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Notes from a Prison Fish

by Jimmy A. Lerner

Pub Date: Feb. 12th, 2002
ISBN: 0-7679-0918-6
Publisher: Broadway

A jolting, unusual memoir from the ultimate fish out of water: a middle-aged MBA who pled guilty to involuntary manslaughter.

Brooklyn-born Lerner, a former Pacific Bell executive who comes off as a wittier version of every cellular-equipped guy in a Lexus, saw his world destroyed after he inadvertently strangled an unhinged, violent acquaintance following a booze-and-gambling binge. Charged with murder, he accepted a two-to-twelve-year sentence in 1998. Overwhelmed by the Dickensian sadism and Kafkaesque bureaucracy of the Nevada prison system, he used his immersion in corporate self-help maxims (a gag that grows tiresome) to adapt to this new environment of hostile takeovers. While Lerner is threatened with sodomy, mocked for his genteel background, and occasionally pursued by roughnecks like Big Hunger (“This banana be mines!”), little physical harm befalls him: his cellmate and friend Kansas is a “shotcaller” among the Nazi prisoners (Lerner neglected to mention his Semitic roots); the other inmates laugh at his “side-talking” witticisms and appreciate his help with sentencing figures, personal-ad writing, and legal jargon. Even Kansas’s white-power acolytes seem a jolly bunch, once Lerner assigns them the Seven Dwarfs’ nicknames. The unrelenting viciousness of many of the jail’s COs, however, runs as a disquieting undercurrent about the realities of imprisonment in post–Drug War, “Tough On Crime” America. The final quarter here is weakest, as Lerner melodramatically depicts the yearlong struggle with divorce, corporate bloodletting, alcoholism, and recovery that culminated in the Las Vegas incident. Whatever the author’s personal failings, his depiction of contemporary prison life (he remains incarcerated, following a parole approval that was later denied) is invaluable: humorous, crisply detailed, and sometimes heartbreaking, as when his attuned suburban eye captures the desolate loneliness of once-youthful gangsters 20 years into their life-without-parole sentences. Ironically, Lerner’s white-collar Everyman perspective may force readers to truly see the cruel inequities of our current system.

Despite its flaws, hard to put down, and harder to forget.