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Prison Exposures by Robert Neese

March 17, 2016

prison_exposure

I wanted an insider’s view on everyday life in prison in the 1940’s for a project that I’m working on. This book, published in 1959, was almost perfect for my needs. The author, Robert Neese, was a prisoner in an Iowa prison. Neese doesn’t focus much on his own story—why he’s in prison, for example—but instead gives both a utilitarian outline of prison life as well as an insight into the prisoner’s psyche. He covers topics like the daily schedule, relationship between the guards and prisoners, types of prisoners, emotional experiences, connection to the outside world, etc.

The book is full of interesting anecdotes: the prisoner who trained a pet cockroach to carry a cigarette up and down his arm; the guard who accidentally dropped his rifle from the watch tower into the prison yard, where a lifer casually strolled over, tied the rifle to the emergency rope and sent it back up to the guard; the convict who works part time creating drawings for architectural firms. One comes to understand prison as an environment of the unexpected, where a unique culture is created by the tension between eclectic, often violent personalities and institutional rigor, calcified by the pressures of regret, ambition and torturous tedium.

Prison Exposures was published in Philadelphia, one of the homes of early prison reform. The goal of the movement was to view prisons not just as a form of punishment, but as a means of helping criminals become productive members of society after incarceration. Neese is realistic about this. He acknowledges that some of “hard rocks” will never be reformed. But, given an infrastructure of education, goals and the ability to productively pass the time, many inmates do successfully make the transition. Neese is optimistic about the future of prison reform.

The inmate’s point-of-view, the language of the time, the stories and the photos capturing daily life were helpful for my research. But the book also does a remarkably good job of articulating the psychology of the inmates and how that creates a complex society within the prison walls.

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One Comment leave one →
  1. March 18, 2016 1:41 am

    This book definitely sounds interesting. Somehow I find it chilling how regular life experiences are mimicked in prison environment, I know it’s to help inmates to go back to normal life after their sentence, but it is a bit surreal. Even the anecdote about gun falling in the yard – lifer giving it back shows acceptance for his fate, but would we ever be able to accept such fate, even if we deserved it? something in me deeply disagrees. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not against prisons striving to reform inmates, just the idea of being in prison scares me, and that’s the point I guess.

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