Walls, Wires, Bars and Souls

By Peter GrantGrant Bk
Paperback 294 pages, $13.24 or Kindle eBook for $3.99
ISBN-13 978-0615884394
Publisher: Fynbos Press, Sept. 2013

Reviewed by Gila Hayes

Who better to help ordinary, good citizens understand criminals than a prison chaplain? I was interested when I ran across a book by Peter Grant that promised to “try to give an accurate and unvarnished picture of what it’s like to work in a high-security penitentiary, surrounded by some of the most violent and dangerous criminals in the United States.” After injury forced the author into medical retirement, he expressed his need to still contribute to public safety by writing Walls, Wire, Bars and Souls. In it, he notes that in spite of studies that try to paint profiles of incarcerated criminals, “how an inmate’s mind works” is hard for most to understand.

Prisons, Grant opines, are essentially a hidden world, kept out of sight and unknown to most. Serving as chaplain, he understood the need for unflagging alertness to ill intent from the men he ministered to, recalling, “It’s a sure bet that one or more convicts will be watching ... and will seize the opportunity to take advantage of ... me.” He observes that “shepherds of the flock...sometimes have to deal with the wolves,” and he and others in the ministry “have neither moral qualms nor compunction of conscience about arming themselves,” adding, “rightly so, in my opinion.” His common-sense opinion increased my respect for him. This is no “love fixes everything” preacher. He’s seen evil and resolved not to let it dominate.

Grant writes that prison staff learn never to trust the inmates, although he strives to present a fair picture for readers. He describes charming, friendly men, some educated, others not. One he describes is a former prison guard who fell afoul of a blackmail scheme an inmate ran on him, but is himself “manipulative and untrustworthy.” Many assert innocence or claim they were victims of masterminds who directed their crimes. He writes that “the most common factor” is that “It’s never their fault, never their responsibility.” Those who won’t accept responsibility are likely to be repeat offenders, he adds.

Grant writes short stories of interactions with common types of inmates, including the perpetual victim who will “try a sob story on me from time to time, and I’ll look at him tiredly and say ‘Not again, Rodney?’ Then he’ll chuckle, hang his head, shuffle his feet, and admit that he’s after a favor.” Another lies with impunity, but dons “a mask of injured innocence when you call him on it.” Several refuse to express any remorse or guilt, and several others blame anyone but themselves for the circumstances that landed them in prison.

One is a religious fanatic, a foreigner, whose religious fervor often puts him at odds with inmates of the same faith. A gang king pin continues to wield great power from inside prison, despite growing old there. Grant also writes of the convicts he finds truly frightening, who killed without compunction and would happily do so again.

“There are tens of thousands more like them in prisons all across the country: and for every one behind bars, there are probably five to ten out there on the street. I’ve often thought that those who are uneasy at the prospect of citizens owning and carrying firearms would do well to spend a day or two observing the criminals inside the walls of a high- or maximum-security institution, and reading the details of their crimes,” he comments.

Some chapters read as if the prisoners are describing themselves. One is an older convict, who sees his physical prowess slipping, and in order to maintain his position at the top of the hierarchy, explains that if threatened, “I’m gonna hurt you real bad. No other way. I don’t fight fair. I’m older now, and I don’t have the strength and speed I used to have, so I fight hard and I fight dirty and I know all the tricks. I fight for keeps.”

After a chapter describing the stringent procedures to keep high security prisons functioning, Grant comments “that criminals have a fundamentally different perspective on life” than ordinary people expect. This is most apparent in the serious offenders because, “the more crimes he’s committed, the more often he’s been incarcerated, the more these traits will be evident in his personality and actions.”

Rarely, he states, are crimes the result of psychological or psychiatric problems, which may influence but generally don’t cause criminal behavior. Most inmates know right from wrong, can practice self control and are not insane, he stresses. While “environment and circumstances” factor into becoming a criminal, Grant believes they are not the “root of criminal behavior.” Instead, his experience identifies a combination of “personality traits, attitudes or perspectives on life that...are almost always present in inmates.” He lists the following:


A manipulative approach to relationships.

Refusal to accept responsibility.

A sense of superiority.

A quest for power and authority.

A need for excitement.

Inability to feel guilt.


A state of perpetual anger.

A refusal to accept reality.

Inside prison, inmates practice their own code of conduct through which big numbers of people with the foregoing personality traits can coexist. A prisoner is expected to be loyal to their prison gang or religious group, even over his family. One must mind his own business, and know and behave according to his status in the hierarchy of convicts, never disrespecting one of the same or higher status. The inmate code of behavior, Grant explains, is “almost exaggerated” but only extended to equals or more dangerous convicts, and doesn’t apply to correctional officers, of course.

