In the fall issue of The Quarterly Conversation, Scott Esposito offers an excellent look at two books about the American, specifically Arizona, prison system: Richard Shelton’s Crossing The Yard and Ken Lamberton’s Time Of Grace.   Shelton’s book chronicles his time as a creative writing teacher in Arizona prisons.  Lamberton is a former student of Shelton’s who is a convicted sex offender.

America’s prison system deeply troubles me.  It seems in the so-called “post 9/11” world, the mainstream’s attitudes towards prisoners, rehabilitation, and sentencing has become stricter and more conservative.  This is nothing new, of course, because in the 1990’s I remember, as Esposito notes, a lot of the “tough on crime” laws that were passed:

This is mostly due to the increasing criminalization of drugs (well over half of prisoners are doing time on drug charges) and the many “tough on crime” mandatory sentencing laws passed during the 1990s that take away a judge’s power to, well, judge. Though the percentage of the population arrested has not increased significantly, those now doing time as a result of the arrests is much higher.

In a country that fully embraces truly devastating vices like alcohol and tobacco, the war on drugs is a comical joke.  Commercials try to scare people away from marijuana and follow it with disgusting, misogynistic, commercials for booze.  Pot never killed any of my friends, but drunk drivers have taken two.  Groups like Families Against Mandatory Minimums are working hard to try to change mandatory sentencing laws, which I fully endorse.

But I have digressed: I am more interested in the experiences of Lamberton and what Esposito has to say about his book.  A few of the issues Lamberton brings up in his book trouble me greatly.  I have lost a lot of interest in shows like Law & Order, especially the Special Victims Unit blend, because of the way they treat of a lot of their suspects.  Sex offenders are truly disgusting and barbaric, obviously, but as Esposito notes in his review of Lamberton’s book, is feeding them to the Aryan Brotherhood and other despicable savages any better?    I hate how shows like SVU always stick it in the face of suspects that they will be the “boyfriend” of someone in jail.  While that might be true, using homophobic fears and gleefully encouraging them on a television show just feels wrong.

Esposito continues that as Lamberton is telling his story he notes the ongoing tale of corrupt Arizona governor Fife Symington:

This isn’t the only double-standard Lamberton reflects on in Time of Grace. Throughout his narrative he occasionally dips into the ongoing affairs of former Arizona governor Fife Symington, who is undergoing investigation for taking bribes from Big Tobacco while in office. Symington is permitted to stay in his vacation ranch in Honduras during the proceedings (a common criminal would be in a cell) while Big Tobacco pays his public relations expenses all the way. Eventually he gets off, and neither Lamberton nor his friends are surprised.

Ah, Big Tobacco to the rescue!  Isn’t it wonderful how government officials can escape jail via the scum they associate with, whose only contribution to society is small boxes of poison and sexist advertising?

I agree with Esposito’s wonderment at the end of his reviews as to what exactly is the purpose of prisons?  Corrupt officials like Symington, who take money from purveyors of poison, get off but people like Lamberton can be “interred in a mental ward indefinitely” if the state so chooses.  Esposito points about that before stealing two presidential elections, George W. Bush “executed more prisoners than any other.”  Bill Clinton, while campaigning to become president in 1992 went back to Arkansas to execute a mentally retarded man.  A country that “does not torture,urinates on copies of the Koran,  and allows the disturbing things that took place at Abu Ghraib to happen.

I think I am going to look into both of these books sometime down the line.  I don’t have any answers to how the prison system can be fixed, or any perfect answers for what should be done with sex offenders, but I do believe in rehabilitation and second chances.  Shame, sticking someone in a mental home, or capital punishment doesn’t seem to be working.  I am very concerned with how a prisoner will come out of prison at the end of their stay.  Will they be a productive member of society?  Will society assist them and allow them to be even?  Or will they end up committing the same, or similar, crimes?  To conclude, I agree with Esposito’s final statement:

Lamberton notes that 95 percent of all people currently incarcerated in Arizona will be getting out over the next decade. They will be members of communities. They will be people’s neighbors. What do we want them to have learned while they were in prison? Would we prefer that they return to society with a chance of flourishing in it or preordained to be outcasts?