Vol. 11 No. 1 (January 2001) pp. 25-27.

VOICES FROM A SOUTHERN PRISON by Lloyd C. Anderson. 304 pp. Athens: The University of Georgia Press, 2000. Cloth $29.95. ISBN: 0-8203-2235-0.

Reviewed by Adelaide H. Villmoare, Department of Political Science, Vassar College.

From time to time we on the outside do hear voices from prisons. In the letters of Julius Rosenberg, Bill Bathurst's HOW TO CONTINUE (1973), Robert Johnson's CONDEMNED TO DIE (1981), Jack Henry Abbott's IN THE BELLY OF THE BEST (1982), and Jean Harris' THEY ALWAYS CALL US LADIES (1988), for instance, Americans can read about life and death in our prison system. Published writings by inmates include poetry, diaries, stories, novels, and sociological analysis. These are wrenching, conscience challenging reading. They show how very human and complicated prison inmates, like the rest of us, are.

Lloyd C. Anderson's book on Kentucky prison reform litigation, begun in 1978, seeks to place this case within the tradition of prison writings. This is a venerable goal, but, since the inmates move in and out of this particular story, it is one not fully realized. Sometimes they are there, and sometimes they are not. The title of the book is, therefore, somewhat misleading. This is less a book about prison life than about the life of a lawsuit contesting prison conditions begun by inmates and directed largely by a judge and lawyers.

Anderson, appointed lead counsel for the inmate plaintiffs, writes in the third person in an effort to minimize his role and to bring out the voices of others, including three inmates who were the driving force of this litigation from within the prison. The book begins with "Shorty" who initiates the lawsuit after getting fed up with the bug infested, filthy conditions in the Kentucky State Reformatory (KSR). We learn about his life before prison, his complaints about the KSR and his first steps in the case. Similarly we are introduced to inmates Wilgus and Walter and Judge Johnstone. For Anderson these are the key players, and he allows them to talk in some detail in their own words. Indeed, almost all players get to speak their piece within these pages. Anderson's style is to include long quotations from inmates and the other participants.

As the litigation unfolds, we hear from a variety of participants, including the judge, journalists, and the new head of the Bureau of Corrections. Anderson deftly describes the larger Kentucky political forces that constrain the litigation. He depicts, then, not only the personalities and priorities of the immediate parties - the inmates and their Plaintiffs' Committee, the politically wily Judge Johnstone -- but the surrounding structures and processes of the media, the Bureau of Corrections' old and new guards, the governor and the state legislature. All the players are included in his story.

Lacking, however, is a driving narrative or definitive analytic perspective. Perhaps because the author equitably

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includes so many different voices at length, there is no dominant perspective or argument. The reader hopes for either a riveting voice or a theoretical structure through which to see this story. A rich literature on litigation and social change could, for example, provide a basis for a more probing theoretical analysis. Greater passion or more theoretical engagement would fully captivate the reader. However, neither quite makes it to the surface.

There probably are too many voices here with few, at least as portrayed here, strong enough to carry the full weight and emotions of this story. Anderson wants to place the inmates at the foreground, but in that effort the lawyers' views almost disappear. Even the author fades awkwardly into the background when he refers to himself as "the lead counsel." At one point, for example, the inmates are angry at the state's proposal for a settlement; we know where they stand. However, their attorneys, including Anderson, are only "perplexed and disappointed" at the proposal (p. 122). This is an understandable, professional reaction to the situation, but one wonders what they felt like as people involved with the inmates who were living in state sponsored oppression and filth at the KSR. Did the lawyers feel any passions? Presumably they did, but we are given little sense of them.

One of the best aspects of the book is Anderson's return to Shorty, Wilgus, and Walter at the end. He reveals the ups and downs of these men's lives as they struggle to get and stay out of prison. We come to see how difficult it is to remain in the outside world even for these men who have shown impressive initiative through their lawsuit, their leadership role on the Plaintiff's Committee, and their efforts to carve out better lives for themselves. In following their day-to-day hardships, Anderson demonstrates his dedication to them in ways his own writing style sometimes fails to convey. One does come to care about these three very real men struggling to make it out of the prison system they helped to reform.

Anderson concludes that the litigation and its long aftermath (which took about 10 years) did bring about dramatic improvements in the Kentucky prison system, especially the KSR. His data shore up this conclusion, but he might have drawn more fully on the wealth of research on law as a tool of social change. Although it does attend to writings on prison litigation, this book is isolated from the literature on law and change (e.g., by Gerald Rosenberg, Michael W. McCann, Stuart A. Scheingold, Elizabeth M. Schneider). Drawing on other, more analytic writings would place this case in a larger context that would help answer some of the questions prompted by his book: Is the result of this case unusual? Does it illustrate that litigation does work for social change despite what critics argue? Will the changes hold over the long term in an environment distinctly hostile to inmates' rights and where we incarcerate ever larger numbers of people for nonviolent offenses?

At the end of the book Anderson tempers his optimism over the aftermath of the litigation when he describes the rise in prison population in the latter 1990s. Given the different constellation of social and political forces both in Kentucky and the federal courts, one wonders if inmates will ever again be able to undertake this kind of effort. Will the Shorty, Wilgus, and Walters in American prisons not be able to put their minds and energies in prison to such constructive activities? And if they cannot, what will the voices from prison in the future be?

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One final comment, what is the audience for this book? Those readers interested in prison reform should definitely read it. Instructors of undergraduate courses on prisons and penology, litigation reform, and state politics may find this a constructive classroom book. However, for those seeking fully drawn portraits of prison life and its demanding complexities this might not be their first choice of a read. Still, excerpts are moving and telling, especially from the perspective of inmates working hard to build new lives for themselves.


Abbott, Jack Henry. 1982. IN THE BELLY OF THE BEAST. New York: Vintage Books.

Bathurst, Bill 1973. HOW TO CONTINUE. San Francisco: Glide Publications.

Harris, Jean. 1988. THEY ALWAYS CALL US LADIES. New York: Zebra Books.

Johnson, Robert. 1981. CONDEMNED TO DIE. New York: Elsevier.

Copyright 2001 by the author, Adelaide H. Villmoare.