On June 13, 1998, under the influence of drugs and alcohol, Gary Goldstein robbed three dry cleaning stores in succession. He was arrested almost immediately, but the events that happened next did not reflect the ideal picture of the American justice system. With an ineffective public defender and a series of errors made throughout the judicial process, Gary ended up pleading guilty and was sentenced to seven years in prison with no opportunity for parole. Jew in Jail chronicles his first three and a half years of life behind bars, his battles with the powers-that-be within the prison system, his commitment to rehabilitating himself, and his quest to get his guilty plea overturned on appeal.
This was a very difficult review to write. It can be challenging to critique any book, but it's especially hard when that book is the author's own narrative. Still, I couldn't help coming away from reading Jew in Jail with rather mixed feelings, and I hope that I can explain those feelings without sounding overly judgmental. For starters, when I received the book for review, I somehow mistakenly got the impression that the author had suffered from prejudicial treatment while in prison due to his ethnicity and religion which wasn't really the case. He did fight an ongoing battle to be placed in another facility which had a larger Jewish population, but at first, he, by his own admission, was doing it mostly to be closer to his family. When first arrested, Mr. Goldstein acknowledged that he hadn't even been an observant Jew of late, and ended up being one of those prisoners who reconnected with his faith while serving his time. I do believe that as time passed he became more faithful to his religion and genuinely did want to move to another prison in order to be even more observant by being in a larger group of his fellow Jews. Although the author does contend that he believed his Constitutional Rights were being violated by the powers-that-be in the prison system not granting his repeated requests for transfer due to religious reasons, he does not at any point claim that they were singling him out for such treatment. However inadequate they might have been, the prison system did have rabbis who came fairly regularly to every facility where the author spent time, so with this potential prejudice set aside, Jew in Jail simply becomes one man's narrative of his experiences with the judicial and penal systems.
All that said though, my mixed feelings had little to do with any disappointment over my own preconceived notions. The story was admittedly interesting right from the start, but the further I read, the more self-centered it seemed to become. I realize that this is always true to some degree with any memoir, but there were times when I felt like Mr. Goldstein rarely was able to look outside of himself at the people around him without criticizing them for one thing or another. The book often felt like a series of complaints about instances in which he felt he was treated unfairly and how he chose to respond to those things. I understand that there is a political hierarchy within the prison system and one must learn how to play the game and fight for their own rights or risk being branded a weakling and constantly suffer abuse. Still, I think that one must choose their battles wisely, and I wasn't always convinced that the author had done that.
Firstly, at no point did Mr. Goldstein deny that he had committed the crimes of which he was accused, only that he was under the influence of drugs and alcohol at the time. While I understand that he may have gotten a raw deal in his court proceedings, some of that was his own doing, not only by committing the crimes in the first place, but also through a series of errors in judgment. These mistakes included but were not limited to confessing to the police (not once but three times) without counsel present, not pressing harder on the issue of being under the influence, and most importantly, not requesting new counsel when his assigned public defender was obviously either an incompetent boob or "in bed" with the prosecutor, all of which ultimately led to him pleading guilty instead of standing trial. However, everyone makes mistakes, and the author does often admit his own flaws, but it doesn't usually stop him from seeming to turn the blame back on someone else eventually.
As to his time in prison, I have no doubt that Mr. Goldstein was harassed at times by both his fellow inmates, as well as some guards. As to the other prisoners, the author seems to have been able to handle himself pretty well. As for the guards, it's a sad fact of prison life that many of the people in these jobs are narcissists who, when placed in such a position of power choose to misuse it. There were some cases, such as when his personal journal was confiscated as contraband, where I felt that the author was well within his rights to fight it, but there were other times when, by his own admission, he simply let his temper get the best of him and had he kept his mouth shut, he might have avoided getting into trouble. There were even a few times that he confessed to, in essence, "gaming" the system, and while I can appreciate his candidness, these little episodes of dishonesty made it more difficult to sympathize when the real trouble came about. The author is also very direct in his opinions of nearly everyone he meets, and at times, I wasn't quite sure how to take that. Occasionally, he seems to be joking, but more often than not, he appears serious. Oftentimes, his comments seemed to come off with an air of superiority. While I'm sure some of these people who were the targets of the name-calling and biting commentary deserved it, I wasn't so certain that others did. Having been made fun of a great deal in my life, I'm pretty sensitive about such things, even when directed at someone else, and prefer to see a bit more diplomacy employed.
Ultimately, it's not my place to judge this man's experiences, and that's not what I'm trying to do. On some level, I understand his reasons for doing the things he did, but I think I could have been even more sympathetic if he'd included more personal narrative. The author states that he had addiction problems long before this incident, and I often found myself wondering what caused this kind of a downward spiral until he finally hit rock bottom. He also admits to having committed a previous robbery for which he only received probation, but he only really mentions it in conjunction with why he got such a stiff sentence the second time around. Periodically, throughout the book Mr. Goldstein says that he realizes he wouldn't be in whatever situation he finds himself if he hadn't broken the law and often expresses his regrets. I have no doubt that he's sorry for what he did, but more often than not his remorse centers on the grief he caused his family rather than his victims. While it's certainly admirable for him to be apologetic to, and infinitely appreciative of, his loving family, and understandable that he would focus on them since his father passed away seven months after his arrest, it might have been nice for him to express more contrition toward his victims as well and perhaps even a desire to offer them some sort of restitution upon his release. If he did, it's not something that was mentioned in this book. The last thing I would have liked to see was more self-reflection. Aside from mentioning his attendance at Alcoholics Anonymous, Narcotics Anonymous, Gamblers Anonymous, and other support and vocational programs, the author discusses very little about his actual recovery. I couldn't help wondering why he didn't seem to suffer any side effects from withdrawal, and his transformation appeared to be almost instantaneous. I just think it would have been helpful to understand his state of mind and what kind of mental and emotional adjustments he had to make to succeed.
If Mr. Goldstein meant Jew in Jail to be an angry rant against the judicial and penal system, it rings rather hollow to me. He would have had to take the high road himself every single time and cite more cases than his own to convince me of widespread abuses. The harsh reality is that prison is not a nice place to be under any circumstances, and sometimes it may seem unfair or even unjust, so in that respect, his story does not seem to be all that different than what I imagine most guys face behind bars. However, the author does raise some valid issues regarding the prison system and the possible need for reforms, especially when guards or others in charge appear to be misusing their power.
Jew in Jail works much better as one man's journal of day-to-day prison life and his own personal journey, and in that capacity, it is an intriguing story worth reading. I learned quite a lot about the inner workings of prison life that I didn't know, and was rather surprised by how well the book held my interest. The author is a good writer with an engaging style that made this lengthy tome an easy read. However, I think he could have used a good editor as he has a tendency to write in run-on sentences and be a bit repetitive. Overall though, it was pretty well put together. I admire Mr. Goldstein for his tenacity. He's like a dog with a bone and just doesn't give up even when it might be prudent to do so. I sincerely wish him all the best and hope he's been able to put that dogged persistence to good use on the outside staying clean and sober and starting a new life, which seems to be the case.
Note: I received a copy of this book from the author in exchange for an honest review.
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