Trust on Life Support is a raw and riveting narrative that’s almost impossible to put down.
Written as a first-person memoir, Ajut’s novel Trust on Life Support is a scalpel-sharp account of life as a guard inside America’s maximum security prisons.
Utopia—her father’s nickname for her, and the only name she is known by in the text—begins her prison career as a trainee. She is determined to work as a guard; she ends up serving in some of the toughest men’s and women’s prisons in the country.
The book gets off to a halting start. A preface, introduction, and opening chapter all repeat the book’s themes: that the prison system is relentlessly sexist; that the experience of being a guard is nearly indistinguishable from that of being a prisoner; that it’s often the prisoners, not the guards, who have control; and that anyone with interest in becoming a guard should think twice. These reiterated conclusions suggest the book might become a screed by a discontented former employee. A few pages in, though, the book shifts gears, takes off, and leaves doubts in the dust.
Real incidents and details bring earlier conclusions to harrowing life. As a woman in a mostly male milieu, Utopia is subjected to than more than the usual amount of mettle-testing, both during her training and on the job. Sexual harassment incidents abound, including a colleague who locks her in a maximum security wing to force her to agree to a date, and a matron in a women’s prison who seeks career revenge after Utopia refuses her advances. A pile-up of sexual and psychological incidents drives home another of the book’s points: that people in confinement, whether they are technically free guards or inmates sentenced to life, will harass, bully, and play mind games with others to exert their autonomy.
Why would someone choose to work in such an atmosphere? The book delivers another surprise as Utopia casually mentions how her early life prepared her to be a survivor: she grew up in a crime- and drug-infested area as the daughter a wife-beating, alcoholic father and a mother who could never leave him. The writing’s forthright, dispassionate style makes this revelation all the more effective. Without traces of self-pity or sarcasm, Utopia expresses gratitude for her past and for the father who taught her much-needed survival skills.
The irony of escaping a hard early life to work in a prison is not lost on Utopia. She is keenly perceptive, and the story abounds in insights, both into her own choices and into the ways that prison foments pathological behaviors in all involved.
The book is rich in realistic details. For example, to suppress their sexual appeal, female guards must keep their hair short or tightly pulled back and must not wear perfume, jewelry, or makeup, yet they are required to wear uniforms with fitted pants and shirts that inevitably leave breasts, hips, and buttocks on display.
A subtitle describes this book as a novel, yet the front matter frames this as the author’s personal story. Read as personal memoir, it has power that transcends fiction. Read as fiction, it hits a high mark for simulated nonfiction. Either way, Trust on Life Support is a raw and riveting narrative that’s almost impossible to put down.
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