Free: Two Years, Six Lives, and the Long Journey Home, by Lauren Kessler
Reviewed by Neal Lemery, author of Mentoring Boys to Men: Climbing Their Own Mountains
“We want those to have done harm to us to suffer, to pay for what they did. But in making them suffer, we create the kind of human beings we do not want back in our communities.”
This engaging book takes makes us uncomfortable and asks us deep and provocative questions about America’s criminal justice system, and how we look at justice and rehabilitation, revenge and compassion. Kessler takes a deep dive into the lives of prison inmates and their efforts to emerge from prison life with a sense of purpose and hope, and be able to move on with their lives, and become productive members of society.
As a teacher in prison writing groups, she engages in deep conversations of the lives of some of America’s prison population, pointing out that 95% of all prisoners regain their freedom and attempt to reintegrate into mainstream American society. America has one of the world’s highest rates of incarceration, with 2.3 million Americans in prison or on parole. With 5% of the world’s population, we house 25% of the world’s prisoners. Our incarceration rate has increased 225% since the 1970s, far exceeding any changes in the crime rate.
The failure rate of parole is complex, with many parole violations being technical in nature, rather than the commission of new crimes. “Many failed not because they continued to live a life of crime, but rather because the road to reentry was – is – steep and rocky, full of potholes, a winding path with unmarked detours.”
This engaging, and well-written and often disturbing book tells the stories of some of her writers’ lives, their own devastating and traumatic childhoods, upbringings, adolescence and young adult lives. Each chapter takes us deeper into their lives, their struggles, and the institutional barriers and disrespect for their own needs and efforts to grow, recover, and move on into productive lives. The reader is challenged with uncomfortable and tragic stories, yet inspired by the bravery of those who share their stories with Kessler. The stories are told with a mixture of hope and the bitter truth of the failure of our criminal justice system to offer meaningful rehabilitation and reformation of lives shattered by abuse, addiction, neglect, and violence.
As a volunteer mentor for prisoners, I have heard these stories, and gotten to know and appreciate the tragic histories and the struggle to change lives and move on, as well as the indifference and ineffectiveness of the system. For those of us who work for change in the System, this is a work that has long been needed, as it gives voice to those who have not been heard. This book not only compiles the grim realities of a broken system, it offers insight into what works and what needs to change, giving the reader a comprehensive perspective. The stories are also full of hope, personal achievements, and the efforts of effective programs and dedicated volunteers who are making a difference and offer effective progressive ideas that are making a positive difference.
Free is a groundbreaking, well-crafted work, offering solid information and analysis and also personal stories of courage, determination, and personal insight into some of America’s most challenging social and political issues. It is a call to action, and a beacon of hope for true understanding and action for much of what needs to change in American society.
It is both an uncomfortable yet affirming read, written by a skilled author whose talented storytelling both informs and motivates the reader to deeply understand the system and the lives of the often forgotten. Kessler not only tells important stories, she shows us the way to truly make the changes that are needed, work that will truly make all of us free of the fear and brokenness of the criminal justice system.