tldr: This review got LONG, so the short of it is GO BUY THIS BOOK! No, seriously, I don't care who you are, you need to read this. It's fascinating and makes you think, and really, isn't that what good non-fiction is all about?
I enjoy non-fiction that introduces me to information I didn't know about before, but I especially love when it can challenge my way of thinking. It has been a long time since I've read a book that made me confront my own thoughts in this way, and all the credit goes to Reamer for his writing style and handling of this subject. I'm still mentally processing this book, but I'm going to give reviewing it a try anyway.
Reamer has made his career in corrections as a social worker, but the bulk of this book centers around his time on the parole board of Rhode Island where he served for several decades. I've never had a friend or family member incarcerated or even charged with a crime, so I don't know anything about this system other than it's existence. Reamer does a great job of breaking down exactly what parole boards are meant do, their daily processes, and the struggles of working on one. He digs into classic philosophy, religious tenants, and modern psychology to grapple with making decisions about whether someone can be released from prison early, or if they need to continue their sentence. The level of understanding and introspection he provides is deeply satisfying to read, and makes me feel hopeful.
I think my ultimate take-aways are going to come from two sections. One was on the very real issue of metal illness among prisoners, and the morality of imprisoning someone who has demonstrable issues. When he spoke about the widespread shut down of public mental health facilities in the mid twentieth century, it really made me ponder the problem those closures are raising today and will continue raising since funding for those programs isn't likely to be forthcoming. The number of inmates who have some kind of mental illness or personality disorder is astounding, and a bit disheartening. This could seriously be a book in itself, and I'm now looking for recommendations on one.
The second story was from his chapter on "Redemption and Hope", which was probably my favorite in the entire book. The story was about a young man he called "Felix Bertaina", an 18-year old kid who was just a few days away from going to college on a basketball scholarship when he accidentally killed a girl at a going-away party. I'm unsure what exactly he was found guilty of (it wasn't specified) but it sounded like manslaughter and he was given a 15 year sentence. At his parole hearing he displayed exactly the emotional thoughtfulness Reamer looks for in inmates, and he worked hard at all of the programs he was put into while in prison. He was also a surprising lover of the stock market and talked about his spreadsheets and how much he wanted to learn and become a part of it when he got out. Due to all of this he greatly impressed the board, but they could not "in good conscience" parole him because he had only served five years of his 15 year sentence. As Reamer says "After all, his victim had died." I was debating this with my husband last night, and he is of the mind that two wrongs cannot make a right; why should this model inmate, a kid with his whole life ahead of him, stay in prison longer regardless of his sentence when it isn't doing him or anyone else any good. If the idea of prison is reform, this kid is doing great. I'm not sure where I land on that argument, but the fact that it has me thinking, rethinking, and then thinking again means it's worth considering.
In the end, I think this is a book I'm going to carry with me in my head for years to come, and I can't express how excited I am to talk about these issues with other people. I am a very black and white kind of person, and have difficulty with shades of grey. It's something I try to work on, and this book helped me see the criminal justice system in a whole new light. I'll be buying my own copy of this for sure when it comes out just so I can reference and reread later.
Copy courtesy of Columbia University Press, via Netgalley in exchange for an honest review Publish date: November 8th 2016.