Book Review: Free: Two Years, Six Lives, and the Long Journey Home by Lauren Kessler

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.

Visit Lauren Kessler’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.


Book Review: Halfway Home: Race, Punishment, and the Afterlife of Mass Incarceration by Reuben Jonathan Miller

My last read of 2021 was one from my list, and ended up being about one of my pet subjects: prison reform, or, more accurately for this book, life-after-prison reform. I learned about Halfway Home: Race, Punishment, and the Afterlife of Mass Incarceration by Reuben Jonathan Miller (Little, Brown and Company, 2021) because it appeared on one of those best-of-the-year book lists. I added it and grabbed it on my next library trip. And it didn’t disappoint.

Scores of Americans are affected in one way or the other by our heinous system of mass incarceration. Whether it’s because they’ve done time themselves, a family member or loved one has been inside, or they or someone they know work for the system, few of us escape the burden of what mass incarceration has done to American society as a whole. Reuben Jonathan Miller knows this well. As a Black man, he’s fortunate to have grown to adulthood without having served time (since we imprison Black folks at a much, much higher rate than white, along with imposing longer sentences for the same crimes), but he hasn’t escaped the affects; his brother has served multiple sentences, and Professor Miller deals with the system constantly because of this.

Part memoir and all condemnation of the mass incarceration system that wrecks lives and wreaks havoc on the people tangled up in it, Halfway Home shows the difficulty formerly incarcerated people face in the afterlife of their sentences. How do they find a job when no one wants to take a chance on someone who has done time? How do they find a place to live when so many places have rules and laws against allowing people with criminal records to live there? How is it possible to survive when all the odds are stacked against you and society as a whole is determined to throw you away?

Halfway Home will open your eyes to the devastating effects of American mass incarceration. The punishment doesn’t stop when the sentence is served; the punishment never stops, and we keep punishing people until they die, with laws, regulations, and rules that limit where they live, where they can work, who they can spend time with, and the list goes on and on. And as for rehabilitation? No such thing in our system. Bootstraps only, and then we faux-wring our hands and are shocked, shocked, at the high recidivism rate.

Halfway Home will frustrate and likely depress you, but it will also open your eyes to what life is like for incarcerated people after the sentences end- and the frustrations that exist for the people who love them.

Follow Reuben Jonathan Miller on Instagram.


Book Review: Insane: America’s Criminal Treatment of Mental Illness by Alisa Roth

Ever since reading Going Up the River: Travels in a Prison Nation by Joseph T. Hallinan in my early 20’s, I’ve been fascinated by prison and have read about it often. And with prisons being the largest supplier of mental health care in the United States, I knew I needed to read Insane: America’s Criminal Treatment of Mental Illness by Alisa Roth (Basic Books, 2018) when I learned about it- partly because of this fascination, and partly for semi-personal reasons.

In Insane, Ms. Roth details the challenges the prison system faces being the provider of mental healthcare for its millions of prisoners. Funding is short, so providers- whom it’s difficult to hire for various reasons, including safety and lower-than-civilian-jobs salaries- are constantly lacking. Therapy is challenging when it can only be given out in the open, with no privacy. Fewer providers mean services don’t get rendered in time; meds don’t get handed out in time; diagnoses don’t get made for months, sometimes years. Officers get little-to-no training in how to deal with severely mentally ill prisoners. Overcrowding exacerbates symptoms and strains already strained resources. If you’re unaware of just how overburdened the prison system is in regards to mental healthcare, you’ll have a pretty good idea after reading this book.

This isn’t to say that there aren’t places trying, and Ms. Roth points that out throughout the book. It’s just that this is a monumental task, and the country does almost next to nothing in order to keep these mentally ill patients treated so that they don’t end up in prison in the first place. (Our garbage healthcare system, tied to employment, shares a lot of this blame, as does the lack of therapists and psychiatrists- and I’d say the problem of affordable higher education is also an issue there.)

