Incarcerated for drug-trafficking since 1987, Santos documents the tedium and brutality of prison life.
The author’s first book weaves memoir and first-hand reporting together to paint a muckraking portrait of American jails. His constant refrain is that the current penal system perpetuates failure—prisons “create resentment . . . degrade each individual’s sense of self, and separate offenders in every way from society”—and since prisoners aren’t taught to expect that they can be anything other than jailbirds, a feeling of hopelessness sets in. Santos’s stories about ruthless and corrupt prison officials are especially shocking. One guard, for instance, pimps out his wife, who also works in the prison, to an inmate; for one five-minute tryst, the couple collects $1,000, which the prisoner easily procures from friends on the outside. The dehumanizing penal culture guarantees recidivism, the author argues. He envisions prisons in which convicts are encouraged and prepared to lead constructive, law-abiding lives in the outside world, and he urges taxpayers to demand reform. Santos presents himself as an example of what is possible. He took college classes, earning a B.A. and a master’s degree, and was on track to get a doctorate from the Univ. of Connecticut when the relatively progressive prison warden retired. The warden’s successor decided that graduate education would make prisoners hard to control, and so he shut down the program. The insights offered here are valuable, though the prose is either plodding (“I met and interacted with several other high-security prisoners during the months I passed in Oklahoma”) or shocking, as Santos spares nothing in recording the profanity and explicit, violent sex talk endemic to his surroundings.
Not first-rate literature, but eye-opening.