Reviewed by Robert M. Sanger
This is California
James Alexander was originally charged in San Diego with capital murder but was finally convicted of second degree with a sentence of 15 years to life. Nevertheless, he spent 28 years in prison, and even though he did not get the death penalty, he spent some of that time in administrative segregation on death row. After an incredible journey through the California prison system, he has shared his story in a remarkable book, Courage in the Face of Cruelty. There is a profound significance to people seeking abolition of the death penalty even though the book does not directly involve the death penalty.
First, this is a moving account of a life. A brilliant young man who left the South Side of Chicago to become a Marine was stationed at Camp Pendleton, only to destroy his hopes by participating in a crime that resulted in a death. Mr. Alexander writes about his life thereafter in an unimposing, honest, and compelling fashion that holds the reader’s attention from beginning to end. As a work of storytelling alone, it is a rewarding read.
Beyond that, there is deep meaning for those who deal with human beings in the criminal justice system. Mr. Alexander’s life in prison is an intense battle of the human spirit against overwhelming conditions created by other prisoners and prison staff; and by the mindless inhumanity of a system that is performatively “tough on crime” while making society as a whole a much worse place. Mr. Alexander prevailed by not only becoming an X-ray technician, but also by eventually obtaining a degree in psychology. He worked in and created programs while in prison to help others. After his 28 years of confinement, with the support of friends and family, he continued his commitment to that work to the extent that he was personally honored by the Dalai Lama as an “Unsung Hero of Compassion.”
What particularly recommends this book to members of Death Penalty Focus is that it is an accurate account of what happens here in California. There are many accounts of the inhumanity of prison systems in other states, such as Albert Woodfox’s Solitary, chronicling his survival and redemption in Louisiana’s infamous Angola prison. But the story of Mr. Alexander happened here — in California. It is what people convicted of crimes and sent to prison experience in this state, and it is horribly accurate.
We must know what punishment in prison is like in order to advocate for the abolition of the death penalty. Prison reform is as desperately needed in California as elsewhere. We also need to move away from mass incarceration. But, even with substantial reforms, the reality is that prison is harsh, and, without those reforms, it is cruel. Mr. Alexander’s life story cannot be read without appreciating the fact that prison — in California and elsewhere — is a searing punishment psychologically and physically. Abolition of the death penalty — and the temporary reprieve in effect in California at the moment — is demanded by a respect for humanity, but it is not an act of leniency.
Robert M. Sanger, a DPF board member, and criminal law specialist, is senior partner at Sanger, Swysen & Dunkle, and an Adjunct Professor of Law at Santa Barbara College of Law.