This is a deeply distressing, heavy book, full of information that I wish everyone knew and cared about. We’re all just one slightly different brain chemical away from ending up as a patient on the wrong side of the law- and that’s if we’re lucky, because far too often in the US, mentally ill people end up being shot by the police. A dear friend of mine had a son who suffered from schizophrenia and one of her greatest fears was always that he would end up being shot by the police during an episode. I learn so much about mental illness from her, and I think of her son and her continued fight to improve mental health care in this country every time I read a book like this. The two of them are a continued reason why I pick up these kinds of books; what Ms. Roth is doing, shining a light on the conditions faced by inmates who are often incarcerated due to the affects of their illnesses, is so necessary, and it’s such a service to the mental health community.

Insane isn’t an easy read. It’s a tough subject matter, and a lot of what she talks about will probably scare you or make you uncomfortable. It should. But you should use this information to become better informed and a better advocate for the mentally ill. Because stigma is bullshit and mental illness is illness- like cancer, or heart disease, diabetes, or epilepsy. It deserves research, resources, treatment options- treatment BEFORE tragedy, as my friend Laura says. And mentally ill people deserve dignity and respect, which Ms. Roth definitely affords them all throughout this remarkable book.

Visit Alisa Roth’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

memoir · nonfiction

Shakespeare Saved My Life: Ten Years in Solitary with the Bard- Laura Bates

It isn’t often that my tired, tired brain remembers exactly where a certain book recommendation came from, but today is finally that day! The always insightful Susan from Bloggin’ ‘Bout Books (if you don’t already follow her, FOLLOW HER IMMEDIATELY, she’s fabulous!!!) recommended Shakespeare Saved My Life: Ten Years in Solitary with the Bard by Laura Bates (Sourcebooks, 2013) on another one of my posts about prison- which, if you’ve followed me for any length of time, you’ll know that’s one of my pet subjects. Onto the TBR list it went, and I was lucky enough that my local library had a copy (and yes, I write out constantly updated lists of what books from my TBR are available at every local library branch. Doesn’t everyone? *shoves taped glasses up nose, then snort-laughs*).

It’s hard to imagine anyone in this day and age not knowing who Shakespeare was, but that was Larry Newton, a convicted murderer housed in solitary confinement at Indiana Federal Prison. Earning her service hours and hoping to better a few lives, college professor Laura Bates created the first Shakespeare study program in a supermax prison, and it didn’t just change the inmates- it changed Laura, too.

By all counts, Larry Newton looks pretty terrible on paper (the book claims that it was never proven that Larry pulled the trigger; it makes no difference under Indiana state law, however. All that matter is that he was present and was, at the very least, an accomplice). The tragedy of his life stretches back into his childhood, where, after a beginning full of abuse and neglect, he spent years in juvenile detention centers and on the streets. Imprisoned for life at age 17, he then spent years in solitary confinement, almost never seeing another human being until Laura Bates included him in her Shakespeare in Supermax class.

Ms. Bates, who had been studying Shakespeare’s work for years, learning from some of the most well-known Shakespearean scholars, is almost immediately blown away by the insight Newton offers on plays even lifelong devotees struggle with. Far from being the uneducated monster he appears on paper, Larry Newton is sharp, asking penetrating questions, and making shrewd observations that change the way Ms. Bates sees Shakespeare and prison inmates. Along with inspiring other inmates to expand their horizons with Shakespeare’s writings, Larry writes curriculum and study guides for each and every play, guides that Ms. Bates uses not only in prison, but in her college courses as well. THAT is how astute his work is.

Under Newton’s tutelage and Ms. Bates’s supervision, the inmates rewrite Shakespearean plays and have them performed by other inmates (ones allowed in General Population), even filming videos for juvenile offenders that actually appear to reach them. The power of Shakespeare to transform lives seems almost limitless in this book, and it will have you questioning everything you know about punishment, human nature, and life in prison.

Do I contradict myself? Very well, then I contradict myself, I am large, I contain multitudes.

-Walt Whitman

This Whitman quote ran through my head over and over again throughout this entire book. Nowhere is it more apparent that we as humans contain multitudes than in Larry Newton. You wouldn’t suspect that a man who is either capable of murder or of accompanying friends to a murder would also be what amounts to an absolutely brilliant scholar of Shakespeare, making stunning insights that impress not only Laura Bates but even professors more seasoned than herself, but that’s exactly what he does. No play daunts him; he dives right in, makes connections that others have failed to make, and, possibly more importantly, he takes what he’s learned and uses it to improve himself. He grows, he gains insight into his own past and his misdeeds, and he allows the Shakespearean lessons to change him for the better.

