A no-holds-barred account of life at several different levels of the American correctional system.
After being arrested for “official misconduct”—he cheated on his expenses while working as a government official—author Alfredano (Be Strong, Be Tough, Be Smart, 2014) embarked on a harrowing journey through different levels of the American correctional system, starting at New York City’s infamous Rikers Island jail and ending at a state prison. He candidly reveals his experiences behind bars, one he hopes show “what incarceration is all about.” “We deal with the idea of prison the same way we deal with cancer,” he writes. “We merely latch on to complacency and focus on the reassuring notion that ‘it could never happen to me.’ ” Alfredano provides few details of his pre-incarceration life, preferring to immediately plunge the reader into prison life. At Rikers Island, he faces “the absolute worst of humanity” in both the detainees and the correctional officers, spending four days in an observation cell where he witnesses a “psychotic kid” stick another cellmate in the eye with a plastic spoon. “I remember thinking that there were probably prisoner-of-war camps with better conditions than this,” he says. At the state prison, he has to strike a “delicate balance between staying out of trouble with the COs and commanding enough respect from fellow inmates to keep them from challenging you.” Alfredano is treading on somewhat familiar ground, Orange Is the New Black being another recent addition to the prison memoir genre. But this work benefits from the author’s distinctive, hard-boiled turns of phrase—a detainee at Rikers was “like some cartoon circus act on steroids”—and his sense of the absurd. In a county jail, he recalls, five of the inmates were related, the whole family having “apparently been in and out of [the] jail facility throughout the years like a vacation home in the Hamptons.” Alfredano also finds the humanity in such characters as a jailhouse lawyer who can’t write his own letters because he is illiterate. “Only those who have experienced living behind bars are able to know the veritable depth of their fellow man,” he observes.
The author brings a nuanced, wry perspective to the prison memoir genre.