Reflections on writing Criminal Justice

Upon reading the manuscript, a friend of mine asked me whether an inmate would actually be killed over the financial wheelings and dealings of the prison staff. That question brought into high relief the often strange and deadly goings-on behind bars. The question was reasonable—and innocent—and asked in all honesty. But unless one has spent time in prison or worked in a penal institution or two, one has no idea how cheap life is and how quickly and unjustly it can be snuffed out.

Convicts—those who have been arrested, indicted and convicted by the justice system—are not the only criminals behind bars. After my first book, Doing Time, came out, a number of people questioned the veracity of the actions described in the book. My stock response has become: “If I wrote explicitly the things I heard or witnessed with my own eyes, you’d think I was writing pornographic violence.” Rapes, murders, suicides, stabbings and more are commonplace—not to mention what people, especially women, have gone through prior to their incarceration.

And then there are the crimes committed by the staff: selling drugs, mobile phones, carrying messages between gang lords and their minions on the outside, preying upon inmates to carry out their wishes, running prostitution schemes with female inmates…need I go on?

One reason that so much illegality goes on behind bars is that society—and in the case of my books—American society, doesn’t care. The fact that most inmates will eventually be released never occurs to most ‘law-abiding citizens.’ “Lock ’em up!” (Where have we heard that phrase before?) Simply locking people up doesn’t fix anything—except the human appetite for vengeance—and it’s terribly expensive. Society could send inmates to first class universities for less than the cost of a year in prison—and the return would often be better.

The types of prisons to which we commit people will often determine what sort of citizens come out when their time is served.

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