His brilliance astounds me; it also saddens me. What could he have become, what strides could he have made for humanity, who could he have been, if he had been privileged enough to live in a healthy family, if society had stepped in early on, before he went down such a devastating path? How many more Larry Newtons are out there that we’re just throwing away because they’re too poor, have been abused for too long, aren’t worth our time to try to rehabilitate? What is the world missing out on? Far too much, I fear.

This is a bittersweet book. Laura Bates works some serious magic in Supermax, but it’s not enough, it’ll never be enough as long as we as a society continue to be hellbent on the non-evidence-based, punishment-over-rehabilitation method for the people we imprison. Larry Newton, of course, has something to say to that, and not only do I agree with him, the research agrees with him one hundred percent:

We cannot risk not helping. The vast majority of prisoners are going to return home. They are going to be our neighbors and they are going to be around our loved ones. The question really comes down to: what kind of prisoner do you want living next to you? No matter how you feel about the subject, the reality is that these prisoners are indeed coming home, and you do have the power to help shape what kind of neighbor they will be. Why education? Because it is the one science that overwhelmingly works.

-Larry Newton, imprisoned for life

Sadly, Larry had to give up his pursuit of earning a college degree when, despite the sky-high mounds of evidence that it cuts recidivism rates like nothing else, Indiana axed all funding for prison college courses. It does appear that they’ve recommenced some college programs; hopefully Larry and the other Shakespeare students can continue, but how terrible to keep yo-yoing back and forth like this. What kind of neighbors are we trying to create here?

Shakespeare Saved My Life is heartbreaking, yet inspirational, and I felt as though my brain grew several sizes as I read this. The last pages were also a stark reminder to never, ever judge a person by how they look: Ms. Bates includes Larry Newton’s picture (at what seems like his request). ‘Shakespeare scholar’ isn’t the first thing that comes to mind at first glance…but why not? We contain multitudes, my friends.

Many, many thanks to Susan for recommending this one to me; I thoroughly enjoyed every page!


American Prison: An Undercover Reporter’s Journey into the Business of Punishment- Shane Bauer

Going hand in hand with my fascination with cults and other closed groups is my interest in prison (I mean, they’re all on the big list of Places I Will *Hopefully* Never Be, right?). I’ve got a list of ten other books I’ve read about prison; it’s one of those subjects that both intrigues and infuriates me, and I’ll almost always at least read the inside flap or back cover if the title makes it obvious prison is the subject of the book (and most of the time, the book ends up coming home with me). Hearing about American Prison: A Reporter’s Undercover Journey into the Business of Punishment by Shane Bauer had me running straight for Goodreads and clicking on the Want to Read button.

In 2014, working with Mother Jones magazine, Shane Bauer went undercover at Winn Correctional Center in Winnfield, Louisiana, employed as a prison guard making $9 per hour. You read that correctly; starting pay for prison guards in a private correctional center, whose lives are in danger the second they step into their workplace, who suffer from rates of post-traumatic stress disorder higher than soldiers returning from the Middle East and who commit suicide at a rate two-and-a-half times higher than the general population, barely make over minimum wage. This assignment wasn’t just a way for Bauer to get a sneak peek at the world of privately run prisons; it was personal. In 2009, Bauer, along with two others, were hiking in Iraqi Kurdistan and accidentally strayed too close to the Iranian border; as a result, Bauer spent 26 months in an Iranian prison. Upon his return home, still suffering from PTSD, he became interested in the US prison system and found himself at Winn, a private prison run by then-Corrections Corportation of America (CCA), now known as CoreCivic.