Grant ponders rehabilitation. With a few notable exceptions, “many prison ‘rehabilitation’ programs are in reality purely general education or training courses. They’re designed to address deficiencies in knowledge or employment skills, but they don’t confront the inmate’s personality.’” He tells the story of an inmate who had “committed virtually every crime in the book.” Two years of counseling led him to acknowledge God, admit sins, courageously face the truth and learn objectivity. “He slowly but surely completed a really thorough examination of his own personality — and he came to loathe what he saw.”

This transformation involved repentance, reform and rebuilding, Grant explains. It healed the inmate’s personality, taught him how thought leads to action and to recognize “any wayward ideas before they could take over his train of thought.” The reformation succeeded, but most inmates are not serious about changing, prisons are not set up for “genuine reform and rehabilitation,” and society at large denies that truth is not “subjective and variable” so popular treatments are ineffective. First time offenders may respond to “scared straight” experiences, but they differ considerably from the repeat offenders with whom Grant has experience.

Criminal behavior continues inside prison. Grant outlines illegal inmate activities ranging from making, selling and drinking alcohol, theft, sex and prostitution, gambling, and drugs. The chaplain intersperses his observations about prison culture and inmates with chapters paraphrasing inmates’ conversations justifying or minimizing their crimes both inside and out. Evil in a high-security prison is palpable, and few fight it. Grant writes, “we can predict with confidence that two out of every three convicts will commit further offenses after leaving prison...There may be more who’ll re-offend, but who won’t be caught...If we can turn a criminal from his path, we’ve saved not only him, but also everyone who would have become his victims, had he gone on to commit more crimes.”

Grant outlines how inmates exploit special considerations granted for religious practices; court rulings against racial discrimination are likewise misused. Gang affiliations function both inside and outside prison, and the chaplain profiles the prominent ones. In prisons, gangs enforce their leaders’ will by extortion via “protection rackets,” run the gambling, drug trade, punish inmates or harm families on the outside, if they still have families.

Many inmates, coming from highly dysfunctional families, no longer have ties to family. Grant stresses that, while standing by his core believe that each individual is responsible for his or her own decisions and actions, “it’s very difficult to make responsible choices when the only examples you’ve ever known are of outrageous irresponsibility.” Broken families, welfare and entitlements that disincentive personal responsibility, and unimaginable home lives experienced as young children contribute to criminality.

Does incarceration work and why do we put so many people in prison? Grant explores the necessity to protect society. He counters idealistic rhetoric about inmate programs for drug addiction, mental health treatment, education, vocational training or other opportunities for self improvement, psychological treatment for child sex abusers, and hopes to eliminate predatory behavior which “usually makes correction staff laugh out loud.” Instead, Walls, Wire, Bars, and Souls encourages a realistic look at prisons and prisoners, asking why two out of three inmates returned to prison after they re-offend. Reform is bigger than career training or building more humane prisons.

Grant thinks that laws like sentencing enhancements for gun possession during a non-violent crime or lengthier sentences for dealing one form of a drug over another are harmful. On the other hand, repeat offenses should earn not only a return to prison, but lengthy, even life sentences, he believes. Change starts long before the chaplain has to try to reform the prisoner. Better parenting is needed to teach self control, he continues. Law enforcement, prosecutors and the judicial system need to divert mentally ill offenders into treatment. He writes that juvenile offenders would benefit enormously by sentencing into a hard-working, regimented service corps, instead of jails.

Through the chapters Grant shares his experiences as a prison chaplain, along with the story of the convict who did change and maintained his transformation. He also details the final hours of an older inmate, once a vicious criminal, who dies of heart failure. He writes of the correctional officers providing care for those and other inmates. “As you go about your daily life, spare a thought for those who are keeping you safe by ensuring that the bad guys stay locked up. Think of the former criminals who have genuinely reformed, and are struggling to make new lives for themselves in a world that’s very seldom sympathetic and supportive towards them,” he pleads.

Think also of the unrepentant, he urges. “Pray that they don’t decide to pick you for their next target. Learn to protect and defend yourself in case they do — including equipping yourself with suitable and effective tools. Don’t trust the minimalist panacea ‘solutions’ touted by many. Violent assault isn’t easily stopped, certainly not by whistles, or screams, or martial arts, or running fast, or calling 911. Even measures such as pepper spray aren’t foolproof — I’ve seen hardened convicts eat the stuff, and keep coming. Your safety is in your own hands, no-one else’s. Be watchful, and be careful. I know all too well how many violent criminals are released from prison each year. I don’t want you to be their next victim.”

I found Walls, Wire, Bars, and Souls a compelling book and am glad I ran across it.

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