Friday, January 29, 2010

Book Review: Dreams from the Monster Factory by Sunny Schwartz with David Boodell

The constant conversations about budget, prison expenditures, and cutting programs, raise the question of cost-benefit from prison programming. Which rehabilitation enterprises are worth investing in for the long run? Which programs actually reduce recidivism to a point that makes them cost-effective for the prison system? Dreams from the Monster Factory provides some thought-provoking information about programs offered at a San Francisco jail by the Sheriff's Department and rekindles hope in rehabilitation and re-entry programming.

The book reads as a half-personal, half-professional memoir of Sunny Schwartz, a 27-year veteran of the Sheriff's Department, who joined the jail staff in the 1980s as part of an initiative to ad programming to the jail daily routine. Her program was rather ambitious and, in some ways, counterintuitive. Rather than creating voluntary programs, she created an ambitious study curriculum, with mandatory attendance and a dense schedule. With the collaboration of (most) of the deputies, she managed to create a series of special programs targeting women, general education and substance abuse. The most impressive part of the book, however, is Schwartz's description of RSVP (Resolve to Stop the Violence Project), a special program involving a dorm of violent men whose reeducation away from violence instincts is based on the Manalive program. The unique aspect of RSVP is the collaboration between a variety of community advocates whom we are used to thinking of as being at odds with each other: victim organizations, religious organizations, community groups, and counseling services. The role of victims in the program is described in a particularly appreciative, sensitive way, and generates hope that some victim organizations may see beyond punitiveness to healthier paths for activism. Despite the program's success, Schwartz does not flinch from describing the less glorious moments of this difficult and often frustrating work.

Not all readers will appreciate the book's unique mix of professional and personal information. Schwartz delves into descriptions of events in her own personal life, including some difficult descriptions of her family and relationships. The strength of these narratives, to me, lay in creating the sense that the inmates were not "different" in any sort of substantial, deterministic way, and that all of us, who have been through life's trials and tribulations can empathize with their challenges and frustrations. Schwartz does not come off as a "fixed", "enlightened" prison reformer with all the answers in her pocket, but as a flawed individual who looked inward to find the strength to light a beacon of change, beckoning to the flicker of light in the soul of most of the program's participants. This will make a good read for those interested in an insight into prison life and in thinking about the potential of programs for generating change.

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