There’s no question that Prison From the Inside Out paints an interesting picture of America’s prison system and the long-term effect it has on its inmates. It also paints a picture of the one particular man at the heart of the story, William Elmore. On this second count, however, I’m not sure the insights I took were the ones the writers (or at least Elmore) intended.
The book is broken into three parts: before prison (told mostly by Elmore or his family), in prison, and after prison (these latter told largely by Simone based on interviews and discussions with Elmore, his family, and his friends). It’s at its clearest when Elmore speaks directly, though perhaps not at its most compelling. Knowing nothing about the facts of his case other than what’s presented here, he doesn’t come out looking that good. The book makes clear that he’s a charming, intelligent man in person. In text, he didn’t charm me, and came across more as making excuses, from the very introduction. He killed a man, but, despite having gone to fetch a gun to get involved in another man’s confrontation, his view is that none of it is his fault. That view didn’t really change for me across the book, though it’s also clear that he’s a thoughtful man who seems to have been both profoundly affected by prison (as one might expect) and either changed for the better or come out with a new outlook on life.
That’s not primarily thanks to prison itself, the book makes fairly clear, but thanks to the mechanisms he uses to survive it. Elmore admits that (his father having left the family early), he looks for father figures, and he finds some, at least one of whom (an ex-Marine) shows him the benefits of self-discipline. The central section tells us something about how Elmore coped with prison across decades, and how his family, admirably, stayed deeply involved. It tells us little, though, about the prison experience itself. Unfortunately, the way this middle, prison-centered, portion – the bulk of the book – is told makes it fairly difficult to follow a clear thread. Simone seems to have gathered her material (which by the end Elmore is calling an oral history) piecemeal – a recorded meeting here, another there, across many years. She largely follows that structure here, loosely grouping common elements into chapters that also roughly follow a chronological sequence. Friends and relations pop into and out of the picture, and I had a difficult time keeping track. There’s no index to consult, though, at the very end of the book, an appendix called “Not All Prisons Are Alike” finally presents the clear chronology I’d been missing.
The final section, Elmore’s release and re-adjustment to freedom is the most interesting and affecting. By now, we’re largely past the (what sounded like) excuses, past the muddled structure, and down to a clearer, more straightforward story about how a focused, committed man can cope with substantial change. I had the feeling this portion was somewhat smoothed, some missteps elided or glossed over. But at its heart, it’s about a man with goals, and the support structure that helps him recover from big and little shocks as he goes from life in prison to life in a changed world.
There’s a fair amount of contradiction in the book and in the ways its authors tell the story. Even in the first pages of the introduction, we hear two different stories of how Elmore got his nickname, “Mecca”, and two stories about whose idea the book was. There are minor proofreading issues here and there, but the prose is largely smooth, line by line. It’s the structure (or lack thereof) that gets in the way.
The two authors indicate they’ve set out to “make noise about mass incarceration”, and they’ve done that, but not as effectively as they might have with a clearer narrative. I found the book more instructive about coping mechanisms and, by implication, the possible futility of incarceration than a clear-voiced manifesto for change. It’s more an anecdotal description of the burden prison places on inmates and their supporters than a clear recommendation of how to change the system.