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RAZOR WIRE WILDERNESS by Stephanie Dickinson


by Stephanie Dickinson

Publisher: Kallisto Gaia Press

A nonfiction work chronicles a female inmate’s life in a New Jersey prison.

A judge sentenced Krystal Riordan to 30 years for her part in a 2006 kidnapping, rape, and murder. Her pimp boyfriend raped and beat to death an 18-year-old girl; Riordan’s crime was being in the same hotel room and doing nothing while the vicious attack occurred. Dickinson, who loosely based a novel on the killing, doesn’t focus on the specifics of the 2006 crime in this book. Rather, she shines a light on Riordan and her fellow prisoners in the Edna Mahan Correctional Facility in Clinton. Many inmates had troubled lives before serving time. Riordan herself suffered her uncle’s molestation and later attended the Élan School in Maine, an infamous residential school that abused students. Treatment inside the prison could be cruel as well; Riordan’s closest friend, Lucy Weems, went through an agonizing heroin withdrawal with nothing to alleviate her pain. But the women acclimated to the new normal in prison as they made what they couldn’t afford (such as hygiene products) and engaged in dalliances as secretly as possible (the law forbade even consensual sex). The author also details one inmate’s release and subsequent readjustment to a world featuring a job at a McDonald’s and a humorless parole officer. While Dickinson aptly showcases the New Jersey facility’s hardships, Riordan’s days in Élan seem far more harrowing. She even claimed to prefer the prison’s maximum compound over the school. The engrossing book is nevertheless profound; the author befriended some of the women and includes in her work snippets of personal correspondence with the inmates. She furthermore equates some of her own experiences with Riordan’s, from Dickinson’s troubled past—a gunshot permanently paralyzed her left arm—to the nine days she spent in jail for protesting the Vietnam War. Her prose is sometimes clinical, though to great effect. Describing the prison’s economy, the author deftly shows how frighteningly easily a dispute over $30 turned violent.

An illuminating account of a somber world behind bars.

(dedication, disclaimer, acknowledgements)