In the four months that Bauer spends as a guard at Winn, he witnesses a host of human rights violations, including denying inmates medical care (while no one died under Bauer’s watch, he does recount the story of several inmates passed away due to Winn’s negligence, and mentions contact with an inmate who lost his feet and fingers due to gangrene that Winn refused to treat until it was too late; Robert Scott eventually settled out of court with CCA, but you can read his complaint here, where they gave him corn removal strips and shoe inserts to treat his gangrene), denying them food and water, and cutting security in order to save money until no one is safe (one correctional officer watches video feeds from at least 30 cameras; at meal time, two unarmed officers supervise 800 inmates). Physical and mental health care for inmates is stripped to the bone or whatever is past that, and Bauer and his fellow guards have nothing but a radio with which to call for backup to protect themselves (presumably to call other officers who are armed solely with a radio?). If you’re familiar with the Stanford Prison Experiment, Bauer’s experiences at Winn mimic that; over time, he finds himself becoming angrier, enjoying the power he holds over the inmates, acting out of a sense of revenge and malice instead of the level-headed reporter he walked in as. He realizes he’s changing but is powerless to stop the prison’s effect on his thinking, his demeanor, his morale. Just as he’s considering quitting but is finding it difficult to break away, his hand is forced due to an emergency situation with a fellow reporter and the local police, and Shane Bauer flees Louisiana to write and publish his story.

Interspersed with Bauer’s personal tale is the history of corrections in America and how racism and the drive for profiting off the suffering of others has shaped the industry. There is no discussion of prison in America without delving heavily into America’s history of racism, and there’s a LOT of information in here that will have any decent person seeing red. Penitentiaries only came into favor in the South in order to give white people a separate punishment from slaves. Consider this quote: “People like Governor Claiborne worried that whites, kept in the same miserable quarters as enslaved African Americans, might naturally sympathize with their plight and become potential recruits for the abolitionist cause. A penitentiary would help that.” Adding to that horror is the fact that pre-Civil War Louisiana made money from selling inmates’ children into slavery; when slaves were imprisoned in mixed-gender populations, female prisoners would become pregnant, and though they were allowed to raise their children until the age of 10, past that, the child would be auctioned off, and the proceeds would be used to fund white schools. I spent a lot of time reading this book, staring off into space, taking a few deep breaths and quietly seething.

Beyond that, the history of American corrections is one that leans heavily on torture. There are content warnings for this book due to descriptions of fairly graphic punishments that absolutely qualify as torture, some of which result in death (multiple torture-based deaths are mentioned throughout the book). There are also multiple mentions of prison rape, but none are graphic; more disturbing is the general attitude of the corrections industry that rape in prison is inevitable and there’s no point or reason in trying to prevent it.

American Prison is an absolutely chilling and upsetting exposé that needs to be read by every American citizen. While I take no issue with prison itself and the need for a place to rehabilitate criminals, I very much take issue with our lack of rehabilitative programs in general. We are a society whose corrections correct nothing; instead of preparing criminals to return to society as better citizens and human beings, we exact revenge on them for their crimes, and if we return them to society at all, it’s as people who are far more damaged than when they went in, who have few or no skills necessary to make a healthy place for themselves in American society, and who have little chance to avoid returning to prison. (Along those lines, American society does little to invest in its people from the start; watching any show based on prison- Jailbirds on Netflix is an example of something I’ve recently watched- or reading anything about prisons and prisoners make it obvious that this is a society-deep problem; parents and parenting, lack of jobs that pay a living wage, drugs, lack of basic necessities such as food, medical care, and housing, underfunded educational systems, poor daycare options, all of this and more go into the failure of what leads people down the path to imprisonment, and we do little to counter any of it. The prisons alone aren’t at fault, but their brutality doesn’t remedy anything.)

Bauer does a phenomenal job of maintaining a cool journalistic mien in his reporting of the absolute hellhole that is CCA/CoreCivic. In many, many instances, CCA falsifies data to the state and remarks that they had no record of incidents that Bauer personally witnessed and recorded (and for which there would have been a paper trail). Bauer’s accounts of the travesties committed by CCA/CoreCivic aren’t the first criticisms I’ve read about the private prison industry, and I have nothing even close to resembling a positive opinion of them or the idea of making money off of forced labor or imprisonment.

If you’ve never read a book about prison, American Prison would be a good place to start. I’ve read quite a few, and while some of the historical information was both new and shocking to me, nothing Mr. Bauer stated about working in a private prison or about CCA/CoreCivic itself was new to me. Even before his article came out, the company was on the defensive, guns blazing, with accusations about Bauer’s journalistic integrity and his lack of understanding of company policy (which is rich, coming from a company who was ready to promote him right before he left). His every mention of CCA/CoreCivic left a bad taste in my mouth, and honestly, it’s horrifying to me that a company is allowed to run like this at all. In other words, based on the reading I’ve done over many years, I’m entirely confident in Mr. Bauer’s account of his time at Winn, I wouldn’t trust a single thing said by CCA/CoreCivic, and I highly recommend American Prison.

