But you and we should say what we really think, and aim only at what is possible, for we both alike know that into the discussion of human affairs the question of justice only enters where the pressure of necessity is equal, and that the powerful exact what they can, and the weak grant what they must.”
~ Thucydides, History of the Peloponnesian War, Chapter V, para. 84-116
Thucydides reconstructed the debate that had taken place between the leaders of Milos, an island, and the representatives of Athens. Milos had claimed neutrality when Athens had gone to war against Persia. Angered by the Milian decision, Athens sought to take over Milos by engaging in dialogue with representatives and asking them to submit. The Milians argued for their freedom, which enraged the Athenians, whose troops then destroyed Milos, slaughtering all of the adult men, and selling all the women and children into slavery.
I cannot help but think of Thucydides when I consider the state of criminal justice in America. Michelle Alexander has shown that our current system functions as a “New Jim Crow,” a system by which segregation is enforced and political power stripped from men and women of color. In addition to incarceration, prisoners in some states permanently lose their right to vote, even after serving their sentences. Florida has disenfranchised the largest number of voters, with a ballot measure this fall that seeks to restore their electoral franchise.
A common assumption is that hiring “the best attorney” is the best way to prove one’s innocence, or to negotiate a reduced sentence. For the poor, despite the rights guaranteed under the Sixth Amendment the attorneys provided to indigent prisoners are often overburdened by the system, or, in cases illustrated in David Dow’s Autobiography of an Execution, are so incompetent as to sleep through trials. Access to financial resources has been shown to affect the level of “justice” each defendant receives in court. But another factor is race, so much so that the sentencing of black defendants and white defendants is wildly disparate.
A three-week nationwide prisoners strike took place from August 21st through September 9th of this year. The striking prisoners, who adopted methods of civil disobedience and nonviolence, presented ten basic demands to restore basic human rights to prisoners. They included ending prison slavery, a way to address grievances, access to rehabilitation programs, and a restoration of voting rights to all confined citizens. While the organizers issued press releases and publicized the strike, it received little coverage from the national press.
Readers who would like to increase their knowledge of how American criminal justice works, or what it is like to be imprisoned, or the history of incarceration, or the basis of arguments about how incarceration enforces racial segregation, are invited to take a look at this list, which provides a small window into what happens behind prison walls.
Twenty-five hundred years after the destruction of Milos, the people of America themselves need a series of mirrors to reflect on whether we, too, have adapted the Athenians’ definition that justice belongs only to the strong. Those mirrors are contained in this list.
The Attica Prison Uprising of 1971 and Its Legacy
Heather Ann Thompson
I read this book about the events at Attica State Prison as if it were the most intense of mysteries. Thompson, a professor at the University of Michigan, won the 2017 Pulitzer Prize for her research that led to her astounding findings recounted in this book. Many people are aware of the storming of Attica Prison by New York State Patrolmen, various sheriff’s deputies, and members of the National Guard, which led to a prison yard slaughter in which twenty-nine prisoners and ten of their hostages were killed. They may wonder why it took over forty-five years for this exhaustive recounting of the five days in September, 1971 to be told for the first time in Thompson’s book. But as she explains in the introduction, most of the evidence, testimony, and other information from Attica was hidden by the state of New York.
As Thompson peels back the layers that stand between her and her subject, readers will feel themselves drawn into the lives of those both inside and outside the walls. She interviews witnesses and survivors, and she speaks compassionately with family members who lost loved ones on September 13th. As she reveals the events of that day, and readers learn who has lived and who has died, the deaths of very real people is almost too hard to bear, but Thompson handles her material with grace and compassion. She never loses sight of the humans who were in Attica yard that day, and of the humans who opted to cover up their crimes rather than face potential prosecution.
What happened at Attica has left a blood stain that all the perfumes of Albany have not been able to remove. Thompson has written a magnum opus about those bloody days.
