Love Behind Bars by Victoria Heywood is a fascinating insight into some of the inhabitants of our prison system, and their loved ones. Heywood examines their stories with a calm and objective eye, letting their own words paint clear pictures of who they are and how they think. It is a thought provoking exploration into the prison system - how and whether it serves us.
Why do women approach men on death row and begin relationships with them? Who will wait out a prison sentence and stand strong on the outside for the one inside? What does it mean for the one inside to have that contact, unconditional love, and support system? What does it mean for both parties once the criminal is finally released? And how easy is it to rehabilitate and 'go straight' after incarceration, if few will employ someone with a criminal record and prison sometimes creating more psychological issues than it cures?
Many of us find it easy to make sweeping assumptions and arguments about the current penal system and how to improve it, based on our perceptions of what prison offers at the taxpayers' expense. This book tells human stories of love, loss, tragedy and sheer cussedness which evoke empathy, if not sympathy, and educates the reader about some of the harsh realities of the justice system.
Many of the criminals and their lovers seem to feel victimised, and I wanted more detail about why they had initially chosen or fallen into a life of crime. I preferred a deeper psychological profile of the individuals, but perhaps that would detract from the clear telling of their stories. After all, if everyone's tough life story forced them into a life of crime, we would live in a lawless Dickensian style society where everyone 'picked a pocket or two.'
I'm a great proponent of going back to the source and my interest has now been piqued about why people make the conscious moral choice to break the law and how as a society we are failing our children, so that they either don't have the moral backbone or courage to withstand peer pressure, or have not learned how to occupy their hands and minds in fulfilling, creative, legal pursuits.
As crime statistics continue their upward trajectory, and Sydney seems set to become the shooting capital of this great land, if not, the world, it is apparent we need a community discussion about crime. We need to look at what causes crime, how to address it, what works and doesn't. As the original penal colony, it would be nice to think that Australia might lead the world in creating genuinely life-changing opportunities for both victims and perpetrators of crime to come to the table and forge through the bureaucratic red tape to forge a system which forces repentance, rehabilitation and restitution after the fact.
Does the penal system need to be altogether tougher and more rigorous to act as a deterrent, or do we need to start again? Either way, Heywood's book is real food for thought and grist for the mill in the revolving argument about the best way to convince criminals to change.
As the cover shrieks 'True Australian Stories', I couldn't see the relevance of the horrors of American serial killer, Ted Bundy, whose fiancée is also American (publishers please explain?) but even including that anomaly, the book is a great read. As a woman, reading true stories of love and loss was easy, and I hope the lack of emotion in the telling won't deter men from journeying through this odyssey as well. This book needs to get into as many homes and schools as possible, where it will provoke discussion, shape thought, and hopefully, policy, for years to come.
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