When I first entered the netherworld of corruption and violence in 1993 for a first-time, nonviolent LSD conspiracy, the first two books I read when I hit prison were Norman Mailer’s The Executioner’s Song and Jack Henry Abbott’s In the Belly of the Beast. I was already a big fan of Mailer from reading The Naked and The Dead in my teens, but as a skinny, 22-year-old, white kid from the suburbs, with multiple decades to serve, I decided that reading Abbott’s book was paramount to my survival.
Being completely ignorant on prison life, besides what I’d seen in the movies, I knew that getting up to speed was crucial to my well being. Abbott’s book became a kind of prison Cliff's Notes for me. A guide on how to act, what to say, and how to conduct myself in any given situation on the inside.
During the writing of the The Executioners Song —a book about condemned killer Gary Gilmore, Mailer took Abbott—a New York state prisoner and self proclaimed “state raised convict” who’d served much of his life in prison for manslaughter, bank robbery and forgery charges—under his wing and groomed him as a writer. With Mailer’s guidance and support, Abbott not only became a prison celebrity, but was released in 1981 on parole, despite being prone to violence and having spent years of his sentence in solitary confinement.