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Prison Nation - Real Change News

Real Change News, Jan. 1, 2003.
Book Review - Prison Nation - Real Change News

Real Change News

Sex, drugs, lockdown review by Heidi Dietrich
Prison Nation: The Warehousing of America's Poor
by Tara Herivel (Editor), Paul Wright (Editor)
Routledge, 2003
256 pages, $19.95

Don’t take Prison Nation on your next beach getaway, unless you can handle prison rape and torture served up with your margarita.

This collection of essays, edited by attorney Tara Herivel and former Washington state prisoner and activist Paul Wright, is not a light read. But it does provoke some tough questions. Anyone with a smidgeon of a social conscience would be hard-pressed to not feel outraged about what’s going on behind our country’s bars.

Most effective are the sections that delve into personal case studies. The book makes the case that our nation’s prisons are filling up with prisoners who don’t deserve to be there. A woman who retrieved hidden drug profits so her husband — a major ecstasy importer — could post bail was sentenced to 24 years in prison. Her husband, who offered up testimony about his associates and his wife’s involvement in his finances, did just four years. Minor criminals incarcerated through tough sentencing laws endure brutal prison rape and emerge from the system far worse off than they went in.

Equally compelling are essays exploring how towns across the U.S. are transformed by the nation’s growing prison industry. For some communities, prisons have become their means of economic survival. With prisons come jobs, grocery stores, Wal-Mart, and craft fairs filled with prisoners’ homemade goods. But real estate sits vacant because transient prison employees are reluctant to settle in. Guards’ families face the fallout of relatively low-paying jobs in a stressful, oppressive environment. Alcoholism, domestic abuse, and juvenile delinquency are not uncommon.

Especially hard to read are stories of abuse — from both juvenile offenders and adult prisoners. Sometimes graphic descriptions of torture accompany tales of youth “boot camps.” The squeamish might be better off skipping passages. Physical harm inflicted upon adult prisoners is no less harsh. One Indiana prisoner convicted on a DUI offense describes repeated rapes by fellow inmates. He worries that he has AIDS and admits to frequent nightmares. Other prisons are accused not of rape or beatings, but of denying proper medical care to HIV patients.

Less engaging are preachy essays that fail to use human faces to illustrate the problems in our prisons. Be the subject legal representation or racism in the courtroom, the essays lean heavily toward statistics and court case examples. While informative, the more casual reader will have to wade through the academic speak before landing on essays with more colorful examples.

Prison Nation takes a step back from those most directly affected by American prisons in a section that critiques prison labor. Though some praise the value of teaching prisoners job skills, essayists point out that corporations are saving big bucks and costing the non-incarcerated jobs by choosing prison labor. Among those fingered: Starbucks, Boeing and Microsoft. The essays don’t pretend to be objective, nor does the editors’ introduction to the section, which describes unpaid prisoners toiling in the fields of former slave plantations, just as slaves did 150 years ago. The essays stick mainly to one viewpoint: prison labor is not a good thing. There’s no one advocating for prison labor or saying that we’ve made great strides in our nation's prison systems. And there’s no evidence presented for such a claim.

While Prison Nation includes essays and case studies from around the country, it is Northwest-heavy. Liberal Seattleites are a likely target audience. Those whose hearts don’t bleed as profusely may feel over-satiated with the leftist views. Likewise, anyone looking for a light read shouldn’t turn to Prison Nation. It’s impossible not to get angry at what’s going down in American prisons.