Monday, September 14, 2009

Sunny Schwartz' "Dreams from the Monster Factory": Book Review

Derided as a do-gooder by guards, suspected as a "pillow fluffer" by inmates, Schwartz fought to gain trust in her legal advocacy-- and respect, the currency behind bars, once lost cannot be easily regained. Her even-handed narrative covers her twenty-seven years in the nebulous "prison-service community" at San Francisco County Jail. She mixes her own story as a remedial student, a natural misfit, who when she came out as a lesbian to her Chicago Jewish family encountered her own challenges. Her relationship with a brother who failed to silence his own demons in his increasingly unstable mind adds heft to her own realization of human frailty under pressure.

This narrative intersperses her own efforts to find personal balance with her prison stories. Halfway into her career, she discovers the concept pioneered by psychologist James Gilligan of "restorative justice." This seeks to make prisoners take responsibility for their actions, past and present, and to make amends to their victims so as to prepare to return to the community. 90% of prisoners will get out. Most do so after nine months served for violent crimes; the "throw away the key" model while filling new prisons to over double their capacity may please law-and-order voters, but it fails to rehabilitate these men and women who've damaged themselves (90% are addicts) as well as others inside and outside their cells. 70% of prisoners return to prison; 90% have never had a legal job; 75% read at a fifth-grade level and the same percentage lack high school diplomas.

Schwartz makes no excuses for those she serves. She's weary of hearing inmates demand their constitutional right to watch "Jerry Springer" who never admit any remorse for those they've harmed. She wants prisoners to accept that they made bad choices that landed them inside, and to start to reverse their patterns of blaming everyone but themselves for their inability to turn themselves around. Her mediation does place her often at odds with the guards, and she has to argue back to earn their respect. She falls in love with a female deputy warden and her battles at their home deepen her insight into the tensions that guards face as well as their charges. (See my reviews of Michael J. Santos' "Inside" for the prisoner's p-o-v and Ted Conover's "Newjack" for a correctional officer.)

She emphasizes for her own RSVP program the need for inmates to overcome their own "fatal peril," the violent moment many who share the "male role belief system" have when allowing their shame to get the better of their judgment. This deep shame triggers them to lash out violently when they feel "disrespected." By conducting workshops that confront the male prisoners with victims of crime (particularly poignant is Jean O'Hara, a grandmother of a baby killed along with her daughter by a drug-desperate addict robbing their home), RSVP and "Manalive" programs try to get the prisoners to settle down and look inside themselves to learn to control their reactions. Instead of calling on their "inner hit man to reassert control," Schwartz and her colleagues try to defuse this spark that sets off unstable men over and over.

Does the program work? Schwartz admits some inmates return, but at least it is for drug-related offenses far more often than violent ones, so this may be progress. The problems of "three-strikes laws", the outrage understandably raised by parolees who commit heinous crimes, and the "war on drugs" raise complex issues no one program can solve. Still, and Schwartz does not shirk the program's shortcomings, it has improved lives. She reminds us that the RSVP aims are not new; but "biblical" as they seek to make the wrongdoer accountable for his actions, and to repair the harm caused to his victims and the community that he lives in and to which he will return.

The book moves very rapidly, and can be read in a couple of sittings. I would have liked, given what she admits as "San Francisco cliches," to have known as a California taxpayer why a female inmate has an hour in her daily schedule for "acupuncture." As you might expect from the City by the Bay, yoga, meditation, and peer counselling augment the educational offerings as reforms at the "program facility." Classes are mandated for all inmates at her County jail branch 7, run by an ex-con who did time for murder before becoming its superintendent. Such novelties provide an intriguing counterpart to the usual state institution where little correction occurs and much coercion, and both guards and inmates welcome the change. Perhaps by this book, such steps towards true rehabilitation will become more common for the other three million incarcerated in America today. (Posted to Amazon US & this blog 9-14-09)

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