Tag Archives: prisons

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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Coming Up Next…

A review of Texas Tough: The Rise of America’s Prison Empire by Robert Perkinson.

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Giving Away the Books

Thanks to Doubleday Publishing, we have three (3) copies to give away of a memoir that was released just a week ago today, Running the Books: The Adventures of an Accidental Prison Librarian by Avi Steinberg.   This hardcover release with a Deckle Edge has a value of $26.00 and runs 416 pages.   Here is the official synopsis:

 “Avi Steinberg is stumped.   While his friends and classmates advance in the world, he remains stuck at a crossroads, unable to meet the lofty expectations of his Harvard education and Orthodox Jewish upbringing.   And his romantic existence as a freelance obituary writer just isn’t cutting it.   Seeking direction – and dental insurance – Steinberg takes a job as a librarian in a tough Boston prison.   Over time, Steinberg is drawn into the accidental community of outcasts that has formed among his bookshelves – a drama he recounts with heartbreak and humor.   But when the struggles of the prison library – between life and death, love and loyalty – become personal, Steinberg is forced to take sides.   Running the Books is a trenchant exploration of prison culture and an entertaining tale of one young man’s earnest attempt to find his place in the world while trying not to get fired in the process.”

Here are some early comments on this book:

“Acidly funny…  Steinberg proves to be a keen observer, and a morally serious one.   His memoir is wriggling and alive – as involving, and as layered, as a good coming-of-age novel.”   Dwight Garner, The New York Times

“Hysterical, ingenious, illuminating.   I wish I had left yeshiva for prison right away.”   Gary Shteyngart, bestselling author of Super Sad True Love Story.

Running the Books presents [Steinberg’s] experiences working in the prison’s library as a fiendishly intricate moral puzzle, sad and scary, yes, but also – and often – very funny.”   Salon.com

If you would like to try to win one of the three available copies of this unique – and clearly funny – memoir, just post a comment here or send an e-mail with your name and e-mail address to Josephsreviews@gmail.com .   This will count as a first entry.   To submit a second entry, tell us briefly about the most unusual or strange job you’ve ever had.   Did you like it or hate it?   Did you learn anything from it?

This is it for the complex contest rules.   To be eligible for this giveaway, you must live in the continental U.S. and have a residential mailing address.   Books cannot be shipped to P. O. boxes or business-related addresses.  As always, the winners will be drawn at random by our experienced contest administrator, Munchy the cat.   (Munchy reserves the right to change this contest’s rules and/or dates at any time.   That’s because he’s the boss.)  

You have until midnight PST on Saturday, November 20, 2010 to get your entry or entries in.   Good luck and good reading!

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An Unfocused Journey

The Autobiography of an Execution (Twelve, 288 pages, $24.99)

“Outside the prison gates on Fridays, the parking lot is like a carnival.   Vans and RVs and pickup trucks with campers fill the visitor spaces.”

David R. Dow’s strangely titled book is part journal of his legal defense work in death penalty cases, and part memoir of his personal life with his wife and son (he was late to marry).   Unfortunately, it never quite decides what it want to be so it offers a not-so-fascinating look at both aspects of his life.   There also seem to be two characters vying for attention here:  Dow the brass knuckled street fighting gritty attorney and Dow the gentle family man.   The one thing that is obvious is that Dow has an immense ego, something that he quotes his wife as commenting upon.   (Think about the ego is takes for someone to include a quote from a loved one who has said that he has an outsized ego.)

Then there’s the writing style.   Dow admits that he’s not an accomplished writer and the style of Execution might be categorized as without style.   Dow bounces around in a quirky fashion moving from tense legal cases to family matters, and back again, without any apparent map or hint of structure.   The plus side to this stream of consciousness approach is that it does not require a lot of attention from the reader as Dow does not stick to any one topic for very long.

This is an airplane ride book, which offers far less substance on the death penalty debate than a prospective purchaser might expect.  

Reprinted courtesy of Sacramento Book Review.

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