Other Books

Reviews of some of my favorite books, movies and whatever else I might discover. Please send me your favorites, and I’ll review them.


INFORMATION

Monster. Walter Dean Myers (Amistad/HarperTeen, 1999).

Should be required junior/high school reading.

What happens when a 16-year-old is arrested for taking part in a murder?  Through the eyes of young and terrified Steve Harmon, we get a first-hand account, day by day.  We learn what each person involved has to say:  police, prosecutor, defense attorney, cell mates, judge,  and family.  Harmon was a high school student studying film before his arrest.  The novel reads as a play, with scenes described as if Harmon were directing the film.  Through the eyes of this young inmate, we  ‘see’ everything going on from initial pick up through the trial. Interspersed throughout are pages of his diary, and a few mug shots, etc.

  The text reads rapidly;  the story unfolds chronologically but with fade-out to his past, to the crime, to his family.  Readers share it all:  Harmon’s naïve expectations, his agony at imprisonment, his confusion over legalities, his fears of the other inmates and equal fears of the prosecutor/trial witnesses, his depressions. 

   Because the story reads so easily and the emotions are so raw, this book is a perfect ‘scared straight’ assignment for young people.   It’s also a terrific read for adults.  After reading it, I was really, really glad to not be Steve Harmon.  The conclusion will allow classroom discussion and, I suspect, soul searching from all of us.

 

 


The Classroom and the Cell. Mumia Abu-Jamal & Marc Lamont Hill (Third World Press, 2012).

   The most famous political prisoner in the United States held a series of conversations with a Columbia education professor.  The ideas are thought-provoking, uncomfortable, and essential.  Each chapter ends with fabulous For Your Library list of books  (sure wish all books did this).

On culture:  “When Ice-T came out with the controversial ‘Cop Killer’ song.  The nation was up in arms because they worried about the consequences of making music that encouraged violence against law enforcement.  While I don’t dispute that sentiment, what about the rest of the gangster rap movement?  How many songs were made about ‘killing niggas’ and nobody said a thing?”  Of course, I had never thought about that, because I am the only person, alive, who doesn’t listen to any contemporary music.  But I’m sure he’s right.  We accept black-on-black violence, but are terrified of black violence toward law enforcement.  Certainly, Mumbia knows this only too well.

On Black leaders:  The authors didn’t waste too many words on black leaders, except admit that the politicians were old and didn’t connect, and “The church should be the foundation of our organizing.”   But church leaders aren’t leading.  Indeed, the TV is always revealing mega-mansions religious leaders enjoy, including Black ministers in Dallas and California.  It’s as if the disconnect between The Word and The People is a secret.

On the prison complex:  The prison industrial complex affects all aspects of our lives:  it impact Black females, the public health crisis, the family. Even fashion!  “…young brothers whose pants are hangin’ around their butts. That comes from prison because when dudes get busted, especially certain kinds of cases, the first thing they do is take your belt.” 

On education:  When did teachers become the enemy?  When did the education unions become the target of hatred?   Probably when movers behind the scenes decided to privatize education and take the good, free  foundation away from the masses.  Charter schools haven’t been shown any better than public schools, generally.  But taking funds away, and teachers away, and bright student away will guarantee the demise of our traditional education system, and replace it with for-profit, rich-wins schools everywhere.  To reach that goal, they began demonizing teachers and requiring test result instead of thoughtful students.  It’s working. 

“The current laws that we have on the books produce more levels of criminalization within the schools, streets and communities.  For instance, a first-grade girl screams at her teacher and, instead of getting detention like in the old days, she get carried away in handcuffs for disorderly conduct…. The decision to criminalize the behavior is new.” Now public urination will get you into jail;  so will skipping school.

And when Pres. Clinton signed the law taking education away from inmates by withdrawing Pell grants, he guaranteed that the prison pipeline would never end.  Education is the only thing that works in terms of defeating recidivism, and they took education away.  It’s a deliberate and well-planned reality.

