30 Years in the Hole

30 years

30 Years Behind Bars: Trials of a Prison Doctor by Karen Gedney, M.D. (DRG Consulting Company, $14.95, 384 pages)

30 Years Behind Bars: Trials of a Prison Doctor is an engaging and seemingly highly factual account of the work of a prison physician. I say this because I worked for doctors in a state’s prison system. As Doctor Karen Gedney makes abundantly clear, one never knows what one will encounter each day behind bars. One day inside a prison may be as quiet and reserved as a Catholic mass. The next day, all hell can, and will, break out.

Dr. Gedney intended to work for just four years under the National Health Corps in order to pay back her medical school scholarship. But the work was so fascinating to her that she stayed for three full decades. And she saw it as her mission to not just treat physical medical issues but also hearts and minds: “It was clear to me that as long as these men viewed themselves as victims, they had little chance of doing well on the outside. I had to help them perceive themselves not as victims, but as people who had what it takes to be responsible for the choices they made in life.”

And so, Dr. Gedney wound up bringing life skills classes to a high-security prison. An intriguing twist in her story is that Gedney, who is white, has a husband who is African-American. He wound up working with her to develop classes for inmates, the type intended to provide them with a “second chance.”

Dr. Gedney’s perspective is best summarized in these words: “I was always a sucker for the underdog.”

Of course,  no good deed goes unpunished, so Gedney often had to deal with wardens who either did not support her rehabilitation efforts or dismantled them. Even physicians are bound by the chains of bureaucracy. Luckily for Gedney, she encountered inmate success stories, such as the inmate she assisted who received a pardon after serving fifty years in prison. “Fifty years in prison. How does one survive that so well? How did he manage to walk out with confidence, into a world that was so different than the one he knew?”

Sometimes Dr. Gedney gets a bit too deep into attempting to cure the world as when she states: “The only thing that made sense to me was trying to gain an understanding of why someone commits a crime, and what could be done to prevent or stop the behavior.” Some would argue that this mission is not the role of a doctor in the correctional system. And this raises the one issue with 30 Years Behind Bars. At times, it becomes a political polemic, and this can distract from the story of Dr. Gedney’s medical career. And I suspect that it may, to some extent, limit the audience for the book.

Dr. Gedney might have avoided the sections of the book that deal with changing the system and the world. But then it would not have been her true account.

Well recommended.

Joseph Arellano

This book is available as an eBook and as a trade paperback book.

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