An observant journalist whose experiences at Rikers Island have turned her into an advocate for criminal-justice reform shows us the grim lives of prisoners before, during, and after their incarceration.
Wynn, who teaches a writing class to male inmates at Rikers as part of a rehabilitation program known as Fresh Start, is editor of the Rikers Review, an illustrated magazine featuring short stories, profiles, true confessions, poetry, and humor written and illustrated by inmates. To better understand the men she found herself teaching, Wynn earned a master’s degree from the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, and here she knowingly explores the social and psychological factors underlying criminal behavior. Most of the men in Rikers whom she profiles are either drug addicts or drug dealers, come from dysfunctional families in the city’s “dead zones,” are poorly educated, and have been in jail or prison before. Selections from the writings of some of her student inmates are included here, but most of the revelations about their lives come from Wynn’s reports of her conversations with individual men whom she came to know well, and from her often disconcerting post-Rikers encounters with them. A few made successful adjustments to life outside, but most did not escape the cycle of drugs, crime, and incarceration. Wynn looks for explanations of this in their early lives, in the inequalities of our society, and in the policies and practices of the criminal justice system itself. She especially criticizes Rikers’ handling of drug addiction in its controversial Key Extended Entry Program (KEEP), which since 1987 has replaced detoxification of drug-addicted inmates with a maintenance program that keeps them on dependent on methadone for their entire stay. Treatment, she argues, would be far less costly than imprisonment, which at Rikers comes to a stunning $68,000 per inmate annually.
An unsentimental portrait of losers in the war against drugs.