Saturday, September 26, 2020

Literally the Best Reviews: The Five People You'll Meet in Prison

The Five People You’ll Meet in Prison - Brandon M. Stickney
Bancroft Press
336 Pages

I need to start this review with a couple of caveats. First, I know Brandon Stickney, and I am friends with him. I have known him for nearly two decades, on both sides of his prison sentence and associated troubles. For years I’ve thought of Brandon as one of the greatest writers that I know. He seems so fluid with his words, like he’s a magician conjuring the perfect ratio of perfect words into a story. 

Secondly, Brandon gave me an advanced copy of his book to review and present to all our readers on the website. He gave it to me months ago, I did read it right away. I even started a review. But then I felt I needed to re-read it to make sure I got the nuance that a book like this delivers. And then I read it again, and completely scrapped my first attempt at a review.

None of this means that I’m going to be blinded by a perceived bias towards Brandon’s writing. As many people know about my reviews, I can be brutally honest. Being true to myself when it comes to what to expect in the books I read is something I pride myself on. Even though Brandon is my friend, I will show the good, the bad, and the ugly in his book. I will be constructive in any critique that I have, not denigrating. Brandon will understand. He is a writer.

The Five People You’ll Meet in Prison details Brandon’s experience leading up to and throughout his two year prison term for selling drugs to a confidential informant for the police. During his sentence, he met five people who defined his time of incarceration and helped him survive the ordeal. It is also an expose on the inner workings of the prison system in New York State. It’s definitely not always pretty, and that’s for both sides of the proverbial bars.

In typical Brandon Stickney fashion, this book  is not going to be a book that you simply fly through. It’s going to take some time. He is adept at weaving a tale that sounds as much like a novel as it does a memoir, rendering it a book that will grab your attention and hold onto it. Most memoirs don’t do that. He also makes references to other literary works to help explain his situation. Knowing some of these basic literary references will aid with the reader’s understanding of Brandon’s plight.

There were times while reading this book that I got angry. I got angry at everyone. I got angry at Brandon for putting himself in that terrible position. I got angry at the prison system for being such a den on iniquity on both sides of the law. I got angry at our leaders for just letting these things get out of control. I got angry at the other prisoners for even having to be there. 

Obviously, the people in prison do not personify the best of our society. There are numerous moments of that ugliness rearing its ugly head, especially between rival factions. Slights are not to be forgiven for the most part. Every action has a consequence. At the same time, it is our hope that their time in jail will be used to help break them of criminal proclivities.

Instead, what we have is a system that is broken, and in some cases, nearly as criminal as those being incarcerated. The one thing that stood out for me, and probably bothered me the most, was the idea of corrections officers purposely taking the “long way ‘round” to ensure overtime pay. If true, that is a slap in the face to every taxpayer in New York State. Things like that should never happen -- in any governmental capacity. 

Behind all that anger, though, is hope. At least there was hope for Brandon. Ultimately, this is a story of redemption. Brandon has to overcome his vices in order to be able to integrate himself back into society. Before he can do that, he has to recognize his problems, his shortcomings, and work through them. Even with those temptations still ever present behind the barbed wire fences, he has to work through those urges and regain all that he had lost.

Brandon doesn’t make excuses for his vices. He doesn’t make excuses for his incarceration. He does question some of the methods, but he doesn’t shy away from the mistakes he has made. Through his writing he acknowledges those mistakes, regresses, and then keeps moving forward. As part of his travels on the road to redemption, he gives a hard journalist's look at the New York State prison system, hoping to bring to light some of the seedier practices. 

The narrative of Brandon’s prison time in The Five People You’ll Meet in Prison definitely does not have the grimy glamour of “Orange is the New Black” television show. It shows a dark, dank world with a desperate need for change. Reform should be the expectation over recidivism. From Brandon’s experiences as he details in his memoir, this is simply not the case.

Brandon will obviously have a more jaded view of the system coming from the inside. However, his experiences should not be discounted just because of his status as a prisoner. He was and is a journalist. As such his whole livelihood is studying all the details and putting them into writing. It would be worth investigating the charges made about the system and seeing how we can improve.

Another theme of this memoir is Brandon’s struggles with mental illness. Far too often we are guilty of shunning people who struggle with mental illness, or playing armchair quarterback after an event with an “I always thought…” The prisons are filled with people who suffer from this, and it seems they get just as little help inside as they do outside. Mental illness is a serious issue that needs to be addressed and tackled as soon as the signs appear. Otherwise we end up playing a losing game of “Catch Up.” 

Brandon describes his struggles with this all the way back to his early teens. While he was able to hide these issues for many years, eventually it wore away at him until it had nearly destroyed his life. Help may have been there in the early years with family and friends, but it wasn’t enough. He lost that battle and let the demons take over. He still suffers from this, but he has found a way to keep it at bay right now. He will need continued help for this, and he pleads for it in his words even if he doesn’t come right out and say it.

In a time where it’s vogue to blame law enforcement for every ill that beleaguers the country, I don’t see Brandon’s book as an attack on the people in corrections as much as I see it as an attack on the way the system has failed. He speaks mostly well of the guards he had at Niagara County, and one of the five people who had such a positive impact on him in prison was one of the guards. In every situation, there are good people and bad people. It is incumbent upon us to enhance the good and minimize the bad. 

In the end, after reading this book at least three times, I found Brandon Stickney’s The Five People You’ll Meet in Prison to be his way of asking for help. For himself and for others like him. He isn’t asking for forgiveness. Instead he seeks redemption by asking for help for those others who don’t have the voice to do so. 

Craig Bacon has been inspired by Brandon’s book to finish up his own, long-awaited book.

You can purchase Brandon's book HERE or HERE