A Reporter's Undercover Journey into the Business of Punishment
It is difficult to measure Shane Bauer’s courage when considering how the research for this book was initially gathered. Bauer took a job at a private prison in Louisiana to work as an entry-level guard for $9 per hour. The term “private prison” may be unfamiliar to those who have not followed the ways that some state governments have rid themselves of paying to incarcerate people. In Florida, ten percent of all incarcerated persons are held in private, for-profit prisons. The Walnut Grove Correctional Facility in Mississippi was shut down by a federal judge who wrote in a 2012 settlement order that it “paints a picture of such horror as should be unrealized anywhere in the civilized world.” In Louisiana, what Bauer saw while working led him to document a national disgrace.
In the immediate wake of his leaving, Bauer wrote an expose for Mother Jones that won a National Magazine Award for his reporting on the inhumane conditions he observed. But inAmerican Prison, Bauer incorporates his experiences with further research on the system of private prisons in operation in the United States. What he has documented is further echo of the New Jim Crow. In Texas, for example, the private prison system replaced slavery in terms of supplying enslaved labor to harvest cotton. In documenting how private prisons operate, and the fact that they are unaccountable to any regulatory agencies, Bauer demonstrates how in our midst, and with our permission, states have found ways to re-create the conditions of slavery that caused a civil war.
How Wrongful Conviction, Solitary Confinement, and 12 Years on Death Row Failed to Kill My Soul
The heinousness of the crime that Anthony Graves was arrested for — the slaughter of six people, including four children, plus the burning down of the house to destroy evidence — meant that authorities in his town were under intense pressure to find a culprit. Rather than focusing on good police work, which takes time, the police department rushed to make an arrest. Seemingly chosen at random, Anthony Graves was arrested for the crime five days after the bodies had been discovered.
Graves imagined that as soon as the police had done their homework — checked his alibis, established where he was that night, spoke to him — they would immediately realize their mistake and free him. He was wrong. In a nightmare he was awake through, his trial was a series of errors, and at the end of it, he was sentenced to death. Twice he faced execution dates. But finally, at the end of an eighteen-year incarceration, evidence incontrovertibly established that he was innocent.
His story is a clarion call about how the justice system failed him. His arrest and conviction served as political tools for ambitious prosecutors, while the real perpetrator of the crime was not apprehended. His story forces its readers to consider their positions on capital punishment with new information: if even one person is executed for a crime they did not commit, has the system failed? Or is the system so flawed that it needs to be abolished? And what kind of compensation do you offer to a man who spent his entire youth in a tiny cell while under the constant threat of death? One thing we owe to him is to read his story and to absorb its lessons. Infinite Hope is a work of courage.
How One Man, a Poor Prisoner, Took His Case to the Supreme Court-and Changed the Law of the United States
Anthony Lewis twice won the Pulitzer Prize for his reporting on the American legal system. In Gideon’s Trumpet, Lewis takes readers back to the 1963 Supreme Court decision, Gideon v. Wainwright, in which a unanimous court agreed that when the Sixth Amendment states that the accused has the right “ to have the Assistance of Counsel for his defence,” it meant that courts were obligated to appoint attorneys for those unable to retain their own.
Lewis provides the story — from the arrest of Clarence Gideon for breaking and entering by a Florida police officer to the arrival of Gideon’s appeal at the Supreme Court building —and through the justices’ arguments and deliberations. A fascinating look at how the law works, this book provides lay persons and professionals alike with a riveting tale.
The Politics of Confinement & Resistance
In remarkable statistics presented by Prison Policy Initiative, graphs demonstrate the fact that while only four percent of the total number of women who live on earth live in the United States, thirty percent of all incarcerated women are in prison in the USA. In addition, over two dozens states have higher rates of incarceration than any other nation on earth. Oklahoma outpaces every other state in the nation by having a rate of 281 women per 100,000 currently serving time.
But in Unruly Women, Karlene Faith approaches the issue of women in jail through a kaleidoscopic lens. She begins by examining the history of the categories of women criminals. Some, like prostitution, are present in nearly all recorded history. But others, such as witchcraft, are imaginary crimes for which women are still being prosecuted in modern times. By poking at how women are labeled as criminals, Faith’s work pointed to just how gendered crime is. Much of the crime she examines is connected to motherhood, and both she and newspaper articles about places such as Oklahoma, demonstrate that being a “bad mother” can put a woman in prison for a long time, as in this case, where a father who abused his children was given probation by the courts, but their mother received a thirty-year sentence for failing to protect them. A thought-provoking book.
