Book Review: Inside the Death Fences

I received an ARC of this book for free. All thoughts and opinions expressed are my own.

When Caroline Giammanco got a job teaching in a maximum-security prison, she wasn’t sure what to expect. She thought it might be unsafe, unpleasant, intimidating – but she anticipated that this would come from the inmates she taught, not the prison guards and staff she worked alongside. Once she started work within the electrified fences of the prison though, she discovered that there was at least as much lying, back-stabbing and blackmailing to be found on the ‘right’ side of the prison system.

A distinct voice shines through from the very beginning of the book, for example the use of the word “visit” to mean, I gather, hang out or spend time together. For someone unfamiliar with it, was a bit jarring, but it created a strong sense of place and helped to create an immediate connection with Giammanco. Similarly, the use of interjected thoughts made the events portrayed feel more present; it’s a device more commonly seen in fiction, but I felt added an interesting edge to the memoir. I did think it sometimes diminished the impact of the sentiments expressed, making them an afterthought rather than central to the narrative, but I generally enjoyed the conversational tone it created.

Poetic descriptions make a stark contrast with the institutional settings described, and Giammanco’s keen eye for detail shines through with every new place or person we’re introduced to. And there are a lot of introductions to get through. A lot of people are introduced in one go, and there are a lot of very colourful characters for the reader to get to know.

In one section of the book, reasonably early on, Giammanco describes going to The Academy, where she and other new employees went to learn how to behave in a prison. This was fascinating. The rules and guidelines provided for interacting with inmates, ranging from strange to utterly dehumanising, gave a chilling insight into the way the system views the human beings in its charge. In my opinion this was an example of this book at its absolute best; exposing problematic views and a fundamental lack of interest in the humanity of prisoners that needs to be revealed in order for it to be addressed.

There were large segments of the book that dealt more with general corruption and dwelt specifically on the poor treatment of the teaching staff. I think I would have preferred to see more of how the infighting among staff impacted the prisoners in their care, but the level of corruption and bad behaviour going on amongst the staff was compelling in its own right, and I appreciate that Giammanco could only speak to her own personal experience. The lack of respect afforded to the staff brought in to rehabilitate inmates or support their development is symptomatic of a deep distaste for the rehabilitation of convicts, and that connection is mentioned in the book, but I would have found it interesting if Giammanco had taken more time to explore that. Similarly, the romance that develops between Giammanco and her teaching assistant (the “Boonie Hat Bandit”, Keith Giammanco) is a lovely moment of personal connection in a book otherwise full of deeply dysfunctional relationships. It just doesn’t feel like it’s used to say much about the situation they’re both in, or the way the system treats them both.

Inside the Death Fences is a brave and brutally honest personal account of working inside a prison, and it tells some unpleasant truths about the people charged with rehabilitating prisoners. Despite wishing it had gone a little deeper in its exploration of the situations and issues it describes, I found it a deeply absorbing account. It makes for compelling, if occasionally depressing, reading, and I would highly recommend it to anybody interested in prisons and the systems in place for running them.

You can pre-order Inside the Death Fences here, it comes out on Kindle and in paperback on the 1st of July.

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