Book Review:
Mother California: A Story of Redemption Behind Bars

Posted by Cheryl Cotterill, Guest Blogger on December 14th, 2010

Author: Kenneth E. Hartman
Atlas & Co., $14.00

Review by Cheryl Cotterill

A child of "Mother California," author Kenneth E. Hartman grew up in the State's juvenile system where he became addicted to violence and the power he derived from instilling fear in others. By the age of 19, Hartman says he "had the dead eyes familiar to prison guards and combat veterans." But Hartman's violent rampage comes to an end in February 1980 when he beats a homeless man to death for no reason. Hartman is found guilty of the murder and sentenced to life without the possibility of parole.

At first I found this book difficult to read because of Hartman's arrogance, continued violence, and his seeming lack of ability to take responsibility for his actions. He also never really expresses any remorse for taking the life of a helpless person and instead boasts about how everyone seems to be both in awe and fear of him. But the book, like Hartman's life, is worth not giving up on.

Hartman has an "awakening as a human being" when he has a chance encounter with a woman on the phone while trying to leave a message for his friend's attorney. Hartman eventually falls in love, gets married, and in 1995, after fifteen years behind bars, has a baby girl. Transformed by the experience of fatherhood, Hartman writes, "As a younger man, I aspired to be one of the legends of the prison world. To be talked about in hushed tones, with fearful reverence, this was my goal . . . [n]ow, I have another foundation on which to build a worthwhile life: the role of reformer, of healer…"

But these revelations come too late in a system bent on punishment and vengeance instead of reform. During his thirty years in prison, Hartman observes what he refers to as the "undoing" of the prison system as the number of prisoners continues to grow exponentially and the guards resign themselves to "standing at the edges of the yard, watching the violent drama unfold." In reaction, Hartman dedicates himself to working towards prison reform and rehabilitation by instigating what would become known as the Honor Program. After watching race wars erupt and surviving a prison riot, Hartman gets the idea to start an Honor Yard Program for those who simply want to do their time away from the madness. His stubbornness pays off and in 2000 the Honor Yard Program is initiated and eventually becomes a successful program incentivizing positive behavior and prisoners' abstinence from drugs, gangs, and violence.

Hartman didn't receive the death penalty and although he considers life without parole to be the "other death penalty," his story makes clear that it is not. One of the most insightful but disturbing ordeals that Hartman writes about is his experience of being erroneously diagnosed with AIDS. In facing death, Hartman finds spirituality; liberated from his ego and fear for the first time in his life. Surrounded by AIDS patients, Hartman experiences empathy for the terrible disrespect that those around him have had to endure from people like him. Eventually Hartman learns that he doesn't have the disease, but the good news is tempered by the fact that he will have to return to solitary confinement. Nevertheless, Hartman's new lease on life allows him to experience love and the joys of fatherhood, as well as find meaning and purpose in his commitment to the Honor Program. Reasonable people may disagree about whether life without parole is appropriate for those who have transformed their lives in prison and no longer pose a danger to society, but unlike the death penalty, at least it allows for transformation and redemption.

Posted in Blog, Resources


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  1. Comment by Judy Tretheway, Dec 20th, 2010 3:34pm

    I thought this book was first rate.

  2. Comment by Elaine Needham, Dec 20th, 2010 12:32pm

    Hartman's story is so revealing. I have seen the 'dead' eyes referred to by him - they are now everywhere.
    The prison system run privately by corporations is the most vicious of all. The corporations want those cells to be occupied and laws are changed to trap more people into that evil world.
    Out of sight, out of mind, that's our prison population.
    Yes, life without the possibility of parole is the other death sentence. Solitary confinement is the third.
    All of this is so barbaric. The human mind can be changed if given the proper treatment. Those who are permanently violent and dangerous don't need to be treated badly. They need to be separated from the rest of the population, but without sadistic wardens who treat them so violently.

  3. Comment by Mimi, Dec 20th, 2010 7:29am

    This book sounds so encouraging. I agree, anyone and everyone has the potential to change. Sometimes, it does take an external/environment to make us think differently. And everyone, I mean everyone, has a mission in life to change something in society and contribute to society to make it even better.

  4. Comment by Patricia Smith, Dec 20th, 2010 7:10am

    Why on earth would he be returned to solitary confinement....they should allow him to try to do good work within the prison instead of more punishment. He's there for life, so let him spread his awakening state to othere.


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