A surprising—and frequently searing—examination of the prison experience, seen from both inside and out.
Novelist Gordon (When Bobby Kennedy Was a Moving Man, 1993) ran intensive writing workshops in Washington State prisons for nine years, until funding was ignominiously truncated. He initially explores the contemporary explosion in incarceration, noting that imprisonment rates have doubled in the last decade, even while the American people are "in no hurry to lay claim to the prisoners in our midst." As implied by his title, he views this reluctance to consider the realities of the imprisonment surge as akin to willful blindness in the face of a ghastly, distorted civic reflection. In contrast, his enthusiasm for his prison teaching experience is palpable: he offers strong tales of prisoners who found release and grace in writing, and discovered the joys of its inherent craftsmanship. Gordon maintains a wry, informed stance that strengthens his arguments regarding prisoner humanity and the pure (and vicious) moral relativism that prisons breed—particularly in the "get-tough" era, when even education and the simplest privileges are stripped away. Additionally, he culls a variety of memorable pieces in distinctive voices from the current and former prisoners he's taught. Yet their writing surges with edgy awareness and hard-won insights: memorable essays range from an attempted murderer's chillingly humorous tips on prison survival ("Commit an Honorable Crime . . . Keep a Good Porn Collection") to a twice-convicted rapist—now held indefinitely according to new Orwellian notions of civil commitment—recounting the violence and contempt accorded sex offenders (who stand lowest on the convict pecking order, along with snitches). Gordon's finely honed stance is most haunting: he draws difficult conclusions regarding the humanity of his charges, he portrays their absurdist moments of honesty or altruism, and he testifies convincingly about the power of writing to foster discipline and engagement with the world—perhaps to stifle criminal nihilism.
Not a tremendously hopeful work, but Gordon's audaciousness in regarding the condemned as creative citizens is memorable and gripping.