It is difficult to comprehend that in 2018, incarcerated pregnant women are still forced to go through labor and delivery while shackled (leg and waist restraints). While several states banned the practice in response to public outcry, six states have made no changes to their statutes. Deborah Jiang-Stein was born to an incarcerated woman in a West Virginia prison.
She first discovers this fact from a letter she finds in her mother’s bedroom when Jiang-Stein is twelve years old. She had known that she was adopted, but she had no idea that she had been born in prison and raised there for a year. The information sends her into an emotional spiral that leads to years of her own troubles. But when she gets sober, she is able to discover more information about the woman who gave birth to her, and about how hard she fought to hold onto the daughter she wanted to raise. Ultimately a story of hope, recovery, and reconciliation, Deborah Jiang-Stein takes readers into the system where pregnant women are stripped of all rights. Her foundation fights to improve conditions for women in prison.
A Journey to Justice in Prisons Around the World
While most of the books in this list examine criminal justice from the American perspective, in Incarceration Nations, Professor Baz Dreisinger went overseas to understand how concepts of retribution, rehabilitation, and justice are administered through the law in Rwanda, South Africa, Uganda, Jamaica, Thailand, Brazil, Australia, Singapore, and Norway.
In Rwanda, she enters prisons where genocidaires serve time while supervised by guards who carry no guns. She examines prison arts programs in Jamaica and Uganda in search of an answer to the question of whether the arts are intended to provide distraction to those serving long sentences, or if it is possible for art to aid in the rehabilitation of those who have committed crimes. In each country she visits, she finds different answers to the questions that punitive justice raises. The examples she provides may hold keys to unlock some American prison doors.
Finding Recovery and Renewal One Book at a Time
Leslie Schwartz was a published novelist with a secret. She had been clean and sober after an addiction to drugs and alcohol, but she relapsed. While on a 414-day binge, which involved many blackout nights, she was pulled over for a DUI while driving in California, and during her arrest, the officer charged her with battery.
While her prison sentence of ninety days is small compared to the amount of times being served by millions of others, some readers may find Schwartz’s memoir of her imprisonment will evoke strong feelings of resonance. A seeming “everywoman” who had never previously been in trouble with the law, Schwartz arrives in prison at a level of fright many readers might imagine as being their own in such a situation. And in her first few days, Schwartz offers the kinds of judgments about the other women who have been incarcerated from the view of a privileged white woman who still insists that her imprisonment was a “mistake,” and which may cause readers to wonder if she has accepted sobriety.
What changes for Schwartz is discovering a shelf of books available for the women to read. She also discovers that having books delivered to her after being sent by friends and family runs her up against a prison bureaucracy where denying prisoners reading material feels like just one more way to inflict needless cruelty. If a person wishes to rehabilitate themselves, how are they to do it without access to eduction? Schwartz recounts how reading led her to a new understanding of her experience and created an empathy for her sister inmates that she had previously not been able to access.
Nico Walker composed the novel Cherry while incarcerated. He is still in prison even though his novel has been released into the world. In an interview published in Esquire, Walker discussed how writing the novel has been part of his rehabilitation after a series of events that ended with him being sentenced to eleven years in prison for bank robbery.
Walker served as a line medic in Iraq. As a medic who served on the front line, he suffered the terror experienced by soldiers under fire or bombardment, but he was also the person who risked his own life to tend to the grievous, horrifying wounds suffered by his brothers and sisters in arms. After returning from Iraq, Walker came home with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and self-medicated with heroin. Things went further downhill from there, ending with his arrest.
Cherry has been lauded as the first novel to show the ravaging effects of the recent spate of opioid addiction. Readers of his novel not only read a harrowing account of addiction, they are also made witnesses to a young man’s downward trajectory. One of the major problems that incarcerated people face in gaining support for prison reform is the refusal to acknowledge that people are not born “bad.” Circumstances, the genetic lottery, opportunity, and desperation frequently combine in ways that can lead to jail time. Driving a “little tipsy,” smoking a joint, walking out of a store with something for which you didn’t pay, or getting into a fight are just some of the offenses that dependent on your race and financial circumstances — and sheer luck — may find any one of us locked up in prison rather than dismissed with a warning.
