I grew up in upstate New York. Way upstate. Just a few miles from the border and on the other side of a rather large mountain from the maximum security Clinton Correctional Facility in Dannemora, NY. That was just one of the nearby prisons (granted the scariest one, but no one has ever escaped from within its 30 foot walls. Prisonsers have, however, escaped from the connected farm). There were also medium and low security facilities which popped up all over the landscape when I was growing up (my favorite one is in the town of Lyon Mountain, an old boom town. The state took the school, which had been k-6, and shipped the kids off somewhere else and transformed the building into a low-security prison).

Prisons were a large part of my life as a teenager and young adult. My senior year in high school, my psychology teacher took us on a tour of Dannemora. I had driven past the 30 foot walls (they come right to the edge of the road) hundreds of times and always paid attention to them (it’s impossible not to) but had not really thought about what might be beyond them. We entered as visitors and had to empty our pockets and go through a metal detector. We laughed when one of the boys got the condom in his wallet removed. Then we were inside. The walls. The towers. Men with guns in the towers. We stuck close together.

The C.O. (correction officer) who led our tour seemed to take some gleeful satisfaction in telling us the scary bits. “See that guy in the visitors room? That’s the Amityville Horror murderer.” He was, apparently, the one who had committed the murders which unleashed the ghosts.

“Up against the wall, kids. Prisoner coming through.” We had to plaster ourselves against the wall as two guards walked passed with a shackled prisoner. My heart beat quickly. What could he do? What had he done?

Then we were above a large, bright gym. Men were shooting hoops, running. One man played handball against the wall. “See that guy playing handball? He’s Son of Sam.” And he was. I recognized him. I felt I was seeing someone famous. Then I remembered what he was famous for.

He led us into a cavernous room, filled with men at sewing machines. When we walked in, they all stood up. We were looked over, even and perhaps, especially, the boys. No one disguised what they wanted from us. It may have been the single most terrifying moment of my life. The C.O. got us out of there quickly.

He brought us to the yard, where the inmates had constructed a ski jump. There were terraced rows of shacks. He explained the pecking order as it relates to the shacks: “At the bottom are the baby-rapers, the molestors. Everyone hates them. Above them, the drug dealers, then the murders, armed robbers, etc.” At the top, the mafia guys.

Finally he brought us to a cell block for lifers. It was empty. We could look inside the cells and see what life might be like. Then an alarm whined, louder and louder.

“Okay, we might be in a lock down situation.” I don’t remember what happened next other than our teacher got us the fuck out of there. On the bus ride back to school, we were somber and our teacher got us to explore our feelings with him. I don’t remember which one of us said it but we all felt that we would do anything to not end up there.

If I remember correctly, there are 10,000 men behind the walls at Dannemora. The town my school was in had 2,000 people total.

Ultimately, though, many of the boys on that bus with me ended up in one of the prisons. Although, not as a prisoner, rather a guard, a C.O. It’s a good job for the area. You don’t need a degree and it pays well, with good benefits. It’s nothing to scoff at, but it does or can do strange things to people. Divorce, depression, suicide, alcoholism, drug abuse rates are all high for C.O.’s. For many years, I had a boyfriend who was a C.O. at a medium security prison. He hated the way the other guards treated prisoners and visitors. He tried to treat people–prisoners, their visitors–with respect but he was also aware that there was a fine line and if he crossed it to flagrantly, his life would have been hell.

The thing is that all of the guards, they are in prison as well.

It is not good, our penal system. But it’s the one we’ve got.

Told in a matter-of-fact, unsentimental way Stewart O’Nan‘s latest novel The Good Wife tells the story of one family and 25 years of their lives as they work through the New York state penal system.

Tommy Dickerson does something stupid. He follows his friend Gary’s lead and ends up involved in a murder for which he (and not Gary) pays the price–25 years in prison. At the time of his arrest, his wife Patty is pregnant. This is her story.

We see through her eyes the frustration of the poor as they try to work the system. Everything is against them, including, it seems, the public defenders. Then as the wife of a prisoner we see Patty at the mercy of the system again–as items are confiscated and her husband transferred from prison to prison (moving farther and farther away–to Dannemora and farther northwest, to eventually Bare Hill in Malone) as she is left to make due as a single mother.

Though they do not thrive, their marriage survives and their son makes it through college and ends up with a great job. It’s at the end when Tommy is released and they are together again as a family (like they never were before) that we realize that all of these years have been not just a sentence for Tommy, but for all the rest of them as well.

Yes, Tommy was guilty of a crime. Even if the didn’t commit the actual murder, he was there and could have stopped it. But the key to this story is not his guilt or innocence, rather it is about what happens to the family, the extended family, the friends of those imprisoned. What is the world like through their eyes. And you walk away from the book asking yourself, what would I do if my loved one was in jail? Would I be able to persevere as Patty does? Would I be such a good wife?

It’s a fascinating, quick read and if you have not read O’Nan before, you should know that he is great. He has a no nonsense approach to telling a story that is utterly engaging and in this book, he has succeeded in doing just that.

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