The United States of America has the highest incarceration rate in the world.
No, not just the “first” world, or the “Western” world, or the “industrialized” world.
The whole world.
Well, we’re tied with Seychelles, this month at least.
(Interesting little side-factoid about Seychelles—it also has the highest income inequality in the world. Ninety percent of the ninety thousand people that live there live there in poverty; the rest are guzzlin’ Dom for breakie. Not that income disparity has anything to do with the U.S., of course.)
In this country, 707, or 743, or 732, depending on who you ask, out of every 10,000 people go to jail. That’s seven percent. That’s a lot. Forget Kevin Bacon—I’m willing to bet you’re not four degrees of separation from someone who’s served time. And if your skin’s a browner shade than pale, it’s probably a degree, two at the most.
My point is that you probably know someone who’s been locked up, and you’ve probably wondered what it’s really like behind those bars. You’ve seen Lockdown and Locked Up Abroad and Shawshank and Orange is the New Black*, and you’re always wondering, Is that what it was like for Cousin Steve?
Did he join a gang?
Did he drink the Pruno?
Did he drop the soap?
If you lacked the courage/had the good sense not to actually ask Cousin Steve any of those things, don’t worry, because your days of wondering are over. John Nelson’s book Where Excuses Go To Die lets you in on all the dirt: what guards are like, what career cons are like, what the cells are like, what the food, the yard, the favors done and owed are like. It’s a behind-the-scenes look at half a dozen California correctional facilities from a man who spent three years “touring” them, and it was one of the most interesting and engaging books I’ve read in a long, long time.
I picked Excuses up way back in April, but I put off reading it because I’d just finished James Ellroy’s My Dark Places, and as exhausting as Ellroy’s “botched exorcism” is, I didn’t think I could handle any more True Crime for a time. I shouldn’t have waited, though, because Nelson’s book is the antidote to the kind of macho romanticism that is the mark of the genre. In fact, there’s very little “crime” in the book at all. After one chapter describing the bookstore and bank robberies (yes, bookstore robberies) that landed him in cuffs, and another generally describing the childhood that led him to that point, Nelson spends most of his time and attention on what life is life after those iron bars clang shut—which latter description is a cliché, I know, but only until you experience it yourself. Which process of de- and refamiliarization Nelson describes experiencing time and again during his tenure as a guest of the state.
And above all, while there are plenty of jail high-jinks and shady characters and interesting insights into prison to keep you entertained, Where Excuses Go To Die seems to me primarily a book about remorse.
That’s not to say it’s somber. In the first third of the book—minus a few touching moments, such as when Nelson’s father literally stands up in court to try to take responsibility for his son—Nelson himself, while guilty and self-pitying, comes across as relatively unaware of the concept of remorse, and most of what we read in the first few dozen pages are the antics of an arrogant, immature individualist who’s convinced that he’s different, smarter and better than any of the men he’s stuck with in the pen**. This leads to a lot of laughter and some serious misunderstandings that are pure holy-shit-I’m-so-glad-that-didn’t-happen-to-me delights to read.
In that same span there are also a couple instances of severe violence—an orgy of violence, in one case—that to me would’ve been traumatic simply to witness but that you quickly learn is just another of the pitfalls inmates have to learn to navigate.
Amid the crudity and survival tactics of the early pages, there are moments of insight, and these multiply as time goes on. They’re prompted at first by certain good-hearted people that Nelson was lucky enough to befriend, such as when Father Will told him that just because he’d been allowed to transform a plaster Elvis bust into a Devil’s head, he “didn’t have to do the most extreme thing possible just because [he] felt like it,” or when Chuck Hildebrandt, the man who encouraged Nelson’s writerly pursuits, asked him, after a particularly clueless riposte, “Is this who you want to be?”
But as the chapters flow by, Nelson discovers more and more of these lessons himself, and a pattern begins to emerge: Nelson’s ego gets him into a jam, and he’s forced to develop some humility to get out.
Hence the book’s subtitle/-text: “Get Character or Become One.”
These revelations and reexaminations of Nelson’s behavior stretch back to long before he got the bright idea to start ripping of Borders and Walden Books, and they stretch forward to the present, to the John Nelson that so recently wrote this chronicle. There’s a lot of “I realized X and in the time since have come to see that Y,” or “Up to that point, I had always done A, but from then on, I would always do B.” Despite this fluidity in bridging large gaps of his own lifetime and the insistence of that recurring “I,” Nelson manages to keep the particular version of himself that he’s writing about suspended for inspection and it feels about as far from navel-gazing as an autobiographical text can. Because he’s not defensive about his faults and doesn’t boast about his epiphanies, Nelson’s able to trace the root of the lessons he learned in prison and describe their application to his life both then and now. It’s a just-the-facts-ma’am type of exposé about how guilt becomes remorse becomes the foundation on which to build a better version of yourself.
