Inside Voices. By Jennifer M. Miller. Castroville, TX: Black Rose Writing, 2018. 123 pages. Paperback, $12.25. E-book, $5.99.
The United States incarcerates a substantial percentage of its population (116). This state of affairs has increasingly generated calls from certain quarters of the scientific and political communities for widespread, comprehensive reform of America’s criminal justice and prison systems. However, because prisoners are removed from society and isolated from their communities, it is difficult for the average American to form an accurate picture of the true human cost of this crisis. Moreover, the media’s application of dehumanizing labels such as “criminal” or “felon” has tended to prevent the development of genuine empathy for prisoners among the American public. Consequently, most Americans are unaware of how their criminal justice and prison systems currently treat prisoners, and those who do become aware of this reality often find it very easy not to care.
Jennifer Miller seeks to address these challenges of public ignorance and apathy by exposing readers directly to prisoners and their personal stories (8). The author received her PhD in Criminal Justice from the University of Arkansas at Little Rock, and now serves as Assistant Professor of Criminal Justice at the University of Arkansas at Monticello.
The book consists primarily of first-person accounts by prisoners who Miller met and began corresponding with during her doctoral studies, with a personal introduction to each prisoner provided by Miller. These accounts are interspersed with additional essays providing background information on Arkansas’ criminal justice system and sharing the impressions of the author and her undergraduate students as they visited prisons in the state and conducted their own research on current prison conditions. The author’s primary burden is to demonstrate to her readers that these prisoners, who became her friends over years of correspondence, are not subhuman “criminals,” but rather people deserving of love and respect (8).
Some of the sections written by undergraduate students, as one might reasonably expect, do not present a particularly polished writing style. While this can be distracting for the reader, it is somewhat counterbalanced by unvarnished stories of student experiences while visiting prisoners, including some in “supermax” security and death row (14, 111-14). The stark accounts of prison conditions, and the treatment of the prisoners whom students met, provide a framework for those prisoners’ own personal stories in the remainder of the book. Some sections written by the author’s students present research on specific problems in the present criminal justice system, including the growing expense of incarcerating older prisoners with increased medical needs (15-18).
Portions of the book composed by prisoners are similarly rough in style, and do not appear to have been substantially edited by Miller for grammar, style, or content. These sections also include the occasional prison slang term with which readers may not be familiar, and which Miller does not define (27). However, the drawbacks are again countered by the advantage of providing readers with a very raw and personal account of each prisoner’s story. While some pieces exhibit a more polished and engaging writing style, the stories occasionally become bogged down with extraneous and excessively explicit detail which can fatigue, or even repel, the reader (51-71, 73-110).
The men recount experiences such as being kidnapped or almost dying as a child (74, 76), going to prison at age 15 (20), struggles with trauma and addiction (43-44, 47, 80-84, 94-99), and the sequence of events leading up to – and flowing from – the commission of their crimes (44-45, 106-108). They also highlight several realities of prison life, such as “Post Incarceration Syndrome” (21), extreme social isolation (56, 67), the sensation of being dehumanized and viewed by society as a “throwaway” person (21, 60), the negative impacts of living in the prison culture (46, 69), and the lack of access to rehabilitative programs which might help break the cycle of incarceration (21, 33). Particularly impactful is the obvious concern of some of the men to exhort readers not to repeat their poor choices (48, 110).
If one is able to see past the generally poor prose and ill-defined overall structure, these prisoners’ stories of their childhoods, lives, and families provide points of contact and insights which ultimately leave the reader with a deeper understanding of the realities of incarceration in America, and a far greater ability to identify and empathize with imprisoned men and women as genuine, valuable human beings who have made destructive choices (114-15, 118-20). As one prisoner powerfully expresses it, “Simply put, I’m searching for validity. To be seen, heard, and known” (67). To the extent Miller’s book accomplishes that objective, it represents real progress toward the elimination of the widespread ignorance and apathy which have thus far undermined efforts to reform and humanize our prison system.