Ann Walmsley and her friend, Carol, begin a book club for the incarcerated men at a prison. Over eighteen months, they read a variety of books that the men wrote about in their journals and then met in group once a month to discuss what they had read. Literature became a great way for the men to not only discuss their emotional responses to the reading, but also to reflect on what had brought them into prison. As a further means of increasing the men’s communication with the world outside the prison, the women establish a parallel book club among a group of their friends. Walmsley’s reflections upon the differences and similarities in the ways certain books are spoken about by both groups provides fascinating insight into how life experiences have an impact on how books are received.
For both Walmsley and the men, the book club provided new ways of seeing the world.
For those interested in sending books to prisoners, this link provides information: American Library Association
Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness
It is difficult to state just how much impact this 2012 book has had on perceptions of race and prisons. The New Jim Crow has changed the way that we speak of mass incarceration because of Alexander’s brilliant scholarship and discussion of her findings.
Marshaling careful, exhaustively researched facts, Professor Alexander makes an unassailable argument that Jim Crow laws and other means of legal discrimination against men of color have been transformed, so that the U.S. criminal justice system has now assumed the role of enforcing segregation.
The combination of laws that came under the cover of “the War on Drugs,” and other programs that claimed to be “tough on crime,” has created the system we now live in, a system where racial disparities in arrests and sentencing has led to the mass incarceration of black men and women in numbers out of demographic proportion. It is impossible to read this book and ever think about “justice” in the same way. As with other works on this list that liken conditions in prison to those of slavery, Alexander offers searing proof that justice in America is not “color-blind,” but is, in fact, a means of continuing to subjugate those who are not white.
How I Found Life and Freedom on Death Row
Anthony Ray Hinton
Imagine that you are on your way to work one night when you see the flashing lights of a police cruiser behind you. You pull over, waiting to hear what traffic infraction you may have committed. Instead, you are informed that a witness claims that you are the person who gunned down two people during a robbery. You are hauled off to jail. You don’t have enough money to hire your own attorney so one is appointed for you. But your attorney is overworked, distracted, and fails to challenge aspects of the case that could free you. The jury returns a verdict of “guilty.” The next words you hear are those of the judge pronouncing the death sentence for this crime you didn’t commit.
That nightmare happened to Anthony Ray Hinton, who spent thirty years in an Alabama prison for the capital crime he didn’t commit. Sent to Death Row, Hinton writes of a life that for the first three years was filled with rage, when Hinton struggled to survive. But, as Hinton reveals in this remarkable book chosen by Oprah Winfrey for her book club, something changed after three years. He found a way to dwell in hope. Even contemplating how such a positive viewpoint could have occurred is beyond my ken. But Hinton writes about how it occurred, and what all of us can do to prevent such miscarriages of justice in the future.
A True Story of Trial and Redemption
Benjamin Franklin wrote, “That it is better 100 guilty Persons should escape than that one innocent Person should suffer, is a Maxim that has been long and generally approved.” But in the past thirty years, over 2000 people have been convicted of crimes they did not commit. In Ghost of the Innocent Man, Benjamin Rachlin examines the story of one of these men.
In 1988, Willie J. Grimes, who had no record of violence in his past, was arrested and convicted of first-degree rape, and he received a sentence of life in prison. Grimes began appealing for assistance from anyone who might be able to help him, directing many of his letters to legal aid societies. Still, he sat in jail. In 2003, his letter reached someone who was convinced of his innocence and who began a campaign to overturn his conviction. Christine Mumma worked tirelessly to see justice done for Grimes, who would end up serving over twenty-five years because of his mistaken conviction.
Voices from Solitary Confinement
Edited by Jean Casella, James Ridgeway, and Sarah Shourd
In this collection, people who experienced solitary confinement write about their experiences. Their stories are supplemented by a number of essays by legal scholars, psychiatrists, and other academics about just how destructive and cruel the practice of solitary confinement is. What those outside the system do not know, for example, is that “solitary confinement” implies privacy, in fact, it’s the opposite. Being placed in solitary confinement means being placed under twenty-four hour surveillance. Prisoners in solitary have no sense of night or day because the amount of light in the cell is controlled by guards. Water can be shut off at the guards’ discretion, creating insecurity about thirst. In the case of one one of the correspondents, being placed in solitary confinement as a woman meant that she was raped repeatedly by her guards, who knew that there were no witnesses.
