halloween, earsplitting rock n’ roll music and, of course, drugs and alcohol. Drug-fueled, non-stop wild partying is another way to put it. And for Attwood, it was not only fun, but also a stress reliever. His drug of choice was Ecstasy, but pretty much anything would do in a pinch.
Eventually, Attwood quit his day job – which had been very, very good to him (he was rich) – and concentrated on buying up large quantities of drugs and partying. Since his parties lasted for days and included all the free drugs anyone could want, he had a lot of friends. Life was good for Shaun Attwood.
Then everything went to hell in a handcart. The police arrested him and tossed him into Maricopa County Jail, which is run by Sheriff Joe Arpaio, who is also known as “America’s toughest sheriff.” Sheriff Arpaio’s reputation is well-deserved. He is tough. However, he is also the most sued sheriff in America, because of his jail’s deplorable conditions, extreme violence, and prisoner death-rate.
Shaun Attwood spent twenty-six months in Sheriff Arpaio’s jail. Welcome to Hell on earth. Attwood’s life in jail makes Dante’s Inferno look like a Sunday school picnic at the beach. For the jail was awash in sewage, cockroaches, food unfit for human consumption (you wouldn’t feed it to a dog), contraband drugs, and brutal violence. This, despite the fact most of the prisoners held there were – supposedly – innocent until proven guilty.
Attwood tells his story in sparkling prose that flows like ferociously goosed up electricity. For example, “A topless man with WHITE PRIDE tattooed across his midsection barged past Billy. Everything about him screamed king of the jungle. Size. Aura. Blond mane. ‘Wattup, dawg! I’m Outlaw, the head of the whites.’”
Besides his knack for telling a story and his yummy use of the English language, what makes Hard Time so interesting is that jail changed Shaun Attwood. He went from being a spoiled rotten rich kid to a mature, thoughtful human being. In other words, living in the middle of a twilight zone teetering on the edge of the Abyss had a modifying effect on Attwood. And watching the metamorphosis take place is a large component of Hard Time’s attraction. For the reader, it’s like watching a chameleon change color.
Before arriving in jail, Attwood’s life revolved around money and pleasure. In jail, his focus expanded. He began reading literature and philosophy, trying to understand the human condition, his condition. And he took the first baby-steps toward becoming an author, writing letters and articles, and blogging.
Hard Time is an accomplished literary work that moves along like a thriller. It has tension, humor, a plot, and snappy dialogue. At the same time, it’s a story about real people, who although flawed are still human beings. And buried underneath the primary story is a scathing indictment of the U.S. penal system.
On the Read-O-Meter, which ranges from 1 star (really bad) to 5 stars (really good), Hard Time gets 5 stars.