The American criminal justice system is a subject that fascinates and horrifies me endlessly; it has ever since I learned about the existence of for-profit prisons in my very early twenties. Since then, I’ve read quite a few books on prison and the court system, and when I saw Free: Two Years, Six Lives, and the Long Journey Home by Lauren Kessler (Sourcebooks, 2022) on NetGalley, I knew that was a book I needed to read. Huge thanks to NetGalley and Sourcebooks (of whom I’ve long been a fan!) for approving my request in exchange for an honest review.
Lauren Kessler has been teaching writing to prisoners for years. So much has been written about prisoners while they’re in prison; she wondered what happened after they left. How easy was it for them to rebuild lives? What made the difference between those who succeeded and those who ended up behind bars again? Ms. Kessler set out to follow six prisoners: five who had reached the end of their sentences and were returning to the free world, and one who was attempting to use the court system in order to shorten his sentence. All would face significant challenges.
There’s Arnoldo, who spent 19 years in prison but who used that time to grow into the man he knew he could be; Leah, with two children in the foster care system and an addiction to meth; Vicki, addicted to heroin and meth and with a long history of paper crimes (credit card fraud, identity theft, etc); Sterling, a juvenile offender who grew into a thoughtful leader while in prison and who is trying to have his sentence overturned; Trevor, whose sentence is overturned and who finds himself forming a life with his prison penpal; Catherine, imprisoned since her youth and released at 30, entering a world she’s never known as an adult; and Dave, who spent 34 years behind bars and who doesn’t understand anything about today’s fast-paced, tech-dominated society.
Lauren Kessler combines deeply emotional narrative with hard-hitting facts and statistics about the desultory state of the American criminal justice system. Free is replete with examples, from both academic studies and the devastating real-life effects, of what prison does to the people who spend time there, and how all of society is affected when punishment triumphs over rehabilitation. When 95% of prisoners will one day leave prison and return back to our society, shouldn’t we care more about how people are treated inside? Shouldn’t we be pushing more for rehabilitation over dehumanizing punishment, avoiding the learned helplessness that happens to so many prisoners and which serves absolutely no one? Lauren Kessler will have you reconsidering everything you’ve ever thought about what happens after the judge’s sentence takes place.
Free is a heartfelt plea for a more just society, a more just court system, and a world that seeks to understand and help rather than punish and discard. It’s a remarkable book that I cannot recommend highly enough, and that left me wanting to read everything Lauren Kessler has ever written. What a wonderful, thought-provoking book this is.