From inside and outside the nation's prisons, six authors ask whether better methods exist for deterring and punishing crime. They answer yes.
As prison construction increases by leaps and the number of people caged in them by bounds, so also are there surges in the flow of prison literature. It ranges from cell-bound first person accounts of lockdown living to sociological essays confirming the negative results of mass imprisonment that former Virginia Gov. L. Douglas Wilder spoke of in 1992: "It is absolutely insane the amount of money we spend on corrections. What we have been doing is not right. But it's very difficult for politicians, and I am one of them, to say we have been wrong and that we've got to revisit, revise and restructure the whole system."
Part of the costly system of which Wilder speaks is Virginia's death row, the scene of more executions since colonial times than any of the other 37 death-penalty states. In Dead Run: the Untold Story of Dennis Stockton and America's Only Mass Escape from Death Row (Times Books, $25), Joe Jackson and William F. Burke Jr. take us into the shadows of Mecklenburg Correctional Center, in south-central Virginia, a facility packed with the condemned. Jackson, a reporter at the Virginian-Pilot from 1985 to 1997, and Burke, an editor there since 1980, examine in masterful detail the realities of death row from 1983 to 1995. The dates span the confinement of Dennis Stockton.
Until drugged to death in September 1995 -- a state killing witnessed by Jackson -- Stockton was known by the authors both professionally and personally. He wrote columns for the Virginian-Pilot, allowed his prison diaries to be published in the paper and was a main source for the reporters' exposes on the corruption and hell-hole conditions of the Mecklenburg pen. Weakly defended at his 1983 trial, Stockton received a death sentence on a murder-for-hire conviction. The authors credibly argue that strong doubts exist that he committed the crime.
I had heard of this case during several visits to Virginia's death row in the late 1980s. But only after I read Dead Run did all its compelling specifics come together. I also knew something about the wretchedness of the Mecklenburg facility. Here again the authors expose the bleak conditions, ranging from bribe-seeking guards to violence among the inmates. For drama and suspense, not much in current prison literature matches the authors' account of the death-row escape planned by Stockton and a half-dozen others. Shortly before the breakout, Stockton declined to go. His narrative of his fellow prisoners' departure from death row -- the supposedly securest enclave in one of the nation's toughest maximum-security prisons -- rivals any Big House escape dreamed up by Hollywood scriptwriters.
Jackson and Burke, a pair of conscientious and hard-digging journalists, did their double- and triple-checking to get their story. "We found over the years that Stockton was surprisingly reliable concerning details," they write of a man who, in the end, proved to be a gifted writer himself.
The same can be said for Leonard Peltier. That is the Anglo name -- though he is not an Anglo -- of Tate Wikuwa, which in the Lakota language means Wind Chases the Sun. Peltier does not consider himself an American, that too being an imposed name. Of Ojibway and Dakota Sioux bloodlines, he calls himself "a native of Great Turtle Island. . . . I am of the Okce Wicasa -- the Common People, the Original People. Our sacred land is under occupation, and we are now all prisoners, not just me."
Peltier's steel and concrete cell is in the Leavenworth, Kan., federal prison. At 55, he is in the 24th year of a double life sentence after a 1976 conviction in Fargo, N.D., for the murder of FBI agents Jack Coler and Ronald Williams. Versions of the trial and pre-trial events -- false affidavits, FBI coercion and intimidation of witnesses, suppression of exo-nerating evidence, prosecutorial inconsistencies -- can be found in Peter Matthiessen's In the Spirit of Crazy Horse: The Story of Leonard Peltier and the FBI's War on the American Indian Movement, in Robert Redford's documentary film "Incident at Oglala," in the literature of Amnesty International and the testimonies of Ramsey Clark.
In Prison Writings: My Life Is My Sun Dance (St. Martin's, $22.95, edited by Harvey Arden), Peltier covers new ground -- the territories of his inner life, the expanses of his justice-seeking vision for tribal people and his reflections about imprisonment or what he calls being "a houseguest in hell." Some of the 38 chapters are brief bursts of mystical prayers and poems; others are cries for reconciliation. In some places, Peltier's prose slips into bullhorn decibels. He says, for example, that "white society would like now to terminate us [Indians] as peoples and push us off our reservations so they can steal our remaining mineral and oil resources." This blanket accusation ignores a fair amount of contrary evidence, starting with the current federal court case that would restore billions of dollars to tribal members whose trust funds -- in the opinions of a white judge, white lawyers representing Indians and white federal officials -- have been mismanaged.
