At long last, a memoir comes to the readership that needs it most

No, your eyes do not deceive you, readers — that is in fact my name on the cover of a book. And not just any book, but one written by a memoirist who has long been a member of the Author! Author! community: Shaun Attwood, author of Skyhorse Publishing’s brand-new release, Hard Time: Life with Sheriff Joe Arpaio in America’s Toughest Jail.

If Shaun’s name sounds familiar, it should. As some of you may recall from my post last August, announcing the release of the U.K. edition of his memoir, I felt rather strongly that it was a terrible shame that readers in the U.S. — the country in which Shaun was incarcerated, and thus in which his tale of outrageous jail conditions is set — would not be able to find the book in most domestic bookstores. So when the fine folks at Skyhorse bravely stepped up to bring this startling memoir to North American readers, I was thrilled.

How thrilled, you ask? Well, let me put it this way: it’s the first time I’ve written an introduction for another author’s book.

What’s more, I did it for free. And I did so for a memoir by an admitted drug dealer, despite the fact that I had recently given the eulogy for one of my best friends, dead of an overdose. Believe me, I couldn’t be more hostile to drugs and the damage they so often do to creative people.

So why was I willing to introduce this book to the American reading public? Because at base, I believe Shaun’s memoir to be deeply anti-drug. It’s also one heck of a story — and, I think, an important one.

But you don’t have to take my word for it. Take a gander at the publisher’s blurb:

Shaun Atwood was a millionaire day trader in Phoenix, Arizona, but his hedonistic lifestyle of drugs and parties came to an abrupt end in 2002 when a SWAT team broke down his door. Overnight, Atwood found himself on remand for drug distribution charges in the notorious Maricopa Jail – run by Sheriff Joe Arpaio, a.k.a. the self-proclaimed “Angel of Death.”

In Hard Time, Atwood describes his life in one of the most controversial jails in the country. In vivid language, he illustrates a real world where rival gangs vied for control, crystal meth was readily available, moldy bread was the staple diet, and breaking the rules could result in beatings or even death.

Hard Time is the harrowing account of the twenty-six months Shaun spent trying to stay alive in a nightmarish world of violence, cockroach-infested cells, and food with dead rats in it. Atwood’s remarkable story provides a revealing look at the brutal, tragic, and even darkly comical aspects of life in America’s toughest jail.

“I once asked a guard how Sheriff Joe Arpaio got away with the illegal jail conditions,” Atwood explains, “and he
said, ‘the world has no idea what is really going on in here,’ so I decided to document my entire jail experience to change that.”

Arpaio’s jail conditions are notoriously atrocious. According to a judge’s ruling, the Sheriff admitted knowing about, and in fact intentionally designing, some conditions at Tent City that created a substantial risk of inmate violence. Inmates are routinely denied access to necessary medical procedures to the extent that one pregnant inmate’s cries of pain were dismissed by Arpaio and his staff, resulting in a miscarriage that could have been prevented by more attentive medical attention. In 2005, county health inspectors found the water well in the facility where the pregnant women were held to be filled with mice feces!

What’s worse is that most of the inmates in Arpaio’s jail, like Atwood, are awaiting trial and have not yet been convicted of any crimes. Deborah Braillard, a diabetic 46-year-old mother who was arrested for nonviolent crimes and was awaiting her trial in Arpaio’s jail, was denied insulin by the jail’s staff, and died shortly thereafter.

Hard Time reveals these and dozens of other atrocities committed by Arpaio and his staff in secret. “I hope that my book causes outrage from the American public,” Attwood exclaims, “and that changes are made for the inmates rotting away in Arpaio’s jail system. Changes could save lives.”

Of course, as a loyal member of the Author! Author! community, Shaun will be sharing his memoir-writing trials, tribulations, and tips with us in the weeks to come. I’ll also be hitting him up for some insights into how to find a great memoir agent. As he is also well versed in the tricky twin arts of public readings and talking about his book in public — two skills most first-time authors are generally desperate to learn, and pronto — I’m also in hopes of blandishing him into sharing his author presentation secrets with us sometime this summer. (And yes, campers, I will be walking you through the ins and outs of writing an introduction. Did you honestly think I would leave you in the lurch?)

But right now, today, I want to let his story speak for itself — and I can’t think of a better way to do that than to share Shaun’s original guest post from 2009, along with my original introduction to it. Not merely because what he had to say then was starling, but because I think it will be informative for all of you memoir-writers to see just how much his book concept did and did not change throughout the proposal, writing, and editing processes.

To render the piece even more interesting to those of you first shocked by it two years ago, I shall be adding some clips from a couple of Shaun’s inspirational anti-drug speeches. While I’m sure that all of us believe that the true test of any memoir — indeed, of any book — lies in what is on the page, I can’t resist offering you a bit more of the story.


Welcome again to our ongoing series on censorship, subtle and otherwise. Fair warning: today’s is of the not-so-subtle variety, so as they say on television, viewer discretion is advised.

I’m quite serious: this is most emphatically not going to be a guest post for the queasy. It is, however, an important voice talking about often-taboo subjects — and, I think, a fairly stunning tale about a writer struggling against incredible odds to tell a story that desperately needed (and still needs) to be told.

Therefore, I’m delighted to be introducing today’s guest author, Shaun Attwood, blogger extraordinaire. Since 2004, he has been writing Jon’s Jail Journal — and yes, in response to what half of you just thought, it was not safe for him to write under his own name when he first began trying to expose the grim realities of prison life.

Inexplicably, the folks who ran the prison took exception to that. I imagine that the authorities in the Dreyfus case objected to Emile Zola’s writing about that, too.

As my parents liked to point approximately once every 42 seconds throughout my excruciatingly literary childhood, that’s precisely what good writers are supposed to do, isn’t it?

To give you a sense of the scope of the incredible story Shaun has to tell, here is a blurb for his memoir-in-progress — which I, for one, cannot wait to read — that he was kind enough to share with me:

Green Bologna and Pink Boxers: Surviving Sheriff Joe Arpaio’s Jail is an account of my journey through America’s most notorious jail system, a netherworld revolving around gang violence, drug use and racism. It provides a revealing glimpse into the tragedy, brutality, comedy and eccentricity of jail life and the men inside. It is also a story of my redemption, as incarceration leads to introspection, and a passion for literature, philosophy, and yoga. The book ends with me starting Jon’s Jail Journal, exposing the conditions in the jail.

Call me zany, but I suspect he knows more than most of the rest of us about institutional censorship. So I am positively overjoyed that he has agreed to share some of his thoughts on the subject with all of us here at Author! Author!

Those of you reading in the UK may already be familiar with Shaun’s writing, either through excerpts of his prison diary published in The Guardian or the numerous articles on his efforts to bring public attention to appalling conditions for prisoners. He also speaks to young people about his jail experiences and the consequences of his drug use.

Even if prison memoir is not your proverbial cup of tea — even if memoir isn’t your usual reading material — please try not to turn away from the horrendous story Shaun is about to share with you. Read it, and read his bio, below. Consider visiting his blog to read what a talented writer has to say about being denied the right to share his writing with the world.

As writers, no one knows better than we the vital importance of self-expression to the human soul; this entire series has been about that, hasn’t it? After all, telling the truth, regardless of obstacles, is what good writers are supposed to do.

So please join me in welcoming a very brave and interesting writer, Shaun Attwood. Take it away, Shaun!