Amy B. Smoyer, PhD

Incarcerated Lives, Health & Social Work

Prison Book Club

Two prison books from my Mom.
In the last week, I filed both my federal and state income taxes and finished reading Robert Perkinson's Texas Tough. I am not sure which accomplishment is more impressive, probably finishing the book - 374 pages of small font, a gory, depressing story of our country's correctional misery. In his conclusion, Perkinson suggests we can pick from three paths moving forward:

  1. Continue building prisons and incarcerating people, aggravating our socio-economic and racial divides and bankrupting government coffers.
  2. Try another well-intentioned but ill-fated reform to make prisons a place of rehabilitation and watch it fail.
  3. Starve the beast by investing in community-based preventative programs that lead people away from the life of crime.
In leaning towards Option #3, Perkinson is arguing that prisons can't "work" as institutions of correction.  His review of US prison history does make a convincing case that prisons are inevitably dangerous and damaging to inmates, staff and even administrators.  I appreciate his point and may even agree with him, however, the bottom line is that we still have about 2 million people in prison and even if that number is reduced dramatically in future years due to a combination of fiscal realities and successful prevention programs (Come out, come out, wherever you are!), there are still going to be a bunch of people behind bars for many decades to come.  It's unconscionable to think that we are going to just walk away from this population, no matter how futile efforts to ameliorate the system may seem. Even if one step forward leads to two steps back, we have to try.

Which brings me to the other book that I read this month, Doing Time in the Garden, by James Jiler.  This is a combination memoir/how-to book written by the former Director of GreenHouse, a program in NYC that trains inmates at Riker's Island in horticultural and gardening skills and then links them to work in this field upon their release.  Unlike the Texas tome, this is a short pretty book with shiny paper, color pictures, and hope.  Jiler doesn't solve anything in this book.  The men and women who participate in the Riker's Island program get to work outside, eat the vegetables that they grown, and learn a thing or two about nature.  When they return to the community, the road is bumpy.  A lot of the graduates thrive in their horticultural internships and eventually land rewarding jobs. A lot of the folks start off well and lose their way, relapse, and return to Riker's Island.  While Jiler doesn't get into specific outcomes from the program's evaluation research, he suggests the program works because it shifts the participants' narratives towards one of healing and growth and delays, even if it doesn't completely halt, their drug-using and criminal behavior.  It's a modest little helpful something.

Now, I could tell you the story about the girl walking down the beach throwing starfish back into the ocean, but I don't think I need to spell it out for you.  You know where I am going with this... A major criminal justice reform that changes the face of corrections seems unlikely, Perkinson's detailed account of all the nation's best and worst intentions makes this point clear. But can we not alter the expression, ever so slightly?  Hope lies not in the glorious war but the tiny unseen battles. A small garden program.  A hot cup of coffee. Outdoor Rec, every day. We can't move mountains, but if we build modest paths and tap into underground springs, doesn't the landscape change?  

One other little something to add to this ersatz book review.  Perkinson's history is a history of male prisons.  Female institutions are mentioned only in brief passing. The history of women's incarceration in the US is a completely different story and one that, I believe, still needs to be recorded unless one of you wants to suggest a title I have overlooked. Or offer me a book deal...