On exploding prison populations: They’ve criminalized being mentally ill.  Used to be, that was a health issue, a problem society recognized, and people got hospitalized or institutionalized treatment.  Now it’s an institution, all right—the jails and prisons. “…people with legitimate mental health issues are now thrown into prisons, where their issues are ignored and exacerbated because of the hellish conditions of prisons.  This only increases recidivism and threatens the safety of everyone.”

Some Solutions:  The authors present thoughtful, realistic ways to end the nation’s reliance on the prison industry:

  1.   de-carceration.  Getting rid of the money bail system, pre-trial detention, early release for non-dangerous prisoners.
  2. ex-carceration.  Getting rid of incarceration as the primary or even secondary method of responding to crime.  Treat drug addiction as the medical problem it is.  Provide proper medical facilities like mental wards.  Use community dispute resolution, restitution, suspended sentences, community probation.  Although I bow to his experience and wisdom, I find it hard to accept his notion that even the worst of the worst prisoners can change with the right help.  Maybe….  But certainly locking them into cages does not help anyone.

   This slim collection of dialogue comments between two of the great thinkers of our time is essential reading.  You don’t have to agree with all of it;  nevertheless, intelligent, educated readers should be able to think through these views and articulate another approach or solution.  Get busy!

 

 


Inside:  Life Behind Bars in America.  Michael Santos (St. Martin’s Press, 2006).

When Michael Santos was 23 years old, he learned that the feds didn’t approve of drug dealers;  he spent the next 25 years (of a 45-year sentence) learning how the society of prison differs from the society he left behind.  He shares these lessons in this book (and five or six other books) to both keep his own head straight and to help readers find ways to straighten out our Industrialized Prison Complex.  He learned a lot:  he stayed in every level of prison, in most parts of the country.  What he shares is serious, is important, is well written;  I encourage everyone to start the book (because you will not put it down until the very last page). 

Santos is spectacular at pointing to individual stories that prove his policy points.  I hadn’t thought about this:  prisons are a “growing subculture that prison administrators have effectively closed off from wide scrutiny.”  As he began writing and publishing, Santos was relocated again and again, given jobs that required manual labor at 4:30 a.m., deprived of books needed for his education.  (He managed to earn a B.A. and M.A. anyway!)  He is particularly harsh to prison staff, people who even today cannot speak to him (for interviews) because they fear for their jobs inside the closed culture of protect-our-own.

“No one measures the so-called corrections profession, however, by how many offenders it prepares to live as law-abiding, contributing citizens upon release.  Although her statement contradicts the literature published by corrections administrators, one of my former unit managers, who now supervises a prison education department, told me, ‘We don’t care anything about the preparations you’re making for release or what you do when you get out.  The only thing we care about is the security of the institution.”  (The Supreme Court always agrees with her.)

He compares drug-offenders’ excessive sentence to those of murderers, rapists, child abusers, ad armed robbers.  Perhaps now, with the Attorney General of the United States asking for a review of these sentences, some inmates might not have to spend 25 years inside.  But Santos did.  So he lived among these hardened criminals and did the only sane thing he could think of:  he learned from them.  He studied their backgrounds, their ideas, their thoughts of the future.,  He learned from them and extends that set of lessons to readers through a compelling series of stories and dialogues.

Santos can certainly turn a phase:  “With thousands of prisoners to manage, guards in large penal facilities consider prisoners the way fishermen consider the thousands of fish they haul in with a good netting.”  I will remember that when I see Correctional Officers (Cos) treat inmates as fungible statutes, rather than individuals.  Santos refuses throughout the refer to the Cos as anything other than guards;  they don’t attempt to correct and help, but only guard the masses.

In one sad, sad story of an African businessman caught in a crazy little-known aspect of maritime law, Santos gives us the reality of the crushing number of inmates and the reaction of the guards:  “The staff members don’t know me and don’t care about my education in the real world,” David says.  “These guards processing me in don’t have the people skills to work as a janitor in one of my companies.  Over the course of my career I have employed over a thousand people.  Not one of them would last a day if I caught him treating others in the demeaning way that staff members here treat us.  Everything is about degrading a man, taking away his dignity, breaking his spirit.”

