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The Sounding Tree: Voices Along the Razor Wire, by Lee Dickenson (Book Review)

Reviewed by Daniel Burton-Rose

Lee Dickenson writes in the voice of an embittered veteran. For more than a decade and a half he manned a war zone, where the monotonous routine was sharply punctuated by life or death crises. He believed in his work and gave his heart to it, goes the time-worn narrative, but ran up against structural restraints on his ability to care. The state, instead of being his friend, ate him up and spat him out. But the war Dickenson fought--and is still fightingis on the domestic front. He's a jailer, occupying the control booths of Connecticut's prisons.

The Sounding Tree is a collection of vignettes on the numbing senselessness of prison inhumanity. Dickenson wrote it as an attempt to expiate his prison-engendered deep rage which, at rock bottom, nearly drove him to suicide. His anger stems from the cold incompetence he feels permeates the running of prisons on every level.

Dickenson, one of those increasingly rare guards blighted with intelligence and humanity, understands that in the most smoothly run prison prisoners and guards can exert checks--not always violenton each others' excesses. His writing also reveals an understanding that the current "let them burn in hell" societal attitude towards prisoners upsets this balance and replaces it with one that's much more precarious.

But the progression of the narrative reveals a man who has found no answers to the troubles that plague him. Dickenson seems to choose the path he had nearly died reacting against: trying to care less. The final chapter, "Hindsights," closes: "I don't have any advice for new staff on how to avoid any of this, other than to find another profession. They say that hindsight is 20/20 and in a way I guess it is. I do know that if I had it to do all over again, I wouldn't." But Dickenson still works for the Connecticut Department of Corrections, figuring he's put in so much time already that he's going to stick around to get his pension.

There is a next step Dickenson needs to take for his work to have more meaning. Instead of throwing his hands up with a frustrated roar, he should begin thinking about who prisons work for and why they benefit from keeping them filled. Only then will his real enemy, previously faceless behind bureaucratic inanity and individual pettiness, be revealed.

Still, it must be noted that, while many books about prisons are written by prisoners, few are written by guards. This book offers valuable insight from those whose imprisonment takes only a slightly more subtle form.

To order a copy of The Sounding Tree send $14.95 plus shipping to Lost Coast Press, 155 Cypress St., Ft. Bragg, CA 95437. (800)773-7782.

Lost Coast Press, 1998 $14.95

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