A WORLD APART: WOMEN, PRISON, AND LIFE BEHIND BARS by Cristina Rathbone (Random House), 304 pages, $21 paper. Rating: NN Rating: NN
Had Cristina Rathbone, journalist at the Miami Herald and New York Daily News, whittled her book down to a lengthy feature, she would have won more of my respect.
A World Apart is the product of five years of research - and victories in two lawsuits against the Massachusetts corrections department - on life at MCI Framingham, the longest-running women's prison in the U.S. It should have been titled Women, Prison And Life at MCI Framingham instead of posing as a broader exploration.
It's hopelessly sensationalist, but not in the way it handles abuse per se. Between the "Fluffy was a surprise" opening quote and the chapter devoted to Jail Babes.com (to say nothing of its eyeball-gouging convict-dwarf romance), there's no room left for abuse stories.
It's not all bad. Rathbone's language is light and easy, not a tiresome non-fiction read. She hits some points right on, exposing simple things that readers may not know about prison life: wages vs. canteen prices, the difficulty of getting access to a toothbrush or dental floss.
She talks about extreme familial strains and laws prohibiting all physical contact between inmates and between inmates and their visitors. She finds ways to integrate interesting history about the institution into the stories she tells about individual prisoners.
And therein lies the book's biggest problem. There's no shortage of women who've served time and have stories to share. But almost any big-time journalist is way more likely to get a book deal than any ex-con, and the public eats up these third-person accounts as valid and enlightened.
Rathbone's last title was On The Outside Looking In: A Year In An Inner-City High School. Sense a theme here?
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