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In the year 1952, Soledad prison received John Irwin to serve a five years sentence for armed robbery, having robbed a gas station. At 23 years he is already drawn to a criminal lifestyle. That began Irwin's lifestyle as a convict and later as a criminologist. While at Soledad, he abandoned his criminal ambitions, turned to books, and earned himself twenty-four credits college credits, through a university extension program. After release from prison, he received a bachelor of arts from the University of California, Los Angeles and then earned himself a PhD in sociology from the University of San Francisco State University, where he taught for twenty-seven years up to his retirement. As a criminologist, he has many achievements to his belt. He founded Project Rebound, program helping those coming out of prison go to college. He also co-founded Prisoners Union in 1971, which organized inmates to push for their civil rights. He received the August Volmer award from the American society of Criminology.
His perspective on the correctional system was well informed by his experience as a juvenile delinquent leading him to burglaries, car thefts and finally, armed robbery to a gas station that led him to prison. He observes in lifers that, in today's jurisdiction, he would have served a much longer term than the five years sentenced to him in Soledad prison.
His book, Lifers, was his seventh book in criminology and justice. He is also author to the book Felon that was a required reader in colleges in the 1970's. He takes advantage of the credibility he earns from research he has done in decades, research about prisons. The book was released in the year 2009. It is built around extensive interviews with seventeen San Quentin convicts condemned to life imprisonment, of which a substantial number of them are still in prison awaiting their parole dates thus the title, Lifers. He first describes the 'Lifers' in detail, which is important as it helps the reader to identify each of the seven by name, and atrocities he committed driving them to be sentenced. He explains that all the seventeen lifers were in close contact with people involved with regular deviant actions such as gang banging, substance abuse and theft.
Irwin is careful to present their personal stories in their own words, starting with family backgrounds, which to most of the lifers was a pathetic to providing an honest experience and revealing description of their atrocities, which are homicides for most of the inmates. He explains that most of the crimes committed by the lifers were committed before they attained the age of twenty-four and took place in conditions such as strong peer pressure or a flare of strong emotions.
The prisoners are complicated people, others being more sympathetic about their acts than others who contributed. One of the inmates was conclusively dubbed, innocent and released as the book was being published. They describe different ways they used to adapt to prison life. The book is generally a brave and intelligent beginning to an overdue discussion.
Chapter three of the book generally speaks about the crimes the lifers committed. He is quick to blame the media and attorneys about exaggeration of the crimes. He also explains that most heinous homicides are because of robberies gone astray.
The book also tells about their time in prison and the transformation the inmates have undergone during their lengthy periods of confinement and reflection in the facility. Irwin occasionally pauses the narrative to draw general insights from the common aspects in the inmates' stories, but he is extremely careful to retain the individuality and uniqueness of each of the inmates' stories. He gives the reader the ability or interest to follow each of the narrators' stories intimately and, he is able to establish this in the most adverse way possible. He is, therefore, able to grasp the readers' interest captivatingly, making the reader able to follow through each of the inmates detail in every word.
John describes each of the atrocities and conditions that led to the accomplishment of the crimes in a severely humane way. He somehow tries to understand the reason as to why the convicts performed the homicides, car thefts or whatever crimes the lifers were charged with. In most cases, it seems that the lifers are driven to perform the crimes by issues surrounding their lives, Issues such as hardships, family woes, peers and drugs. This portrays the writer as being humane and somewhat understanding. His blame of the media and attorneys is relevant and true.
The book also speaks in depth about the injustices committed to life offenders by their juries. It touches on issues such as denied paroles to convicts and especially to lifers. It explains how the politicians are using 'hard time in crime' for personal, political gains. It portrays a selfish self-minded picture of the politicians. He states that it is not humane to hold a person who although had committed a serious crime has through the years matured into a completely different human being and evolved from the offender he was years ago to a right, headed person.
John, according to his book, puts it out that; law offenders be it that they are convicted for murder, homicides in any degree or class, did the felony for a reason. Something some-where pushed them into committing the atrocities they committed. According to the book, fourteen of the lifers convicted were convicted due to murders. It deems important for a convict to understand the law since rehabilitation activities are also marked with politics and selfish ends. The media too has a role to play in terms of handling of news about homicides. It should be lenient on the vocabulary it uses when reporting or writing to the public about a recent crime and try to use appropriate words to describe the situation.
It also seems that some of the convicts or lifers convicted are innocent. Irwin explains that of the seventeen convicted three seem to be innocent. This can be blamed on the system as it seems it has failed in its task of providing just and fair treatment to its system. Locking up an innocent individual and accusing him of a crime as serious as homicide is a serious violation of the individual's rights. The system, governors and politicians, are guilty of parole denial. Most o f the offenders according to Irwin join self help rehabilitation groups and improve their lifestyles by abandoning their criminal ways.
Atonement marks the fifth chapter of the book. It describes the convicts coming to reality with the crimes they committed. It reveals how the felons came up with the realities that they were actively involved in the felonies they committed. It shows an emotional account of what made some of them commit the felonies, with some being emotional disorders, which made them, believe that committing the crime would prove something about them. It clearly depicts their healing process while in prison. It shows them coming to terms and acceptance with their mistakes, which most describe as the first step towards healing. Taking responsibility of whatever happened seems like their first steps towards their healing. They are all sorrowful and regret having being involved or not helping out the victims of what they had been charged with.
