book reviews, true crime

Repost: Prison

I’m sharing a couple of old posts from my original blog by request. These two posts were among my most popular anyway, so it was only a matter of time I’d repost them. This one first appeared on my original blog on March 6, 2013.

Holger, this is for you. Thanks for reading.

A few years ago, I got on a prison kick.  No, I wasn’t trying to land in prison.  I just started reading a lot of books about the prison experience.  Then I reviewed them on Epinions.com.  One book I read was called A Woman Doing Life.  It was about a woman named Erin George who got in trouble for shooting her husband at close range for insurance money.  According to the book she published, George is now doing 603 years for the murder and has no possibility of parole.  Her three children are being raised by her husband’s family in England.

It turns out I actually have some things in common with Erin George.  She’s a few years older than I am, but we attended the same college.  I know where the neighborhood where she killed her husband is located.  I’ve driven past it many times.

It’s hard to think about someone who could have easily been my peer, sitting in prison forever.  I don’t know Erin George, but I easily could have.  She could have been a friend of mine. 

Today, someone on RfM posted looking for information on what it’s like to be in prison.  S/he says that an uncle is about to be put away for awhile.  Lucky for that poster, I could recommend a couple of books and even a Web site for family members and friends of prisoners. 

From a purely academic standpoint, I find corrections to be a very interesting subject.  I hope I never have to learn about them firsthand, but I do enjoy reading accounts about people who have done time.  I don’t even think I’m wrong to pay money for books about prison life.  I figure they serve a purpose and writing a book for money is a lot better than committing crimes for money.  It’s hard for people who have been in the big house to make a living once they get out.

For her part, Erin George writes a fascinating book, for many reasons.  She’ll never get to enjoy the fruits of her labors the way an ex-con would.  She is never getting out of prison and she’s doing time in Virginia, which is notoriously tough on crime.

From her book, I guess she’s sorry she committed a crime, though she doesn’t go too much into what put her in prison.  I had to look up her case online to glean much information about it.   

I think once I have some lunch, I might go check out PrisonTalk.com and dig up some more info.

ETA:  Here is my review of Erin’s book.

A female prisoner opens up about life in a Virginia prison Dec 2, 2010 (Updated Mar 6, 2013) 

Review by knotheadusc

 in Books Rated a Very Helpful Review

Pros: Very well-written. Realistic account of being incarcerated. I related to Erin George.

Cons: I didn’t like the summaries at the beginning of each chapter.

The Bottom Line: Erin George dishes on what it’s like to do time in Virginia.

Those of you who regularly read my book reviews probably know that I love to read books about real people, especially when they have to do with true crime. I also love to have a good excuse to buy new books. As it so happened, last week I found myself on Amazon.com ordering some productivity software for my new Mac, which gave me the perfect excuse to buy one of the books on my wish list. The one that seemed to be calling out my name to be read was entitled A Woman Doing Life: Notes from a Prison for Women (2010), written by Erin George and edited by Robert Johnson.  

I didn’t know it when I bought this book, but Erin George and I have some things in common. First off, she’s from Virginia, like I am. She’s just a few years older than I am and had once attended Longwood College, now Longwood University, which is the college where I earned my degree in English. And she gets a lot of fulfillment out of writing and working with dogs. Of course, there’s one major difference between Erin George and me; she’s in prison and I’m not. Erin George is currently serving 603 years at Fluvanna Correctional Center for Women for the murder of her husband, James George, in May 2001.  

A familiar path on the way to “The Big House”

At the beginning of A Women Doing Life, George describes being driven down a familiar country road, the same road she used to take to get to Longwood. This time, however, she’s not on her way to college. George explains that this will probably be her last trip on this very familiar stretch of road because she’s on her way to prison to start serving a startlingly long sentence. Her three children, Jack, Francesca, and Giovanna, who had once been at the center of her life in Aquia Harbor in Stafford County, were now living with her in laws in England. Actually, given the nature of George’s crime, I’m surprised she still refers to her husband’s parents as family. But by her account, they are surprisingly cooperative in allowing her access to her kids, bringing them to visit her on an annual basis all the way from England.

Erin George doesn’t explain too much about her crime. She hints that she’s the victim of an unfair trial. Instead of writing that her husband was murdered, she writes that he was killed. She never actually admits to the act in a straightforward way, even though she does at one point refer to James George’s murder as “my crime”. Because she had no prior troubles with the law, Erin George had initially bonded out of jail after her arrest. Seven months later, she was returned to jail and was later found guilty of shooting her husband at point blank range, supposedly for insurance money. George never actually tells her readers the details of her crime; I found them out by looking her up on the Internet.

First thing’s first 

After establishing her trip to prison, George offers some details about her initial arrest and stay in jail. According to George, prison is a lot more comfortable than jail is, even though most people in jail are considered “innocent” because they haven’t yet been tried for their crimes. Going to Fluvanna was actually a relief because it meant that she could start to settle in, make some friends, and get a job. George offers a few details about her experiences at the Rappahannock Regional Jail, but then jumps into life in prison.  

As someone who had grown up in a stable home with loving parents, Erin George was somewhat unusual. Her high level of education and intelligence also made her valuable as a Scrabble referee; apparently, Scrabble is a popular way for inmates to pass the time. George teaches inmates who are studying to earn their G.E.D.s.  She is also involved with a program called Pen Pals, which has inmates training homeless dogs so they can be adopted.

