Book Review: Walker, J. (2004). Dancing to the Concertina's Tune: A Prison Teacher's Memoir. Boston: Northeastern University Press. pp. 207

AuthorTobi Jacobi
Published date01 March 2008
Date01 March 2008
DOIhttp://doi.org/10.1177/0734016808314563
Subject MatterArticles
of religion, and facing execution. Chapter 17, “Scraping Away Hope, Faith and Dreams,” is
particularly interesting in suggesting that long-term occupants of death row may not be as
pleased by stays of execution or commutations to life without parole (LWOP) as abolition-
ists might think. Arriens notes in the introduction that LWOP “extends no hope for change,
reform or reward.”
These inmate writings are very readable and entertaining, though sometimes depressing
and disturbing. It is ironic that the authors only discovered great books, polished their writ-
ing skills, and developed their spirituality after being condemned as unfit to live among the
rest of us. Some remain vicious or hopelessly mentally ill, but many are arguably not the
same people who were put on death rows 10, 15, or 20 years ago.
Arriens’s edited volume does have some shortcomings. Including the introduction from
the first edition seems redundant, especially as the reader must leaf through a foreword,
preface, acknowledgements, and the new introduction before getting to chapter 1. The
chapters might be better organized and ordered. Chapter 5 is “Welcome to Hell,” even
though the case for the metaphor begins building much earlier. I found two chapters disap-
pointing because they contained the writings of only one inmate, but other readers might
disagree. Occasionally, “[sic]” is inserted in inmate writings with obvious mistakes, but in
other places it is not. The overall quality of writing is good enough that I believe the editor
should just edit and let the meaning prevail.
This second edition deserves to reach a broad audience, beyond “preaching to the choir”
of abolitionists. Public support for the death penalty, capital sentences, and executions all
seem to be declining recently, and, as I write this review, 127 innocent people have been
released from death row in the post-Furman era. If a significant downward trend in the U.S.
death penalty is really at hand, it would be fitting if the authentic voices of death row
inmates, some executed long ago, had a role in the process.
Michael R. Norris
Wright State University
Walker, J. (2004). Dancing to the Concertina’s Tune:
A Prison Teacher’s Memoir. Boston: Northeastern
University Press. pp. 207.
DOI: 10.1177/0734016808314563
“Tell the truth, but not the gory details” (p. 92). With this and similar sentiments, Jan
Walker’s memoir invites readers to engage in a series of narratives that complicate public
assumptions about prison teaching and shatter media-inspired stereotypes of incarcerated
people. When Washington State’s legislature mandated that educational access be extended to
incarcerated people in 1979, her teaching assignment as a Tacoma Community College faculty
member sent her to teach in prison. After 11 years teaching parenting and family courses to
women inmates, she was transferred to McNeil Island Correctional Center, a male facility
where she would continue to teach until 1997 when another state legislature eliminated par-
enting education from the curriculum. Thus emerges a story many in prison education know
124 Criminal Justice Review

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