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Book Review: Making Manna by Eric Lotke

Making Manna by Eric Lotke (Brandylane 2015)

Book review by Malcolm C. Young, Attorney and Consultant

Making Manna is fiction, but it tells a real story. People who have been involved in criminal justice will recognize large parts of the story from experience. And no surprise: author Eric Lotke knows the territory. First, he used to be defense counsel. Second, he integrated research, data and the varied opinions of a panel of criminal justice experts twenty years ago to produce The Real War on Crime: The Report of the National Criminal Justice Commission, a comprehensive analysis of American crime policy and incarceration.

            Making Manna begins dramatically: Libby Thompson, sexually assaulted by her father at age fourteen, gives birth in a farmhouse in Virginia, with only her mother in attendance. Immediately she is forced to flee to preserve the life of her son against her father. She has the good fortune to meet a series of people willing to help her along the way: a long-distance truck driver, sheriff’s deputies, the administrator of a women’s shelter and Sheila, a strong African American women bent on righting her own life.

            Soon follows a minimum-wage job cleaning houses while managing the baby, fittingly named Angel, and a place to live on the margins with Sheila and her daughter Monet. Libby staves off financial catastrophe pennies at a time: by applying country economies to meal planning and creatively figuring out how to cover emergencies, such as a $29 Amoxicillin prescription to treat her uninsured child’s ear infection. As Angel grows from babyhood into kindergarten, he is the quiet kid who listens, figures out how to get along with his more advantaged classmates, earn a little money and help out at home. Much later, he is the only middle-school student who doesn’t have a computer at home – but he masters PowerPoint for a competitive class presentation. He has an innate sense for business that carries him through to a happy ending.

            Making Manna is more than a good story. Lotke succeeds in bringing his readers face-to-face with a criminal justice system that burdens people who are poor but innocent just as it smashes those who are poor and guilty.

            Consider their lives: first, Sheila and the home in which Libby Thompson finds shelter, solace and a job are subjected to invasive “no-knock” searches and entrapping telephone calls from police looking for Zeb, the drug-dealing former boyfriend Sheila had already evicted from her home. Ransacking the apartment, police threaten to seize Libby’s hard-earned cash as the “proceeds” of drug sales. When Zeb goes straight and moves them all into a townhouse, still in a poor part of town, the police again invade the home, arresting Sheila and Zeb, now married, on drug charges based on his prior record and informants’ self-serving allegations.

            Because they are employed, a trial judge denies Sheila and Zeb appointment of counsel. With no information with which to bargain for a better deal, they accept a blind plea arranged by an attorney paid for with the sale of the townhouse and who for efficiency represents husband and wife. Both are sentenced to “war on drug” prison terms, leaving Libby in a crabbed apartment to care for their daughter Monet as well as her own Angel. As Angel moves into grade school, Libby scrapes by. On good weeks she is able to save enough to pay the exorbitant phone rates to give Monet a few minutes time to speak with her imprisoned mother.

            The tentacles of the criminal justice system intrude into their lives in less direct ways as well. When Angel learns that a classmate is a victim of sexual abuse, Libby draws on her own experience to bring the young girl some level of peace. Other students are not so kind: they torment the girl, an unintended consequence for the victim of public sex offender registries.

            To conceal her terrible secret, Libby never obtained Angel’s birth certificate. Without the certificate, Angel is barred from getting a driver’s license, working in certain jobs or applying for student loans – a replication of the legal complications for children brought to this country by undocumented adults.

            There is, of course, a happy ending involving Sheila’s and Zeb’s release from prison. But their freedom comes only after a period of time spanning daughter Monet’s transition from second grade through high school, college and beyond during which her parents were locked away in remote state prisons.

            Long sentences for small drug crimes are an easy target for criticism, of course. A healthy majority would readily agree that the prison sentences imposed on Zeb and Sheila were excessive, even assuming the convictions had been just. Today thousands of federal prisoners are coming home ahead of schedule precisely because this point has been won.

            But Making Manna goes a step further, faulting a system that exists to deliver punishment. Although Libby is the victim of a far more brutal crime than the alleged drug dealing which sent Sheila and Zeb to prison, no case was prosecuted, no arrests were made and no prison sentence imposed. Yet Libby eventually finds greater peace and satisfaction through a kind of victim-offender reconciliation than she would have derived from a long sentence imposed on her assailant.

            In a coincidence that prompts comparisons, Eric Lotke completed Making Manna at almost the same time as the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) published The Growth of Incarceration in the United States: Exploring Causes and Consequences (National Academies Press, 2014), the most ambitious of only two comprehensive commission-styled reports on criminal justice to come out since The Real War on Crime in 1986.

            The Growth of Incarceration in the United States is a 464-page volume heavily grounded in sociological and criminal justice research and data. It thoroughly disaggregates the phenomenon of mass incarceration from reasoned policy and beneficial results. It has certainly influenced policymakers’ reconsideration of incarceration.

            But prison populations remain almost exactly 500,000 or 50% higher than they were in 1994, when they were already judged too high. They are no longer growing by 6% to 9% a year but they have also yet to tumble in an equal but opposite direction, and won’t do so even with the current reductions in federal drug sentences. Is it likely that The Growth of Incarceration in the United States will alone prompt policy changes that will bring numbers down to where they were 20 years ago more successfully than The Real War on Crime ended the growth of prisons?

            My guess is, probably not. That’s because outside of academics focused on these issues, dedicated reform advocates, a few good people writing for the media, the pool of thoughtful criminal justice professionals and a handful of policymakers, few members of the general public read weighty commission reports. So there’s a real value in literature and entertainment, in the compelling story. People who never look at anything written by a Commission will watch documentaries, movies and television and will read novels. Making Manna touches many of the bases covered in The Growth of Incarceration in the United States,and at times goes further, as with its description of the damage done by ineffective defense counsel. The book has the advantage of good fiction, engendering sympathy and understanding for people and situations about whom most of the reading public can’t know in real life.