An intrepid journalist immerses herself in a maximum security prison.
Displaying her impeccable observational skills, Kessler (Raising the Barre: Big Dreams, False Starts, and My Midlife Quest to Dance The Nutcracker, 2015, etc.) takes on the complex, fraught subject of incarceration in America. For most Americans, she writes, the portrayals of prisons in dramas like The Shawshank Redemption and Orange Is the New Black are the only sources of information about that world. “We figured we knew what was what. But of course we didn’t,” she explains, stating that her mission was to “learn about this hidden world. So that we all could. I could teach these men to craft stories. They could educate me about prison life. I needed to know—I thought we all needed to know—who these people were that we put away, far away from us, in a country that puts more people in prison than any other country on earth.” After arduously pursuing permission to launch a writers group at Oregon State Penitentiary, she finally succeeded and spent the next three years visiting inmates willing to participate in the Lifers’ Writing Group. Her group included a dozen convicted murderers of varying ages serving life sentences, some with, others without, parole. Some participated regularly, others came and went, but the core became committed to expressing themselves through the written word. Discussing everything from “joy” to “privacy” to topics like recidivism, Kessler moved deeper into these men’s collective life experiences as they revealed themselves both verbally and on the page. Their inner thoughts and feelings are as eye-opening as they are enlightening. “I am, time and again, struck by their intelligence, their insight, their candor, their humor,” writes the author. Between poignant moments tossed up with the drudgeries, frustrations, and clever dodges of prison life, Kessler gives a pulsing heart and a human face to this portion of the population all too often forgotten outside the walls.
An incisive, welcome look at prison life in the U.S.