One of the more interesting things about these lessons is that you get the feeling they happened in spite of Nelson’s surroundings, and not because of them—which rather flies in the face of the whole concept of “rehabilitation,” of course. Perhaps you have an idea about this, that prison’s no place to go to turn your life around, that cons come out of prison more hardened than they went in, that the clink is a criminal classroom, that it’s become a thriving business, another means of state control, oppression, structural racism+classism, whatever. If you do, you’re probably right, in a general way.
But Nelson lays the particulars of these ideas out in no uncertain terms. He spends pages discussing the singular sadness one feels at watching kids—decent guys who made some dumb, maybe even awful, mistakes, but who nonetheless should have had bright futures—succumb to the pressures of the yard and be transformed into jailhouse-tatted, Yardese-talking losers. There’s not too much overt criticism of the penal system—Nelson saves that for his blog, and radio and television appearances—but when you add up the amount of good things that Nelson does for himself and the amount of time he spends alone doing them, and compare that to the general dearth of motivation and excess of regression he’s surrounded by, a fairly clear picture emerges.
What was that line from Apocalypse Now? “The bullshit piled up so fast in Vietnam, you needed wings to stay above it”? Like that, except, [Wasco]. Except, [CRC]. Except, [Men’s Central].
The thing about all this that saves it from being just some angry dude condemning his condemners because he didn’t like being in prison is that Nelson knows full well he belonged there. Knew it while he was there. He didn’t like being in prison and he gladly would’ve left much earlier than he did, he might not have internalized the full weight of his trespasses while he was committing them (though there is a touching and telling scene early on when he realizes he—he! himself!—is the cause of the mortal terror he sees in a bookstore clerk’s eyes), but he never once intimates that his mistreatment or the general shitshowness of the California prison system expiates his guilt.
This to me is the ultimate meaning of the book, the advocacy Nelson continues to pursue twenty years after getting out, and the idea of “getting character”: owning your past, fitting into a narrative about yourself that you can live with, and bending it to the service of others.
The simple act of getting these stories down on paper and in the hands of the public does a service to the men and women currently confined and the endless streams of them that’ll be locked up in short order. It puts their mistreatment on people’s radar. It exposes what a mockery of rehabilitation looks like on a daily basis, its machinations both structural and emotional. People sometimes don’t believe the stories in the book—I listened to one radio show where a caller told him he was full of shit, that he had to be making this stuff up, that there’s no way it goes on. I don’t like the expression you can’t make this stuff up, because I’m sure that I could and I’m nowhere near the most creative guy I know. But the thing about Excuses, about the United States prison system, is that you don’t have to. And that’s why John Nelson wrote the book, to record the unbelievable. The what-we’d-rather-not-know-about.
I’m not going to ruin for you what happens to the man Nelson dedicated the book to, a Nicaraguan guy named Hey, but there is no way that anyone can come out of that chapter unconvinced to his core that something needs to be done. At least, anyone who doesn’t wear a Sheriff’s uniform.
One last thing, about the language, because I’m a writer and I care about that stuff:
In a book that reads this quickly, full of what can seem at times like standard-issue “life lessons”(hard-won though they are), Nelson’s multilayered worldview and double- or triple-stacked allusions can strike one as . . . disorienting. He likes to tie a bow around chapters—not as in the-moral-of-the-story-type bows, like some modern-day Yardie Aesop, don’t worry—and some of these, because of the pace of the book and simplicity of many of the “lessons,” can seem odd, or not-obviously-sensical. For instance:
“By week six . . . the classroom had become Thought-crime Central, with deeper feelings and fears expressed, too. Forget rehabilitation after all: for a short time, Chuck Hildebrandt’s prerelease class offered restoration. And even the biggest meatheads usually came to recognize this for the gift it was.”
You don’t have to read those sentences a couple times—you can breeze by them, catch their drift, return a nod to the Orwell hat-tip—but you might need to. Not because they’re confused or confusing, but because they’re weighted differently than ones about Yard formalities or lunchtime tit-for-tats that precede them. And in that way the sentences that sum up the ends of John’s short, pithy chapters are like the anecdotes they cap, like the book itself, like the time John served, like the time millions of inmates serve—like, if you’ll permit me the extrapolation, our daily lives.
You can float on and just get through to the end, but there’s a whole hell of a lot more waiting for you if you take your time and—to use another cliché that’s funny (I promise) if you’ve read the book—smell the roses.
*Is it just me or was there just. so. much girl-on-girl sex going on in S2 of OitNB? It’s like the solution to every weak episode was, “You know what this episode needs? What this needs is more face-in-crotch. Right guys? Guys? More crotch. More face.”
** I discovered reading Excuses that there’s an entire vocabulary to describe levels of the CA and U.S. penitentiary systems. I’m likely mixing them up here—jail, prison, yard, pod, they’re tough to keep straight—and using expressions—”behind bars” or “in the pen”—that are solely the provenance of Johnny-on-the-street and strictly verboten among self-respecting cons, guards, and prison officials. This is one case in which I’m more than happy to betray my ignorance.