Read Shane Bauer’s article at Mother Jones.

Visit his website here.

Follow him on Twitter here.


Doing Time: 25 Years of Prison Writing- A PEN American Center Prize Anthology, edited by Bell Gale Chevigny

Reading a book full of writing penned in prison wasn’t exactly on my mind at the start of the year, but when I took up Book Riot’s 2019 Read Harder Challenge in late February, this was one of the tasks on the list, and Doing Time: 25 Years of Prison Writing- A PEN American Center Prize Anthology, edited by Bell Gale Chevigny (Arcade Publishing, 1999), was the only suggestion I could easily get my hands on (I always go for what my library offers first, before resorting to interlibrary loan. Saves the library money that way!). Incarceration has always been a subject that has interested me, so I figured this wouldn’t be a difficult part of the challenge.

What I wasn’t counting on was reading 20 pages and then getting struck down by the stomach virus from Hades, so what should’ve been a book that lasted two or three days ended up lasting almost a week. Anyhoodle.

Doing Time is a collection of prison writing- essays, poetry, and fiction- by various inmates incarcerated in various places around America, the country that boasts the highest incarceration rate in the world. There’s no doubt that we have problems with crime in this country (for many, many reasons, too numerous to get into here), but this book helped me to put into words something that’s irritated me for a long time. One of the best predictors for successfully avoiding a return trip to prison is a higher level of education. Educate your prisoners and it’ll cut the recidivism rate. But unfortunately, in this country where prison is big business (a good look at this terrible truth is Going Up the River: Travels in a Prison Nation by Joseph T. Hallinan), we cut educational programs for prisoners- sometimes entirely- and focus on punishing, rather than rehabilitating, which in turn makes it more likely that the prisoner will reoffend and wind up back in prison. This is a process that not only creates repeat offenders, it creates more victims. Furthermore, education in prison is shown to affect the prisoners’ behavior: inmates who participate in education programs are calmer and provide a calming effect on the rest of the prison population, which in turn keeps the guards and prison staff safer. So the next time you hear a politician talk about how he or she is ‘tough on crime,’ ask yourself what ‘tough on crime’ really means, and how that person’s proposed policies match up with what actually lowers crime, because punishment alone makes harder criminals and leads to more violence both in and out of prisons.

This is a book that alternately made me angry, and then sad. Some of the writers admit to what they had done that landed them in prison; some never mention it. That’s neither here nor there, though, in the grand scheme of the book. Some of the writing here is remarkable. There are stories and poems based on things the authors experienced within prison walls, essays on prison riots and the drug problem in the US, poems about the grief of incarceration and a life thrown away. It struck me again while reading this what a deep shame it is that the US doesn’t focus on rehabilitation, because by not doing so, we are wasting so much potential. People who could, with a bit of time and work, be helped and be trained to make meaningful contributions to society are instead thrown away like trash, their lives wasted and humanity all the poorer for it. This book is a testament to that point; Jimmy Santiago Baca (poet and author; a movie based on his memoir, titled A Place to Stand, was released in 2014; find him on Goodreads) and the author Richard Stratton are two of the writers, are featured within its pages. These men were, through education, able to work their way into becoming model citizens- Baca was even illiterate when first incarcerated. The editor does mention that most of the inmates whose writing appears in this book are those lucky enough to receive higher or continuing education while incarcerated, and the short bios in back of the book advertise several people who became professionals such as college professors and business owners. Isn’t that a better outcome than a seven in ten chance of ending up back in prison (the current recidivism rate)?

The writing in this book isn’t pretty in content. It’s gritty and painful and desperate at times; even the hopeful stories are tinged with an edge of sadness. How could they not be? But they’re eye-opening, a glimpse at a world where (hopefully!) I’ll never have to travel, and a world that’s greatly in need of deep reform if ever we want to realize the true potential of people who have made a few wrong turns in life.

Learn more about PEN America by visiting their website here.