In the third chapter of the book, Their Crimes, Irwin reviews the crimes committed by the seventeen convicts he examines. Fourteen of the crimes were homicides. The crimes were committed when the convicts were in their youthful age that is before the age of twenty-four. Irwin places a sub-title in the chapter, which tries', to explain, why these crimes were committed at this age which beats logic and can be termed as a somehow psychiatric way of trying to understand why these crimes were committed and why at the youthful stage of the individual and not later.
He does this by examining a court case of a Roger Simmons in the year 2005, where the court ruled that the death penalty was unconstitutional because of the youths reduced culpabilities due to their reduced social psychology. According to the case, Simmons relied on intuition. It's argued that rather than the substantial body of recent development characteristics in an adolescent impairing their judgment and impairing their culpability, reducing their criminal responsibility as compared to an adult.
Irwin gives an overtly realistic picture of this whole youth crime scenario by looking at life's the inner-city, non-white or simply black males, and the problems they confront. Youths in our society are barred out of the pleasures of adulthood. According to Irwin they are suspended in social place. They are denied the pleasures of adult-life like; adult careers or jobs, sexual activities and the pleasure containing activities. They are somehow expected to wait until they reach adulthood. Irwin is quick to explain that the primary role of high school is to keep young people out of adult affairs, which is simply a detrimental way of viewing what should be a development stage for any youth seeking a brighter future.
He reasons that the issue with this form of disposition is that during they are physically, emotionally and sexually maturing and achieving strong needs for adventure, gratification such as sexual gratifications and respect. Rather than waiting quietly on the sidelines, they team up and create their own worlds. A lower class youth is not only suspended but excluded from the right paths that economic necessities and conventional gratifications are a requirement. They join and start hanging out but due to a combination of factors resulting from being born and raised in a ghetto they completely drop out of school and begin hanging out in the streets. They do more of the partying, the sex also do drugs. For cash, they have to hustle and steal. In the process they get into conflict with other groups from other hoods that are equally struggling for economic stability and respect. Groups turn into gangs and gangs become tight entities, just like families. Members hang together, protect each other from other gangs and finally carry out criminal activities.
Generally attaining a job without family connections or higher education obtaining a job paying a reasonable wage are an extremely overwhelming task, a task almost impossible to achieve. For an inner-city youth, according to John, unless he has family connections or have great luck and find a good well paying job, they are apt to suffer. They are, therefore, forced to depend on family, drugs, hustling and 'thugging' or crime.
John was rather unclear about the kind of reforms or rehabilitation criminals are offered at prison. Although he mentions Christianity as a major factor, he doesn't seem to mention something like a church or any Christian monument related with Christianity in the institutions. It would have served his readers better with mentioning a bit the structure of the system where rehabilitation is sited. If religion were the most prevalent type of rehabilitation, then he would have made it more prevalent from the stories by the seventeen convicts.
Another thing that is contradictive about John's idealism in the book is his view of public schools and specifically, high school. High school just as other forms of education systems such as universities is an institution designed for learning purposes. His reasoning about high school being a place to keep youths out of adult affairs is rather unreasonable and has no basis whatsoever. It does not beat logic that the design made to high schools is an educative and moral place to gain a formal education, for good ends in the future. A place to enable the youths have a better tomorrow by simply studying and gaining good grades.
Irwin left certain issues unturned about corrections. Over the years, cases have been reported on brutality in correction facilities. Such is in-human and should not in any case be tolerated in any institution termed as a correction facility. Also, cases of hostility between warders and convicts have been reported. Irwin upon writing the stories should have incorporated this as part of their experiences. That would have given readers much more of an appetite and would also have discouraged prospective law breakers who stumbled upon this book from committing any felony. Another issue he left hanging was generally about the prison (San Quentin). Almost nothing is mentioned about the prison expect for its name. Nothing is mentioned about its administration, physical locations or even set up or formation. He concentrates on his story, which is of course, right, but would have been better with all the details intact.
The book is of course a rich resource for criminology
and mostly homicide. It's an interesting piece for anyone to read. It has rich detail on homicide and its classes. Irwins' conclusion which he repeats almost through out the book is ultimately clear; men interviewed are very different from the men that were sentenced to life decades ago. He says the transformation undermines any argument for any lengthy sentences; the young people who committed those crimes have been for long thoughtful, remorseful and transformed individuals.
This book makes a good read for people who have little knowledge about criminal justice. It also creates a provision for a good historical guidebook of the procedure that led Californian primers to review the sentencing structure. One issue comes clear, prisons are not only places that offenders are taken to because maybe the society considers them misfits, or maybe the society considers them to be too much of offenders to live among them, it's a haven. A haven where offenders go for rehabilitation and fortunately emerge as changed men. It can also be described as the home for lost souls.
The book should well be a perfect introduction to students who ultimately want to study criminal justice as it contains valuable information on criminal justice as a subject. It should also serve as the perfect piece for a critic for students studying corrections or any subject dealing or close to criminology.