Because the penal institutions did nothing to help civilize or educate the inmates around him, those men leave the Walls with the same—or worse—mindset that they had when they entered the system.  They have been taught nothing but mistreatment and the reward for abuse that inmates dole out to weaker inmates.  Santos has come to expect nothing to change in the system.  But he sure wants it to.  “This cycle of failure continues as if a closed loop, justifying the need for more prisons and all the billions of dollars in expenditures that keep the system alive.”

 


New Jack:  Guarding Sing Sing. Ted Conover (Vintage Press, 2000).

Correctional officers get only negative publicity.  Period.  But Ted Conover, investigative reporter with guts, went through training and spent a year as a rookie officer (“New Jack”)  at notorious New York City’s Sing Sing to discover that ‘they’ are ‘us.’  This collection of vignettes explores the friendships, the sicknesses, the malingering, the dedication of those who live their lives within walls guarding inmates.

First, the book is beautifully written, as if by a poet.  “The Visit Room…an inmate could try to reconnect to the real world and prior life, could try to salve the wound of imprisonment…. The Visit Room was about catching up, reconnect ting, and looking ahead, about a woman’s touch and a child’s chatter.”

Second, the book explores all aspects of the reality of prison, including the effect it has on families of victim and inmate. “It was all about absence, wasn’t it—the absence of imprisoned men from the lives of the people who loved them;  the absence of love in prison.  And also—what you could never forget—the absence in the hearts of decent people, the holes that criminals punched in their lives, the absence of things they took:  money, peace of mind, health, and entire lives, because they were selfish or sick or scared or just couldn’t wait.”

Third, thankfully, the book breams with humor.  The Family Reunion Room, where family-visit trailers had outdoor grills, swing sets, kitchen, and separate rooms for kids and adults:  “The Felon Reproduction Program, some officers called it.” 

The humor is necessary to allow us to turn the pages, from one story to the next of neglect and violence and insecurities and insanity.  Each story is compelling and opens the world of correctional guards to us, naïve or jaded or disbelieving readers.  I believe. 

Finally, the book is history.  Conover is a meticulous researcher (and his material was fact-checked when the New York Times ran portions).  He traces America’s confusion over the purpose of incarceration.  He points to our British history, to bad leaders and good ones, to failed attempts, to commercialization of wardens from appointed overseers to career state personnel. 

If you think you know everything you need to know about prison, you are simply wrong.  Read this book and let me know if you learned no new fact or if you do not, now, have more empathy for those officers who serve time along side the inmates, who did something wrong and are serving their time


A Race to Incarcerate. A Graphic Retelling. Marc Mauer and Sabrina Jones (The New York Press, 2013).

  When Marc Mauer first wrote Race to Incarcerate in 1999, his audience was the Choir;  that is, he explored prison policy for those who are interested in prisons.  It worked and received well-deserved praise and attention.  Now, though, he has broadened his audience with a graphic novel, with the able help of activist/artist Sabrina Jones.  The 109 pages have large, easy-to-read print and simple but effective art.

Here’s the amazing part of this review of U.S. prison history:  the book focuses on the almost=-happened.  Congress almost passed a bill… Janet Reno almost persuaded Pres. Clinton … Pres. George W. Bush’s plans to over haul the justice system could have worked if…  The near-misses are staggering and depressing, but interestingly, this book does not point a finger at any one president or policy group (except, deservedly,  for A.G. John Ashcroft’s advocacy for the death penalty and A.G. Alberto Gonzales’ hiding of mitigating evidence in clemency cases). 

Young readers and readers who like their information in graphic form will be introduced to staggering statistics, including the continuing issue of voting rights.  Did you know that in the 2000 disputed presidential contest, Pres. Bush won by only 537 votes—yet an estimated 600,000 felons were denied the right to vote.  Disenfranchising those who have already paid their dues to society voted!  And it efforts continue in state by state by state.  It is important, no—essential—that all citizens learn the facts of the politics behind incarceration.  This graphic novel can do that, so get out there and buy copies for your family, for your legislators, for policy wonks.  They all need to learn the concrete facts this book presents in a readable, balanced way.