In one of the most moving essays, Joseph Dole describes his experiences as being “in a sea of madness during an eternal perfect storm of despair and heartache for the duration of my breaths.” It is difficult to sit with the knowledge that all over America, for thousands of incarcerated men and women, these are their daily lives.
A Prison Memoir
Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o
Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o was imprisoned in his native Kenya for his political views. Denied writing paper, he kept a journal using toilet paper, each night recording his thoughts and the events of each day spent in one of Kenya’s maximum security prisons. As he writes, the idea of “maximum security” had filled him with terror after reading about it in the work of writers such as Charles Dickens. But for him, “A year as an inmate in Kamiti has taught me what should have been obvious: that the prison system is a repressive weapon in the hands of a ruling minority to ensure maximum security for its class dictatorship over the rest of the population…” And such systems can be found all over the world.
Thiong’o details the various ways that prisoners were tormented. Whether it was inflicted through the denial of sufficient blankets to be able to keep warm in bed, or adequate food, emotional torment was used against political prisoners to create a hopeless despair. One of the most effective ways that authorities used to break political prisoners down was during family visits. The process to get into the prison to visit a loved one involved a lot of bureaucratic hoops, intended to create as many roadblocks as possible. If, however, a loved one did manage to get into see a prisoner, it would be to find that the meeting room had been stripped of all furniture, so there would be nowhere to sit, but visits would be limited to five minutes. Five minutes after all the time waiting plus the travel time for families to get there.
His experiences in Kenya bear a striking resemblance to the ways that other writers have documented that U.S. prisons are run. While the American Constitution prohibits the jailing of people on the basis of their political views, it is difficult not to see how the prison system works to prevent current power structures from being modified or even overturned. Our criminal justice system is political.
Poor, Sick, Mad, and Criminal in 19th-Century New York
The first time I remember reading about “Blackwell Island,” the notorious prison that sat in the middle of the East River in New York City, was reading about the times that Emma Goldman was confined there. She was arrested and sentenced to one year at Blackwell after she gave a speech in Union Square during a labor demonstration. (She would be deported in 1919 after serving a two-year sentence for opposing the military draft during World War I.) I made a trip to Blackwell Island — now known as “Roosevelt Island” — and saw the ruins of the mental hospital that authorities built on the island to house the city’s “undesirables.”
Stacy Horn has written a magisterial study in which she digs deep into the city’s archives to present the history of Blackwell Island to readers. She begins with the initial building of a structure designed to house up to 200 of the city’s “insane” in 1939. As she demonstrates, the knowledge of mental illness was almost non-existent and resulted in the filling of the asylum with people who suffered from a variety of poorly understood conditions. But the city continued to build on the island, adding a “poor workhouse,” a prison, and a hospital. The city turned Blackwell Island into a dumping ground for anyone considered unfit for “normal” life. Conditions on the island deteriorated in horrendous ways and reading about the treatment of those sent there may remind readers of “American Horror Story.”
Horn writes about the enlightened New Yorkers who journeyed to the island in order to report on its conditions. Nellie Bly reported on the island after going undercover as a mental patient for ten days. Her reports for the New York World included accounts of having been water-boarded as one of her first “treatments.” She also documented starvation diets where the food was full of live insects and other vermin, and unhygienic conditions that made people ill to read about. Bly’s report led to embarrassed officials increasing the hospital’s funding, but the troubles continued.
Curtis Dawkins is serving life without parole in a Michigan penitentiary. But in his collection of short stories, The Graybar Hotel, Dawkins writes of drama behind bars that ranges from the absurd to the comical, from the tragic to tiny moments of love and hope. In his story, “Engulfed,” he relates the adventures of a petty thief who would hit a number of houses in the same neighborhood until he had created a panic, and then would show up in the same neighborhood to sell the residents home security contracts. Or readers meet Stinky, whose story is know to fellow prisoners because his crime made “Cold Case Files.”
