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Malcolm Braly’s False Starts: A Memoir of San Quentin and Other Prisons (1976) is the best of the prison memoirs I have read. Braly was a child of the Great Depression, and suffered a childhood notably rootless and broken, even by the standards of that terrible time.But he does not attribute his criminality to that experience. Rather, he writes, ”I was, from any beginning I can recall, a liar, a sneak, a braggart, a show-off and a thief.”

He served time in a juvenile facility, and then in adult prisons in Nevada and Califoria, from the early 1940’s to the mid-1960’s, with several ”interludes,” as he calls them, of freedom between prison terms. There are certain constants in incarceration throughout the decades, and Braly captures in vivid and memorable language such eternal features as parole hearings and classification interviews.

But in other respects, Braly’s memoir recalls a time prior to our present period of mass incarceration, and in some respects the experience of incarceration has changed. Especially in the early years of Braly’s incarceration, the absence of intense overcrowding pressures seems to have allowed prisons to be not so much the explosive pressure cookers we have today.

I highly recommend the book, not only for its content, but because Braly writes clear, insightful prose. A couple of examples from his chapter on the parole hearing:

”In the psych department another report is prepared, one you will never see – the file clerk there is an incorruptible free man – and one certain to sound negative, whether it was intended to be or not. There is little you can say in the language of their discipline which doesn’t sound ominous.”

”In the library an inmate clerk checks your card to tell the Adult Authority what you’ve been reading, and in the chapel of your choice (I had naturally set myself down as an atheist, but here, as in Ireland, you must be either a Protestant or Catholic atheist) someone writes a brief report on your religious participation. The board is not enthusiastic about Pauline conversions. Still, every once in a while someone will try to run this number, but it’s not regarded as a classy route to go.”

”The Adult Authority, like visiting heads of important states whose inconvenience in the smallest matter might be reflected in negotiations of the gravest importance, is treated with great deference. Hearings never start before 10 a.m., but the inmates scheduled to appear first are routed out at 5 a.m., fed, and held in readiness against the remote chance the Adult Authority might start early. They never do, but whenever they enter the hearing room and press the buzzer, an inmate is immediately provided.”

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Book info

PublisherPenguin Books
Release date 02.05.1977
Pages count375
File size3.7 Mb
eBook formatPaperback, (torrent)En
Book rating4.17 (12 votes)
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