Book Review: Gates of Injustice: The Crisis in America’s Prisons

A book is open on a table.

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“Try as we might, we Americans cannot separate ourselves from the world of jails and prisons… There is no Iron Curtain separating them from us. They are us.” 

This declaration in the preface of Alan Elsner’s thorough and startling report, Gates of Injustice: The Crisis in America’s Prisons, sets the tone for the rest of the book. According to Elsner, the percentage of Americans in prison is five to ten times higher than in other democracies. It is twice as high in South Africa and more than four times as high as in China. There are more Americans behind bars than living in the combined metropolitan areas of Boston, San Francisco and Washington, D.C., and the corrections industry employs more people than the combined global workforces of General Motors, Ford, and Wal-Mart. 

Starting with these striking statistics, Elsner makes sure the reader understands that what we are facing is an epidemic. The United States has become a “prison nation”. 

Elsner starts off with a brief history of “the War on Drugs” and the subsequent explosion in prison populations during the 1980s and ‘90s. He outlines not only the concrete changes that occurred, but also the shift in the culture of the justice system from one of rehabilitation to one of pure punishment as “tough on crime” became a successful political slogan. 

Drawing on his many years as a journalist covering prison populations, Elsner combines statistics, court transcripts, interviews, and personal stories to give a well-rounded view of the state of the U.S. justice system. Leaving no rock unturned, he tackles by turn over 11 chapters topics such as health care, the mentally ill, systemic and individual racism, women, immigrants, drugs, gangs, recidivism, and beneficiaries of the current system. He also outlines the many ways the prison system affects those who live outside of it by incubating disease, decimating families and communities, diverting tax dollars, undercutting workers, disenfranchising voters, and sending traumatized individuals back into the world. 

Elsner touches on a number of policy issues such as mandatory minimum and California’s “three-strikes” law but spends the majority of his book describing what happens behind closed bars. Prison is not for the faint of heart and neither are the incidents detailed (albeit tastefully) in Elsner’s book. Not only in the extremity of what he depicts – such as a prisoner being ‘bathed’ in boiling hot water until his skins falls off or a paraplegic strapped in a “restraint chair” so tightly that his nerves are permanently damaged and he can no longer propel his own wheelchair—but so too is the frequency with which these incidents occur. 

Elsner maintains a good balance throughout the book, focusing on systemic issues rather than attacking individuals. While he does not excuse the guards’ complicity in brutal activities, he does show empathy for those who struggle to maintain order and do the right thing in an often-hellish environment. Elsner also avoids any partisanship, holding everyone in government accountable for improving the situation. 

The one weakness in Gates of Injustice is that Elsner spends very little time discussing how to make changes. It is hard to remain indifferent to the book, and yet Elsner does not capitalize on this fact by providing his readers with concrete methods and resources for improving the system. 

He does mention a few successful programs sporadically throughout the book, and his twelfth chapter, “Some Modest Suggestions,” summarizes the main areas of necessary reform, but even there he makes suggestions like revising the federal sentencing guidelines without indicating how to go about pressuring lawmakers to do so. 

Still, the fact that the reader comes away from the book yearning to get involved attests to Elsner’s success in making his readers feel that the prison system is something that needs our immediate attention. As he challenges in Gates’ last lines: “This is your justice system. These are your prisons.” It is high time for us to take on the responsibility. 

Issues |Civil Rights|Crime|Incarceration|Political commentary

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