Book Review: Sentence, by Daniel Genis

My local public library recently acquired a copy of Sentence: Ten Years and a Thousand Books in Prison by Daniel Genis. It’s a memoir of the author’s ten years in the New York prison system. I found it interesting, but ultimately not completely successful.

Genis. Daniel Genis was born in New York to Russian immigrants. His father was a well-known literary and cultural critic in the Soviet Union, and he seems to have cast a long shadow in Genis’s life. Genis went to college at Columbia, where he studied history and French. After graduation, he worked for a literary agency and developed a heroin addiction.

Criminal charges and sentence. When his drug use outstripped his income, Genis began committing armed robberies to support his habit. The robberies were covered briefly in the New York media, which dubbed him the “Apologetic Bandit” because he apologized to his victims as he politely robbed them. According to Genis, he committed 18 robberies, acquiring $700, before he was arrested. He pled guilty and was sentenced to ten years and three months. According to the NYSDOC inmate lookup page, he was also convicted of attempted drug sales, though I don’t recall Genis mentioning that in the book.

Overview of prison experience. Genis served time at 13 different correctional institutions before being released in 2014. He was initially in maximum security facilities and moved to medium security for the last several years of his sentence. During his incarceration, he read over 1,000 books. Extrapolating from the works he mentions, most appear to have been novels, many by European and American authors. Most that are mentioned in his memoir are literary classics written decades or centuries ago. When other prisoners would peruse his library, they tended to “wander off muttering ‘Motherfucker weird.’”

Genis’s experience inside ran a wide gamut. He describes conjugal visits with his wife (available quarterly in some New York prisons, but not in most other states), working with mentally disturbed inmates, lifting weights, participating in Jewish religious life, and being part of the “yard” system that – in some institutions – allocates specific portions of the prison grounds to the exclusive use of specific ethnic groups. He had some infractions and was in some fights, but didn’t get in major trouble and wasn’t the victim of serious assaults.

What’s good about the book. Genis chose not to write a chronological narrative of his time inside. Rather, the book is organized thematically with chapters about prison food, religious life, Russians in prison, gay sex among inmates, race, and more. The structure is effective and Genis is observant and funny. He’s able to mix serious stories with lighter ones in a way that captures the difficulty of prison life without caricaturing it. His description of preparing for a potential knife fight by armoring his body with issues of National Geographic is simultaneously hilarious and terrifying.

What’s not so good. For one thing, the version I read has pages 119 to 150 twice, and is missing pages 151 to 182. Quality control at Penguin seems to have been asleep at the switch. As a result, I missed a whole chapter entitled Live Burial. Maybe that would have tied everything together for me!

A second concern is that Genis offers mixed messages, sometimes in adjoining paragraphs. Does violence suffuse prison life or is it relatively rare? Were his fellow inmates pscyhopaths who would lie, cheat, and steal at the slightest opportunity, or were “the guys” just regular folks in bad situations? Were the officers everyday men and women doing a job, or were they cruel and exploitative? Perhaps the book simply reflects that life in prison is complex and contains threads that are in tension with one another. But sometimes it felt like Genis was on both sides of the proverbial fence.

My larger concern with the book relates to the subtitle of the memoir. It references all the books Genis read, and one of the promotional quotes on the back suggests that Genis may have been “America’s most erudite prisoner.” Based on that, I was expecting a pretty deep dive into his reading list and the connections he made between the novels he consumed and the experience he lived. Aside from a long meditation on Proust at the end of the book, we mostly get literary name-dropping: “I had always made a habit of reading the literature of other cultures . . . and in prison I allowed chance meetings to direct my choices. A Czech friend . . . sent me down a Bohemian path [towards] Bohumil Hrabal and Jaroslav Hasek . . . . The Latino contingent sent me to Mario Vargas Llosa and Carlos Fuentes.”

Conclusion. Overall, I liked the book and would recommend it with reservations. I looked forward to reading a chapter or two each day, and the book raises familiar but important questions about whether prison is a good response to many kinds of crimes.  At its best, it reminded me a great deal of Ted Conover’s book Newjack, an almost anthropological memoir of Conover’s time as a correctional officer. (Interestingly, Genis mentions reading Newjack during his incarceration.) Conover’s book doesn’t have the literary pretensions that Genis’s does, and is probably better for it. But both provide a window into a world that for many of us is largely a mystery.