Book Review: Go To Jail!

Go To Jail!:  A Look At Prisons Through The Ages, by Peter Kent

It is hard to figure out who exactly this book is for.  How many children are fascinated by prisons?  I grew up with some understanding of prisons, since my maternal grandfather held a frequent Bible study in prisons and my brother and I would accompany him to talk about the scriptures with two members of our church who were at that time incarcerated, one of them a sex offender for statutory rape and the other someone who was on a life sentence with no parole for having murdered his wife and her adulterous paramour.  That said, I do not know how typical my experience is, or how many young people there are who would appreciate a Where’s Waldo-like book that looks discreetly at historical prisons and the real and fictional people placed within them that nonetheless manages to avoid most (if not all) of the unpleasant and triggering prisons of Nazi Germany or the Communist world.  This is a delicate task and it is one that is handled well by the book, such that the book was able to give me a great deal of pleasure as a reader and I am far older than the target audience of this book.

This book is a large sized and humorously illustrated and rather short book on historical prisons and the people (and animals) in them.  The book opens (and closes) with a look at a rogue’s gallery of people imprisoned as prisoners of war, for various acts of treason and disloyalty and espionage and even a fictional embezzler.  After that the book then moves to a discussion of a cast of characters that include different kinds of jailers, prisoners obsessed with escape or comfortable in confinement as well as animals in prison.  After this the book contains gorgeously rendered pictures as well as brief discussion about various historical prisons, including:  the tower of London, the prison of the doge of Venice, the Bastille, an English prison hulk, a model prison from 1880, Devil’s Island in French Guiana, Siberia (but only under the tsars and not the far more brutal gulag archipelago), Alcatrez, the Stalag luft (but not the German concentration camps for Jews, Roma, and various political prisoners), as well as a look at peculiar prisons.  In these pictures one can discuss escape attempts as well as various features and people involved in the prisons.

This book obviously has some curious omissions that are well worth discussing.  The author doesn’t include some literary prisons like the Chateau du Chillion in Montreux and it is striking that the author does not include concentration camps or any gulags or laogai.  And while the author include the relatively mild (at least by WWII German standards) stalag, it does not include the concentration camps of 1890’s Cuba or the Boer War or the gloomy and deadly prisons of the Civil War in both North and South.  It is strange to ponder what criteria the author used to include some prisons and not others, but it was likely the author’s own personal taste that governed him in this regard.  Obviously, there are a great many more prisons and types of prisons I would have included and the discussion would likely have been darker had I been responsible for it, but for a somewhat lighthearted and humorous book for children, this book manages to provide something that is both entertaining (at least for grim-minded children like I was) and informative about the history of prisons.  And that is an immensely worthwhile achievement that deserves to be appreciated.

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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