Wynn J 2001 Inside Rikers Stories From Book Review

Excerpt from Book Review :

Wynn, J. (2001). Inside Rikers: Stories from the World's Largest Penal Colony. New York: St. Martin's Press.

Jennifer Wynn's Inside Rikers: Stories from the World's Largest Penal Colony tells the story of Rikers Island, one of America's most notorious prisons. Now housing about 16,000 individuals, Rikers Island is a genuine small city with a self-sustaining system including its own power generation. The phenomenon of prison culture is the main focus of Wynn's investigative jouranlism report.

The expose is built on Wynn's experiences working at Rikers as a therapist, helping the inmates to explore their lives, their worldviews, and their philosophies via the tool of wrting. However, Wynn also creates powerful social commentary based on her observations and analysis. The prison culture in the United States has grown out of hand -- losing sight completely of the goal of rehabilitation. Relevant to the study and story of prison subculture, Inside Rikers: Stories from the World's Largest Penal Colony is an eye-opening account of life behind bars.

Reading Inside Rikers is important because the United States is the largest incarcerator in the world, per capita. The United States has contradictory policies regarding criminal justice, rehabilitation, and incarceration. America's penal policies are simply not working. Wynn shows why the American penal system is not working and has the stories to prove it in Inside Rikers.

Thesis Development/Summary

Wynn not only details life behind bars; she addresses the broader issues of why the American prison system is failing to rehabilitate prisoners, failing to reintroduce them into the community, and failing to execute the very justice upon which their sentence was based. The author takes the trouble to visit the communities of origin of individual prisoners to show what went wrong, why a life of crime might have been chosen as a viable solution to social, political, and economic ills, and what impediments prevent the inmates or ex-convicts from leading a crime-free life. With primary source evidence, the author's main theses are proven. From family rejections to an inability to find meaningful work, the former inmates that Wynn profiles find that once they are labeled as criminal -- especially as inmates of Rikers -- it is a long and nearly impossible road towards freedom. Inside Rikers humanizes criminals by giving them faces and names. Wynn does what most American citizens are unwilling or too afraid to do: forgive people for their wrongs and offer them second chances.

The inmates at Rykers certainly did commit heinous crimes. Of that, Wynn is not shy and does not try to sugar-coat the stories. However, the concept of corrections is built on the philosohpical belief that human beings can and should be forgiven. In a society that purports to serve the needs of the individual and promote social justice, it is a tremenedous infraction of justice to see the inmates of Rikers (as well as the millions of other incarcerated Americans) be so ill-served. Moreover, Wynn frames the stories of the inmates of The Rock in their proper context. Delving into the social, economic, and political forces that breed criminality allows Wynn to present a bigger picture of the problem. These are not just men who are inherently bad. Sure, even Wynn admits that some of the inmates at Rikers are beyond the reach of human goodness, reason, and kindness.

Wynn interviews criminologists, sociologists, and psycholgists tho paint a more thorough and accurate portrait of what goes on in the lives of the prisoners before, during, and after the crimes they committed. A systems theory approach, Wynn's account shows that as many as 75% of Rikers inmates return to prison within one year: a deplorably high recidivism rate. Called "The Rock," Rikers is a unique prison in the sense that it has taken on a life of its own. When questions related to recidivism and motivation to commit crime are taken into account, it is not hard to see why a large proportion of Rikers inmates return to prison.

Inside Rikers: Stories from the World's Largest Penal Colony is divided into seven chapters. The first chapter is "Welcome to the Rock," in which the author presents the narratives of Angel, Kenny, Charlie, Alfonso, and Benjamin. Chapter Two is entitled "From the Belly of the Beast to the New York Streets," and both Frank and Mike are introduced here. In Chapter Three, Harry and the Captain tell the stories of the "Keepers of the Kept." Rico, Napoleon, Hilton, and James are profiled in Chapter Four "Convicted at Birth." Chapter Five is about the "Successful Escapes" of Carlos, Lenny, Dwayne, and Malik. Anthony and Tyrone, "They Keep Coming Back" in Chapter Six, and Chapter Seven details the "Strain of Two Cities" by detailing John and Kenneth and recounting the story of Angel from Chapter One.

In the Introduciton to the book, Wynn calls Rikers "a world of contradictions and extremes," and indeed that is the impression that readers receive after reading Inside Rikers (xiii).The author claims that the inmates of American prisons are replete with indiviudals with "untapped talent," (xiii). The thesis of Wynn's book, what she draws from her documentary evidence, is that the American penal system if failing both inmates and citizens, crimnals and their victims.


Focusing and profiling individual inmates adds an unexpected depth to Inside Rikers. The book is not just a series of case studies and compelling anecdotes, however. Inside Rikers incorporates systems theory of criminality and sociology to show why people commit crimes and how an orderly, democratic society ought to deal with deviance.

The current model, exemplified by Rikers and prisons like it throughout the United States, is simply not working. Conservative Americans have trouble believing that Wynn is right; believing instead that the tough-on-crime policies that ignore sociological context and individual needs are working. Wynn clearly shows they are not. Crime is a complex phenomenon. While genuine sociopaths do exist, the majority of inmates at Rikers or any other American prison are potentially good people who committed crimes out of opportunity, need, or any other number of reasons. Seeking those reasons and remediying them should be the job of the politician, city planner, social worker, sociologist, pscyhologist, and criminologist. Crimnals are bad people, claim some people, and cannot be rehabilitated. Therefore, all criminals need to be permanently labeled as deviant and forbidden re-entry into the society. This approach is categorically wrong, false, and ineffective: and this is Wynn's main thesis. Wynn also refuses to shy away from topics related to race, class, and social power. The greatest strength of Inside Rikers is that the book cuts to the chase.


Inside Rikers: Stories from the World's Largest Penal Colony offers an unparalled depth of insight into the American prison culture. The book reads easily, as it is mainly narrative and drives the readers to care about the individual inmates. Moreover, the author manages to insert her opinion without coming across as pedantic. The topic of the failures of the American penal system is an important one. Readers from various disciplines, including criminology but also psychology and sociology will all find something of interest in Inside Rikers. Wynn's account can also be extended into a broader critique of American criminology and culture.

The author has studied criminology. Her background bolsters the credibility of Wynn's argument. Most reviewers agree that based on the core facts of crime data in the United States that the current methods of punitive punishment simply are not working. As Radsota (2005) points out, Wynn "exposes us to the all-too-real and numbing brutality doled out on the streets of the city's 'dead zones' -- a police term denoting the parts of the city that have extremely high homicide rates," (p. 111). At some point, the United States government determined that a punitive system might be the best way…

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