But the occasional lapse into bombast is a minor flaw, considering the rage that Peltier feels he is justified in expressing. In its most eloquent and passionate sections, Prison Writings deserves a place alongside the best works of Vine Deloria Jr., M. Scott Momaday, Mary Summer Rain and other Indian authors.
Many of Peltier's reflections are echoed in Letters From Robben Island: A Selection of Ahmed Kathrada's Prison Correspondence, 1964-1989 (Michigan State Univ.; paperback $22.95). During his 26 years of confinement in the same South African prison that held Nelson Mandela, Kathrada wrote more than 800 letters. Nearly all were smuggled out or heavily censored. Incoming mail received similar treatment. A letter came to Kathrada in 1964 that mentioned the election of Harold Wilson of the British Labour Party. Censors decreed that this was "sensitive information." Kathrada was given the letter 18 years later.
Although he was a political prisoner -- he was picked up in a sweep of the African National Congress headquarters and convicted of sabotage -- Kathrada's most moving letters were apolitical. To family members and friends, he offered graceful counsel about pending marriages, health care and racial integration. The output reveals a mind that no amount of institutional violence or vulgarity could numb. The inhumanity of jail could not kill his drive to remain human.
In 1988, after a quarter-century at Robben Island and Poolsmoor, another prison, he wrote to a couple who was about to marry that marriage and imprisonment have similarities. That may be "difficult to believe," he wrote. But prison and marriage are about making "a break from past lifestyles and the entry into new environments . . . about the need to curb one's individualistic streaks in order to fit into the greater whole, about new responsibilities and new priorities, about a situation where the pronoun `I' will be used less and less while `we' will come into more general usage. Yes, they are both situations which call for sacrifices and compromises -- and radical adjustments."
Unlike Peltier and Kathrada, Marc Mauer of the Sentencing Project, a Washington non-profit, draws on no personal experience of prison to form conclusions about current criminal justice policies and how to reform their rampant flaws. Instead, he relies on three decades worth of statistical evidence, program evaluations and governmental research.
Trying to arrest and jail our way out of the crime problem has left the country mired in "the most punitive of responses," he believes. In The Race to Incarcerate (New Press, $22.95), Mauer marshals an assortment of numbers. Among them: U.S. courts imprison people at six to 10 times the rates of other industrial nations; the decade from 1985 to 1995 saw a 700 percent increase in black offenders in state prisons, a 300 percent increase for whites; in 1995, 50 percent of the nation's inmates were black; the annual prison tab is nearly $40 billion, which comes to $109 million a day.
The most valuable of Mauer's 12 chapters is the concluding one, "A New Direction For a New Century." He presents evidence that reformers who were once dismissed as being "soft on crime" turn out to have been sensible on crime. From drug courts that send addicts to treatment centers or victim-offender mediation programs, not jails, yesterday's far-out ideas have become today's standard fare. "Most of us," Mauer writes in this thin but readable volume, "refrain from committing crimes each day not out of fear of a prison sentence but because we have better things to do with our lives. Families, communities, careers, and a sense of hope for the future work wonders to control crime in most instances."
However sound Mauer's fact-based arguments may seem to the reform-minded, especially the deal-with-root-causes camp, the harder case to make is one that Christian Parenti tries for in Lockdown America: Police and Prisons in the Age of Crisis (Verso, $25). This passionate and compassionate writer -- a teacher at the New College of California in San Francisco and a contributor to the Nation and the Progressive -- recommends "less policing, less incarceration, shorter sentences, less surveillance, fewer laws governing individual behavior. . . . Two-thirds of all people entering prison are sentenced for nonviolent offenses. . . . These minor credit card fraudsters, joy-riders, pot farmers, speed freaks, prostitutes, and shoplifters should not rot in prison at taxpayers' expense." Parenti should not be dismissed as a free-'em-all liberal. His exhaustively documented text -- 808 footnotes in 10 chapters -- deserves a full hearing from anyone serious about ending the often horrific realities of the criminal justice system.
Taken together, these five books offer a choice about correcting corrections: keep tinkering or start overhauling.
Colman McCarthy teaches nonviolence in seven Washington-area schools and directs the Center for Teaching Peace.