Education Behind Bars. Federal Inmate Christopher Zoukis (Sunbury Press, 2012).

  This thick book is the gold standard of helpful information aimed specifically at those behind bars.  This book may zoom to best-seller status if Congress repeals the stricture against Pell grants for inmates, as several Congressmen are attempting right now.  You may have imagined that all institutions would provide this information to help inmates with their education and employability, but you would be wrong, wrong.

Zoukis diligently researched every avenue of possible education for the incarcerated after he discovered the information is not available in prison education units.  Many prisons will not offer information or advice on programs, schools, or financial aid.  Prisons require inmates to write to each educational institution and ask about all this, and to pay for both the mailing and any fees like brochures.  So Zoukis has provided every detail, including names, addresses, level of study, fees, books, transfer credits, time limits, degrees, courses, how they are delivered, media component, catalog and number of pages, and application fee.  He covers religious, undergraduate, graduate, career level and vocational, high school, and enrichment. 

Zoukis has even researched accreditation of each (and I do mean each) possible vocation.  This appendix is essential because there are so many scams out there, vocational schools that offer courses but fold and disappear after payment;  schools that allow inmates to enroll in vocational classes that can never offer certifications because state laws prohibit felons form that particular field, etc.

Included are helpful tips on how to study, how to send research papers and tests, how to keep a positive attitude, how to use book lights, how to ease into re-entry. 

Of course any thinking taxpayer wants inmates to get educations and return into society.  Loss of the Pell grants in 1964 meant a constant stream of uneducated people have been recycled through the System without tools for changing themselves and society.  Zoukis points out that everyone wins when inmates receive education:  society, taxpayers, colleges, prison authorities, families, and the prisoners themselves. 

This is not the place to rehash the history of the Pell grants;  formerly, only 1/10th of 1% of all Pell grants went to inmates, but the Tough on Crime Gang talked Congress and Pres. Clinton into taking away these value dollars. Let’s hope Congress has sense enough to undo the prohibition and again fund inmate education so that we all win.  Thanks, Mr. Zoukis, for your invaluable research to aid all inmates as they invest in education.


Behind the Walls. Jorge Antonio Renaud (University of North Texas Press, 2002).

Should be required reading for families who need information on the practical aspects of prison life. With 24 chapters on elements of prison life (living quarters, craft shop, discipline), the book provides a comprehensive overview with marvelous concrete detail. I found the Appendices especially useful (custody level, medical/dental, library, commissary, recreation, good time, parole, officials, and resources). Do you know the difference between GP and PC? You will when you buy and read this book. Special mention: many formerly incarcerated have written about prisons; most can’t write. Mr. Renaud was a journalist before his missteps, and the book is a delightful, easy read.

 


Jailhouse Lawyers.  Mumia Abu-Jamal (City Lights Books, 2009).

This is the mother-load of information on the men and women who function within the prison system as unofficial lawyers, helping inmates prepare their cases.  Abu-Jamal is a political prisoner and has spent most of his life in prison.  In his 30 or so years behind bars, he’s met many writ writers, has interviewed the best by mail, and has organized an amazing book that takes readers inside the frustrating process of writing from Inside, to the outside legal system.

The Prison Litigation Reform Act gets lots of (deserved) attention:  its passage in 1996 took most rights and privileges away from prisoners.  It isn’t much of a stretch, he points out, to see how the PLRA led to the unchecked atrocities of Abu Ghraib–ruling out psychological and mental injury as bases for U.S. prisoner complaints against prison officials also ruled them out as illegal activities for the federal government.

