HARD TIME BLUES: How Politics Built a Prison Nation

Sasha Abramsky, Author . St. Martins/Dunne $25.95 (320p) ISBN 978-0-312-26811-4

Journalist Abramsky delivers a carefully rendered, emotionally charged portrait of America's embrace of maximum imprisonment and punitive justice over the past two decades. Focusing on opponents of rehabilitative ideals and casualties of punitive practices, Abramsky zeroes in on two principal figures: former California governor Pete Wilson, who hitched his wagon to the 1990s war on crime, and Billy Ochoa, a hapless middle-aged heroin addict who, under Wilson's popular "three strikes" paradigm, received a 300-year sentence for a $2,000 welfare fraud. Abramsky also looks at prosecutors, survivors of crime and victims' rights advocates, and corrections employees who energized the prison juggernaut, offering a poignant, disturbing view contrary to standard "tough on crime" rhetoric. He situates these personal narratives within broader transformations in urban life, public safety and media coverage of crime between the Carter and Clinton eras, whereby many politicians (particularly Wilson, Reagan and Gingrich) fortified their careers with sweeping, draconian laws in response to such phenomena as crack-related violence. The sad case of Ochoa, a nonviolent career criminal who poses little threat to society relative to the expense and harshness of his punishment, reveals what Abramsky interprets as the decimation and electoral disenfranchisement of minority communities via imprisonment. Abramsky skillfully navigates a difficult proposition: that while particular crimes like Polly Klass's murder (and the crack epidemic generally) are horrifying and demand justice, the wholesale forfeit of civil liberties and race-related mass imprisonment generated by the drug war will threaten society in the long term. The vibrant personal accounts in Abramsky's jeremiad distinguish it in a crowded field. Agent, Paul Chung. (Jan.)

Reviewed on: 12/10/2001
Release date: 01/01/2002
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