According to the Justice Department, between 1990 and 1995, 213 new state and federal prisons were built in the United States. That comes out to an average of 35 prisons per year or three new prisons per month. The U.S. has the largest per capita incarceration rate in the free world. More than two million Americans are presently locked up, and that number increases daily.
Robert Ellis Gordon taught writing in the Washington State prisons from 1989 through 1997, when the program's funding was eliminated by the legislature. He is the author of the award-winning novel When Bobby Kennedy Was a Moving Man. Gordon demonstrates a real love of the creative process in this unusual setting. Many of his students picked up on this energy and were able "to go for the juice" in their stories and essays. Two of the best pieces are tips on prison survival and an account by a sex offender on the hatred and violence heaped upon him by other prisoners.
Gordon does his best to open our eyes to the prison subculture. But perhaps most affecting of all is his righteous indignation against the present "no frills" approach to corrections that has cut off any chance for convicts to pick up a high school degree or community college courses. The author concludes: "The majority of criminals are a lot like you and me, and any number of them are redeemable. . . . We don't offer them a chance to turn around. And that's too bad for us and tragic for them. We're wasting far too many lives in our prisons."
By all means give Gordon a hearing. His voice is a vibrant alternative to the cynical and vengeful voices of those who want to lock up all criminals and throw away the key.