In this book, you will meet the men and women behind most of the famous prison-law cases;  you will read what they told Abu-Jamal about the cases, the inmates they were helping, the lawyers who stepped up when possible, and judges who did and did not follow their own rules.  You’ll learn how Dan Manville left prison in Michigan and became editor-in-chief of Prison Law Monitor, before he wrote the useful Prisoners’ Self-Help Litigation Manual.  And the 1987 case that held inmates can’t be punished for writing about prison conditions (but how the PLRA muted it).

Naturally you will be exposed to the author’s understanding of racial disparities in our prison system–it’s an exposure all of us need.  This book would inform law students, pro bono attorneys, inmates, and, I hope, the general public.  Read it and tell me what you think!

 


NewJack’s Guide to the Big House. Bruce Reilly (1000 Lbs Guerilla Press, 2005).

Bruce Reilly is a philosopher, a poet, an articulate linguist who happens to have spent over 11 years in prison. He was guilty, so he spent his time in the law library learning how to shorten his time rather than fighting his original sentence. And it is in the law library that he learned a whole lot about the law, and articulates the steps for finding law–read Chapter 17 and you’ll know as much as a 2nd year law student. He even offers catchy phrases to help inmates remember court case names: Johnson v. Avery (inmates may help other inmates with the law if the prison cannot help) is easy: “just remember the former point guard of the San Antonio Spurs: super-smiling Avery Johnson.”

Reilly is raw and honest. His language is the vernacular of a prison yard. He offers up his insight into the minds of his companions and The Man as a gift–no apologies. I found it interesting that he also uses sports metaphors, sports situations and characters to drive home his points. Undoubtedly, his readers know sports and thus relate them to his more abstract points. But he is so well read that you’ll find yourself tripping over Dostoevsky and Machiavelli too; I love this: “The destruction of the world is less a product of Machiavelli’s disciples than Sancho Panza’s.” <ho-ho, wow!>

This book offers specific, honest advice for inmates. Read it. From advice about your attitude to advice about talking with the parole board, you’ll find help.

Reilly is now a third-year law student; let’s hope he takes his innate wisdom, his superb literary abilities, and his search for justice into a vocation worth all his skills.


MEMOIRS


Law Man.  author Shon Hopwood, with Dennis Burke (Crown Publishers, 2012).

Subtitled “My Story of Robbing Banks, Winning Supreme Court Cases, and Finding Redemption,” this book rocks!

Who could guess that a ‘good kid’ from Nebraska would get bored and decide to rob banks?  After successfully robbing four, he got sloppy–and caught, sent to federal prison, and eventually worked in the law library.  There, Hopwood discovered he has a natural affinity for the intricacies of the law, and eventually began writing writs to help himself and other inmates win sentence reductions.  Turns out he is good, very good, at writ writing:  two of his three writs made it to the Supreme Court and were granted cert (allowed to be heard).  The statistics behind that feat must be enormous–surely most criminal law, practicing attorneys cannot claim that statistic.

Here’s why you should read this book:  it is superbly crafted–not chronological, not choppy or overwritten, not poor-me or even yea-me.  Balanced.  Unexpected humor throughout.  When he does take readers into the dark side of prison life (standing up to a bully), he remarks on his punishment with only a sentence, and moves on, just as he literally did within the Walls for all those years.

The book is also a manual on learning skills to prepare for re-entry.  Hopwood, for all his middle class background and reading/writing skills, hit the same wall other offenders do:  washing cars, etc.  But his ability to understand the law took him to an unexpected (miraculous, even) job, and now he is enrolled in law school.  Really.

Amazing story, beautifully told, redeeming moments of self-reflection, and an open-ended conclusion, just like life;  just like the lives all of us are living.  But Hopwood’s detour through the federal prison system can teach each of us how to make the best of our circumstances, a lesson those Inside need to hear too.


sentences: the life of M.F. Grimm. author Percy Carey, artist Ronald Wimberly (DC Comics, 2007).

