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William A. Noguera is a self-taught and very talented artist who’s also a great writer, and his new memoir, Escape Artist: Memoir of a Visionary Artist on Death Row, is a compelling, insightful book.It’s not easy to interview a prisoner in the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, as in-prison interviews with inmates are not permitted. Noguera was allowed a series of 15-minute phone calls that were “monitored and recorded” as the robotic voice repeatedly informs us (we edited out most of these annoying interruptions).
Noguera’s powerful new book is one of the most impressive prison memoirs in many years, and reveals a man whose intelligence and insight are off the charts for a guy who has spent more than half his life in prison, and barely finished high school. His descriptions of prison life, the “language of violence” that’s used every day, and his remarkable survival skills are most revealing, and chilling at times. His escape into his art, lifelong practice of martial arts, and native intelligence have sustained him for more than 30 years on death row, as he fights to stay alive so that, eventually, the state can execute him.
He describes how being bullied as a child and teenager hardened him, as he trained as a fighter and excelled as a car thief. His book rotates chapters about his early years, time in the Orange County jail, and his longterm residence at San Quentin; in the interview he touches on those chapters and also comments on the challenge of serving an open-ended term that will most likely end with execution.
Escape Artist got nice coverage in The Guardian, and proceeds from the book go to a trust that will distribute the money to charities, as California bars inmates from profiting from books, articles, etc. You can get more information and donate to his trust here.