In the course of my research for this review, I discovered that one of the other participants in the Pen Pals program is none other than Jennifer Kszepka, a woman who, in 1992, made big headlines in my hometown of Gloucester, Virginia. As a suicidal fifteen year old, Kszepka and two friends murdered her father and sister and tried to kill her mother. They then fled in Kszepka’s mother’s car until they were captured in Eureka, Nevada. Months ago, I had been curious about Kszepka’s case and did more research about it. I found out that she was training dogs in prison. As I researched Erin George, I found her mentioned in the very same article I had found about Kszepka months earlier. I was gratified to read that both Erin George and Jennifer Kszepka are both using their time in prison wisely. Indeed, it was in prison that Erin George discovered her talent for writing and developed a love for poetry.  

George describes herself as a model prisoner dedicated to following the rules. She writes that she’s not impressed with those who get out of prison only to show up again months later. I guess I can’t blame her for her disgust. If I were facing 603 years in prison with no hope of parole, I’d probably be annoyed by former inmates who reoffended too.

The basic necessities of life

Aside from keeping busy with poorly paid prison work, George describes prison food, prison medical care, and the many prison rules George must follow. George is lucky enough to have family members who send her money so she can buy things at the commissary to supplement the prison issued food and toiletries. Many of her fellow inmates are not so fortunate and must rely on their very meager earnings from the state to buy things like ramen noodles and shampoo from the prison run commissary.  

George has plenty to say about prison style health care as well. Contrary to popular belief, prisoners do have to pay to see medical staff. According to George, it can take a long time to get necessary treatments and prescriptions filled. Sometimes the medical staff is less than empathetic toward the women in their care.

Relationships with prison staff

George also writes about some of the people who work in her prison. For the most part, she writes that she’s handled very professionally, but not all officers conduct themselves appropriately. Her thoughts on the prison staff adds yet another dimension to her story about life behind bars.

My thoughts  

I was pleasantly surprised by how well-written Erin George’s book is. She really does have a knack for writing and I can tell that she’s an avid reader. I wish she had explained more about what put her in prison in the first place, but I guess I can understand why she would choose to omit that part of the story. Suffice it to say that this book is really about what it’s like for a woman to be in prison, not how she ended up in prison.  

I get the feeling that before she “went down”, Erin McCay George had never given much thought to the plight of prisoners. Now that she is one herself, she has a lot more empathy for them. I suspect that a lot of people will not be too impressed with George’s plight, since so many people live by the “if you can’t do the time, don’t do the crime” mantra. But as a fellow human being, I felt some empathy for Erin George and her fellow inmates. They’re still human beings even if they did commit heinous crimes.

One thing I didn’t like about this book is that every chapter begins with a summary written by editor Robert Johnson. This summary is presented in italics and basically restates what George writes in her chapters. I’m sure Johnson had a reason for including his take on things, but I found it a bit redundant, unnecessary, and annoying. Readers should also know that this book is chock full of quoted references. I actually appreciated the citations, since they make further reading on the subject easier, but they also make the book seem a bit academic and formal.  

At the end of the book  

George ends her book with an afterword by Joycelyn Pollock, whose research is liberally quoted in George’s manuscript. Beyond the afterword, there are a couple of appendices that include a glossary of prison slang terms and a prison cookbook. For some reason, the appendices are presented upside down and you have to flip the book to be able to read them. 

Overall

I guess Erin George’s situation is a grim reminder that anyone can end up in prison, even if they’ve been raised in a loving, stable home and given access to higher education. But every cloud has its silver lining and it appears that Erin George is trying to make the best of her situation. I would certainly recommend her book, A Woman Doing Life, to anyone who is interested in learning more about what it’s like to be behind bars.

Recommend this product? Yes

And here are the original comments from this post.

AlexisARMarch 7, 2013 at 5:35 AM

I can’t read much of prison literature genre because I start imagining myself wrongly accused of a crime and incarcerated, and then i start having bad dreams. Eventually i’ll hit the mature realization that not everything is all about me, at which point I’ll start to experience more of the real world. It’s surreal that you had so many indirect links to this woman.

To my ear, some names just don’t equate with hardened crime. Erin is one of those names. I suppose if the stakes were high enough, even someone given the name, “Holy Mary, Mother of God” might a least contemplate violent crime.

knottyMarch 7, 2013 at 1:11 PM

I did some more checking and it looks like Erin McCay George was at my college the same time I was. She was editor of the student newspaper, a year behind me even though she was older, and there was a big scandal when she was in charge. She published all the salaries of the faculty and there was a huge uproar.

I didn’t know her personally, but I know who she is. That makes this even weirder.

Tambra HaidonJanuary 20, 2015 at 5:55 PM

Very interested in this topic. My Justice class is reading George’s book for our class. I get the feeling our professor believes in George’s innocence however, I am not convinced. This article definitely, and the comment, puts a different perspective on the case. Do you have any information on why George’s sentence was 603 years? Also do you know any place I can read about the facts of the trial? Thank vyou!!!

  1. knottyJanuary 21, 2015 at 11:12 AMHi! That’s really something that Erin’s book is being used in a college class. You may want to read my next post on this topic if you haven’t already. I don’t know exactly why her sentence was 603 years, except that Virginia is very tough on crime and abolished parole. Obviously, she won’t serve that much time– but with that sentence, they are assured she won’t ever get out of prison. Fredericksburg.com used to have articles about the case posted and I had them linked in my next post, but I see now that they’ve been removed. You may want to try the WayBack machine.  

Eliseo WeinsteinAugust 8, 2016 at 8:16 AM

I can see why you have developed an interest in reading about prison. The way you describe and talk about Erin George has made me think about what it must be like for someone to be locked up for such a long time. On a more personal note, I have family members that have been to prison, but we don’t ask many questions about what it was like on the inside. However, I will definitely look into some of your book suggestions.

  1. knottyAugust 9, 2016 at 5:43 AMI would imagine it might be awkward talking about prison to those who have been, though some might actually want to talk about it. I hope my suggestions are helpful and interesting.


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