5 Star, champagne flight, best ever. The decline and fall of a former Sesame Street star is just as compelling as the edgy, unusual art. Although this book chronicles the life, the second life, the fall, and the eventual redemption of a rapper, prison conditions are always front and center. Would-be, wanna-bees need to read this graphic novel. If it doesn’t spell out the consequences of fast money and bad decisions, then nothing will.


Prisoner of Conscience: a memoir. Kenneth Kennon (XLibris, 2001).

Could there be a more inlikely inmate than a Christian minister who was arrested for silently marching against the School of the Americas in Ft. Benning, Georgia? Rev. Kennon intended to protest; he did not intend to go to federal prison for 6 months. This almost-daily log of impressions, insight, and poetry can help families understand the long, long days, the daily insults, the joy of receiving mail. Unexpected humor both in the prison and in Rev. Kennon’s writing is especially endearing: a transportation guard asked him what a prisoner of “con-science” is; he had seen posters the Reverend’s friends held up as he walked through the gates. Perhaps any word that begins “con” catches the eye?


Joyce Ann Brown: Justice Denied. author Joyce Ann Brown (with Jay Gaines)(MASS, Inc., 1990).

What happens when you are arrested for robbery and murder, bonded at $1 million, and the victim of a perjuring jailhouse snitch? You are sentenced to life imprisonment. In Ms Brown’s case, the officials even had evidence of fingerprints at the crime (fur theft and then murder) that did not belong to Brown. That evidence wasn’t revealed until a series of national investigators uncovered it. 17 years. Family torn apart. Readers will find this account of wrongful conviction and imprisonment a page-turner. Brown had only her knowledge of innocence and her faith to help her get through the days, days she evokes so clearly that you will feel like you are living them with her. Her court-appointed attorney, Kerry P. Fitzgerald, did everything right–everything the system allowed. He stayed loyal to her during all those years, and helped uncover the crimes against her that sent her to prison. So Brown’s story has both the evil and the great, both the incompetent and the fervently courageous. I met Joyce Ann Brown in 2001. She was on a mission to tell her story, and tell it so convincingly that this injustice could never occur again. It has, though. Maybe if every one of you will read the book, every legislator read the book, maybe then jailhouse snitches’ testimony will be put to higher scrutiny; maybe D.A.s who withhold evidence will be guilty of crimes themselves. Maybe.


ABOUT THE LAW


The Noble Lawyer.  author William J. Chriss (State Bar of Texas, 2011).

Lawyers are not today seen as “noble,” and they have a long way to go to convince the public that anything about themselves and their profession is indeed “noble.”  But Bill Chriss sure gives it a heroic try.

 

He traces the history of the law and its advocates;  he investigates the historical roots of the population’s distrust of those who stand for the law.  The investigation is fascinating, even for those of us who do not practice law but must witness its “justice.”

Looking at films, pouring over sensational headlines, etc., Chriss narrows our contemporary malaise/anger to tort reform and the evils it has spawn.  “What medical tort reform has accomplished is nothing more or less than a redistribution of income from the victims of the most serious medical errors … into the pockets of doctors, hospitals, and their insurers.  But the whole scheme hasn’t lowered health care costs at all… This is the mathematics of lawyer bashing and tort reform:  blame lawyers and lawsuits for rising costs of goods and services;  promise lower prices and more availability if lawsuits are gutted;  and then instead of passing along any savings to consumers, keep raising prices and pocket the difference and keep blaming lawyers for the pinch…”

His thesis revolves around economics and lawyers, and  he does not venture into criminal law.  Rather, we have to draw the connection between the stain that tort reform has spread over the whole profession, and its smear on defense lawyers (lazy, asleep, grab the money and run) and prosecutors (do anything for a win, hide evidence, refuse to bargain in good faith).

We have all met both good and bad criminal lawyers.  Unfortunately, those bad ones create heart break and economic ruin.  If those lawyers motivated by justice rather than ego would read Chriss’ easy-to-read book, then we might have more good, ethical–and yes even noble–lawyers.  You might offer your last criminal attorney a copy of this book–it’s published by the Texas State Bar and available.

Send a copy of Prison Grievances to a prison library.

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