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Briefly noted: the season's highlights from scholarly publishers; Concrete Mama: Prison Profiles from Walla Walla, photographs by Ethan Hoffman, text by John McCoy. Columbia, Mo.: University of Missouri Press. 196 pp. $24.95

''Concrete Mama'' demands our willingness to face ugly questions.

Award-winning photographer Ethan Hoffman and reporter John McCoy spent four months inside one of America's toughest maximum-security prisons: the Washington State Penitentiary.

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They've given us a harsh and necessary book. It's nightmarish, claustrophobic. The scenes are often shocking; the language raw. Some readers may find the book unbearable, yet its most striking quality may be its objectivity.

Apart from Tom Wicker's excellent Introduction, ''Concrete Mama'' is devoid of analysis or interpretation. Instead, it shows us the prison's population, inmate and staff, as they see themselves and each other - and also the brutalizing, corrupting nature of the prison itself. Its unsparing honesty, coupled with a refusal to judge, make it an instrument of compassion - and perhaps of change.

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