Reviewer Bani Sodermark. Bani has a Ph.D in mathematical physics and has been a teacher of physics and mathematics at the university level in both India and Sweden. For the last decade, her interests have been spirituality, healthy living and self-development. She has written a number of reviews on http://amazon.com. Bani is a mother to two children.
With Different Eyes
This book highlights primarily the way the American society treats its outlaws by incarcerating them in circumstances that are demeaning and dehumanizing. The author, Dr. Elaine Leeder, who is a social worker, a therapist at mental hospitals and one who has worked with alcohol and drug addicts, got interested in teaching courses at the Elmira correctional center, while on a visit there with a class of students that she taught. Some years later, she moved to California as the dean of Social Sciences at Sonoma State University and started to revitalize the prison education programs at San Quentin State Prison. In this book, she reports her experiences of teaching the inmates and preparing them to meet the outer world, of the inmates’ backgrounds that got them there, the precautions to be taken while dealing with them and the life stories of a selected few.
In the telling of her story, she challenges a number of assumptions that today’s society accepts as self-evident. The commonest of these is that criminals, once convicted, are not worthy of a second chance. For Elaine Leeder, however, there exists another credo that is a part of the title of this book, viz., “Humanity has no bars”. It is a credo that led her into getting involved in this education project, and she sees the erstwhile felons as the human beings, they so deeply know that they are. She sees the nascent possibilities within them that blossom forth during their discussions in class, the inherent understanding of Life’s workings from having experienced its dark side.
In Dr. Leeder’s own words “Once inside, I have learned about the real people with real stories, and reasons for doing what they did.
“In this book, I will tell you some of these stories. For the most part, they are aware of and disturbed by what they did. Most are remorseful for what they did and want to make amends to the victims, their families and the community they have harmed.”
The text is arranged as follows. After an explanation of how her interest in prison education was kindled, she relives her teaching experiences at San Quentin prison. A group of Lifers there, asked her to lead a group called “New Leap of Life” and she mentions the enthusiasm with which the inmates participated as they partook of the benefits of education. She dwells in particular, on some explicit cases drawn from the following ethno-religious groups: African-American background, Buddhist, Jewish, the last being her own ethnicity. The last chapter is based on her reading of why the American prison is the way it is and where it is headed. These future prospects according to Dr. Leeder, are not positive, in fact, they are extremely bleak. She also compares the American prison system to those of the European and Canadian systems.
This book has been written with passion and is a truly uplifting read. The stories of the inmates doing Life are deeply touching, one sees them as people of above average intelligence, who have landed in a painfully difficult situation and who truly appreciate efforts made by others towards their rehabilitation in society. But there is more, prison inmates, having been through what they have, have acquired a unique perspective of Life and life-skills, that those who live outside, would do well to learn and even emulate. Truths that would take weeks to teach most university students, can appear self-evident to incarcerees, at least to those who are attending the education programs. It is Dr. Leeder’s sensitivity to this dimension that makes this book the treasure that it is.
The message carried by this book is truly needed today. Shutting people out of society is not a viable alternative, as this is a never-ending and ultimately, an extremely expensive proposition. Exercising compassion and empathy, a la Elaine Leeder, is a better option that should be considered more often by the powers that be.
Follow Here To Purchase My Life with Lifers: Lessons For A Teacher: Humanity Has No Bars