On the inside, men try to fashion as normal a life as their circumstances allow. Some become addicted to watching soap operas, while for others, baseball season provides night after night of opportunities to dream about other possible lives. But the men are also subjected to the vagaries of the guards or encountering another man who is having a bad time. His stories paint indelible images on readers’ minds. It’s the very mundanity of lives inside that make these stories so unforgettable.
Rachel Kushner, twice nominated for a National Book Award, has been short-listed for the Man Booker Prize for this novel about women in the prison system. Based on her own research, she populates the jail with a cross-section of women from all walks of life who have ended up behind bars for their crimes. But as Kushner presents the histories of these women, it becomes clear that, almost without exception, they had survived traumas whose effects had put them on a path to prison.
Most of the women were abused as children or raped. And while those in jail are told that it was their choices that put them there, Kushner sees that, for young women whose childhoods were hellacious and who have struggled as adults, little “choice” seems to have been involved. For example, as one of her main characters, Romy, relates a trauma she experienced as an eleven-year old, she speaks to the readers to compare her circumstances to theirs. “You would have been safe and dry and asleep, at home with your mother and your father who cared about you and had rules, curfews, expectations. Everything for you would have been different but if you were me, you would have done what I did. You would have gone, hopeful and stupid.” Her implication is that the crimes that have landed her in jail have grown out of the genetic lottery, which saw her born into a family where she experienced violence and the resultant instability. She forces readers to ask whether a person who has been raised in circumstances where wrong is constantly committed against her really knows what right or wrong is.
Big Emma's Boy
It is impossible to read Racehoss and not think of the conditions of slavery. Born in the 1930s in Jim Crow Texas, Sample spent much of his twenties and thirties confined to one of the segregated prisons being used as unpaid labor. Incarcerated men spent seven days a week in the hot sun, picking cotton. When the men working failed to pick “enough” according to the judgment of guard-supervisors, punishments were brutal.
Sample’s memoir reads as if it should have been written by a formerly enslaved person recalling his servitude. And while it would be comforting to consider this period of the history of incarceration over, as many of the writers here have demonstrated, the carceral system continues to exist as a means of reaffirming the power of white authorities to control the bodies of people of color in inhumane ways.
Stories from Solitary
Edited by Mateo Hoke and Taylor Pendergrass
According to psychological studies, prolonged solitary confinement provokes a variety of psychological effects that range from visual and auditory hallucinations, PTSD, and the increased risk of suicide. Amnesty International charges that solitary confinement is used far too frequently in American prisons, with some of incarcerated men cited having been confined for sixteen years without human contact.
In Six by Ten, a number of people who have experienced solitary confinement write about their experiences. One writer describes it as being locked “in nothingness.” A woman whose son, diagnosed with schizophrenia, is frequently isolated in solitary because his untreated illness causes him to act out in jail, reports that she is watching her son die, and the impact of what is happening to her eldest child has caused serious disruptions in his family. But the collection also includes essays from progressive prison officials who are working to change a brutal system.
Carnage, Cover-Up, and the Pursuit of Justice
When the Attica Prison Rebellion was put down using deadly force that had been ordered by New York State officials, it took less than a New York minute for the cover-up to begin. While autopsies revealed that hostages had been shot by bullets, the “official” story was they had been killed by spears made by the incarcerated men. Prisoners who were tortured before being killed had their deaths sanitized, and it was asserted that they had, in fact, been murdered by other prisoners prior to the prison’s “liberation.”
In 1973, Malcolm Bell, a state prosecutor, was retained by the state to handle any prosecutions that might arise from the litigation of what had happened at Attica two years prior. But as some hidden documents began to leak out and it looked as if officers might be prosecuted for the cover-up, Bell found that he himself was now a target.
Nelson Rockefeller, who had been governor of New York in 1971 and who had been involved in the state’s decisions vis-à-vis Attica, had the most to lose if the true story were to come out. As Watergate and Spiro Agnew’s corruption charges forced both the President and Vice-President to resign, Rockefeller was a serious candidate to become Vice-President. President Gerald Ford became President, and Rockefeller was his Vice-President, and the Attica files disappeared.
Bell and other attorneys worked for decades to expose the truth. His story is about the “turkey shoot” that occurred on that September day in 1971, but also about the lengths that power will go to in order to preserve itself.