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The Keeper of the Keys

by Lee Dickenson, Lost Coast Press, 1999, 161 pages

Review by Rick Card

In a sequel to The Sounding Tree, published last year [PLN, May 1999], Lee Dickenson now offers a bundle of unrelated tales about his experience as a Connecticut prison guard. The stories range from administrative incompetence to prisoners on a rampage. And, as if to add another dimension, Dickenson also relates stories of guards that both enforce and violate the rules in tandem.

Despite what appears to be an equal dissatisfaction with superiors, colleagues, and prisoners within the Connecticut Department of Corrections, a close read of The Keeper of the Keys demonstrates that Dickenson himself is as much to blame as anyone for the failures of the prison system.

"Experience has taught me to beware of anything that makes the inmates happy." What a statement! Dickenson shows his true colors by viewing prisoners as suspects based on nothing more than the smiles on their faces. Anyone who has served time knows the guards can't stand prisoners who are cheerful and content. Not only does Dickenson share this pervasive correctional attitude, but he thinks little of expressing it publicly.

While making some valid points about administrative corruption and general incompetence, Dickenson unapologetically relates a story about the Hartford Correctional Center, where he and his cohorts routinely moved prisoners from one side of the prison to another in order to comply with a court ordered population cap. Dickenson writes, "By moving them out of the main building before midnight and back again before six, we did not violate the capacity court order; not a bad scheme when you think about it."

If Dickenson was the responsible guard appalled at incompetence and corruption, as he relentlessly portrays himself throughout the book, how can he defend his willful violation of the spirit of a court order? And again, when physical force or chemical agents were used on prisoners, why doesn't he acknowledge his own unethical standards when coaching other guards about "what to write in their reports"?

The book offers one bonus that's worth mentioning: a glossary of over one hundred and thirty prison terms, which range from technical jargon to convict slang. It's both informative and amusing, and as a reference it's worth the price of the book.

While Dickenson finger points without much thought to his own actions, he must still be commended for speaking out. He acknowledges the unprincipled condition of our prison system and seems to understand that he is but another victim in what is a growing prison industrial complex.

To order this book, contact: Lost Coast Press, 155 Cypress Street, Fort Bragg, CA, 95437. The price is $14.95.

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