Mother California: Tell Me, Truly, Who Is The Criminal?

Prison. Say the word aloud. Prison. There. You have said it. What associations emerge? Is it a place of punishment and anger? Is it a place of quiet redemption? Or is it no place at all? A sort of black hole into which what we fear is thrown and, with less effort than we imagine, forgotten?

Prison is a reality most of us do not confront. Perhaps that is at it should be, as prison is the place those men and women go who become other by acts of misconduct for which we fault them. The law says we send folks to prison as a means of punishment, deterrence and rehabilitation. But what, really, goes on in prison?

Kenneth E. Hartman knows. He has been in California's penal system for almost 30 years. He was imprisoned for life at the age of 19 for the savage and senseless beating death of a man who had called him a "punk". In Mother California: A Story of Redemption Behind Bars (2009), Hartman writes about a life without the obvious sorts of hopes. He writes so well, it seems almost a miracle. From rage and despair, a diamond has emerged.

"We golems of urban legend," he writes of the man-child who beat a man to death with apparent pleasure, "were a force field of the darkest energy. I had gotten to the point where I could feel the fear I brought out in people. When I walked in the front door of parties, others ran out the back door. Beyond the thrill-seeking women and danger junkies who periodically hitched a ride in my wake, people sensed the blackness and avoided me."

He was a dark star, and whether he could hear the voices of those trying to reach him is unclear. "Not once during the trial does he [the public defender] shake my hand or display any kind of human connection," he writes. I winced when I read that. Did his lawyer not care, or was Hartman so far removed from normal human commerce that he could not be reached?

When he arrived in prison, he aspired to one thing and one thing only. He wanted to be feared. "Here I am in prison, one of the legendary joints in the largest prison in the country, a new recruit, and I am being treated as a predator. I am, in fact, a predator. I act on the ethos that if you can't defend what I want, I am entitled to it. Being accorded this perverse deference, I feel like a free agent, massive and justified, beholden to no one and nothing," he writes of his first bid at Soledad in the early 1980s. He was mean and massive; a Nietzschean sort of figure living the will to power in a world with little else to restrain him.

And then he met a woman. It started innocently enough. He placed a legal call. A paralegal answered the phone. "You are wonderful," she tells him on a prison visit. "The words echo around inside my empty chest, hollowed out by years of keeping my distance from emotion -- any emotion. For a moment, I feel as if I might cry. This is all too much. I'm securely shackled everywhere I go because I'm a menace, even in here.But a beautiful girl, an innocent, has managed to pierce me to the core of my isolation -- past all the posturing, all the anger, all the fear and loneliness -- with three words." He learns that he longs to be loved.

He ends up marrying the young woman. There are conjugal visits. A child is born. There are visits, and this once-hardened man swells with pride at the sight of his daughter on periodic visits with her. The life this fractured family lives thrives on the only positive thing left to man without hope of release: love. In the eighties and nineties, the prison system left room for the possibility that no prisoner is simply the sum of his worst moments. Hartman became fully human, and his humanity softened him. He set about the hard work of redemption, becoming a model to others.

And then the country turned mean and crazy. Victims raged that men locked up for life could watch television, or lift weights or enjoy human contact with those with whom they shared the gift of love. Prisons became waking graveyards. As a society we began to demonstrate the ethos of those we feared. We took vengeance from the Lord, to whom it belongs, and began to lord over prisoners, seeking gratuitous suffering in the name of justice. To our everlasting shame, we became a City on a Hill that boasts of freedom and imprisons more people, and for longer sentences, than any other nation. We glory still in our hypocrisy.

Hartman sees it all. While he has been redeemed, he's watched us become moral monsters. We now act as though "every prisoner had forfeited his claim to humanity when he arrived at the gate, ... society had concluded that we were all a contagion in need of containment behind hermetically sealed walls and lethal fences." As he grows older, Harman watches prison explode with violence as wave upon wave of men are deprived of all hope and almost all possibility of redemption.

I say almost because, against all odds, Hartman has found the good within himself. He has learned to atone for past sins. He organized an honor system for a prison unit that inspired men we think incapable of honor into believing in themselves. Somehow, Hartman found within himself integrity, a voice and a moral vision. He is a modern Epictetus.

Mother California is a book worth reading. The title refers to the state as the mother of those wayward children who mature in juvenile detention and then graduate to lives of larger violence. It is a mother who now seeks to devour her offspring, perhaps out of shame. I read the book with a dawning sense of sorrow that transformed into a sort of anger about the utter waste typifying our penal system. We throw men and women away for decades without thinking about it. Juries convict, judges sentence, and no one seems really to count the costs.

Our penal system is a failure, reflecting some broader failing of a society that routinely engages in social euthanasia and refuses to admit what it is doing. Those we cannot use we destroy, and we call the destruction justice. And yet the failure is not complete. That Hartman could have survived nearly 30 years of cruelty to produce such a beautiful book reflects the strength of the human spirit. The man is a killer, to be sure, but, reading his book led me to wonder whether we who seek to kill the human spirit with neglect have any right to pretend to be his moral superiors.


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