Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Inside: Life Behind Bars in America

I just finished reading Inside: Life Behind Bars in America by Michael G. Santos. It is an interesting read that left me with some mixed feelings. Santos is a convicted drug trafficker who has been in Federal custody since he was 23. His earliest release date is 2013. As someone who has spent decades behind bars at a variety of classification levels, he has a lot of knowledge. He is a good writer as well.

This perspective is also what I liked in this book. I think just about everyone agrees that the American prison system is not optimal for rehabilitating offenders. Forcing men (and women) into a system of prison gangs, violence, rape, and an underground economy of drugs does not make most prisoners better citizens upon release. Throw in limited educational opportunities and it is no wonder the recidivism rates are so high. Santos narrative does a nice job of describing life on the inside and why the incentives that exist in the Federal prisons actually work against rehabilitation.

This insider status that Santos has also makes the book problematic at times. As a primary source on the Federal prison system, this book is excellent. As an authoritative account of the reality of life in prisons, the book has some obvious problems.

Santos has understandable developed a bias against correctional officers. He describes them as uncaring people who have no empathy for prisoners. They are almost always portrayed as unreasonable bureaucrats and sadists who enjoy power and enforcing arbitrary rules. He writes with relish the clever zingers he often gets at the guards expense. The only time that correctional personnel are portrayed well is when he describes accounts of inmates having sex with female correctional employees! This inmate vs. the guards mentality clearly impacts the views that Santos holds and can not be considered a good representation of the reality of daily life for these Federal employees. Of the many thousands of these workers, many probably do care about prisoners and do their best to make prison a road to rehabilitation. However, dealing with conning and violent predators impacts them as well and makes it hard to do so at times.

I found the author's complaints about education a bit bemusing. Santos has been fortunate enough to be able to earn a bachelor's degree and a master's degree while in prison. That sounds like he has had excellent opportunities to better himself. Is he satisfied? No. He rails many times in the book that the "evil" prison system will not let him work on a doctorate!

I am sorry but I do not think Federal prisons are where people should be earning doctorates. If a prisoner has the financial resources and academic abilities to work on an undergraduate or master's degree behind bars, great. They should be allowed to do so as long as the security of the prison is not compromised. But a doctorate? I liked the response of a prison employee to his request to work on a doctorate, "If you are interested in libraries and universities, you should not have come to prison." Indeed.

Santos also inadvertently undercuts his own credibility. He writes that he follows prison rules. However, he notes that prisoners are not allowed to operate a business behind bars. He also describes how he has cleverly got around this rule by using family members to trade stocks at his discretion (earning 150K one year!) and by serving as a legal aide for pay to other prisoners who send the money to his family. I guess Santos does not follow the rules as well as he claims he does...

Santos also tells the stories of other inmates. He protects their identities and tells their stories well. What he describes clearly shows many of these men should never be released from prison. In other cases, he makes reasonable arguments that some of the other men he describes might be able to re-enter society someday and that they should be treated differently by the system to help facilitate it.

As Santos is telling the stories from the inmate's perspective, the narrative is one-sided. Santos probably has limited opportunities to research the stories he is told himself. A good example is that of Arnold (Arnie) Bengis who he identified by name with permission. He is an elderly South African man that Santos describes as getting shafted by the US for crimes he committed in South Africa. In the tale Santos relates, Bengis was the owner of a lobster company (Haut Bay Fishing Industries) that over harvested lobster quotas in violation of South African law. He then settled with the South African government by paying a record fine. However, the irrational American authorities charged Bengis with an obscure American law and sent him to jail unfairly for four years.

A quick check of Lexis-Nexis and Google for Arnold Bengis tells a different story. Bengis was involved in an elaborate smuggling operation that was aimed at fooling the international monitoring system to protect sea life. He went after it for many years and it sure looks like he violated US law as he smuggled his product into the United States. Bengis did not contest the charge and voluntarily accepted a prison sentence. If the story of Bengis is wrong, other prisoner tales Santos recounts may be inaccurate as well.

All in all, this is a worthwhile book. It provides a valuable narrative of the Federal prisoner experience in late 20th century and early 21st century America. The account Santos provides is that of a long-term prisoner which understandably is not representative of all those (inmates and employees) involved in the system. I congratulate Michael Santos for doing so well in prison and wish him well upon his release. He would probably make for an excellent speaker at many universities.

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