‘Mother California: A Story of Redemption Behind Bars’ by Kenneth Hartman


When Kenneth Hartman was 19, he came across a drifter in a Long Beach park and, for no particular reason, beat him to death. For that 1980 murder, he was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole. There, Hartman proved himself to be the kind of aggressive, violent man society is relieved to have behind bars. He was big and pumped iron to get bigger; he did drugs; he got thrown into solitary; he fought, brutalized and stabbed his enemies.

It’s hard to say what’s more remarkable: that he eventually turned away from all that, or that he is able to write about it with such clarity and grace.

A tough posture is a requisite for both prisons and prison literature, and Hartman’s taut memoir “Mother California: A Story of Redemption Behind Bars” (Atlas & Co.: 200 pp., $22) is no exception. “I am bigger, stronger, faster, and a lot meaner after this year of graduate-level time,” he writes of his first year in prison. “. . . I exude a palpable force. The embrace of death and disorder, of chaos and inhumanity, imbues me with a sense of invulnerability. I have the Folsom polish.”

Hartman writes of prison not as a blank space outside of life, but as a society of its own, with swift punishments and fierce comradeship. The first time in his life friends threw him a birthday party was when he turned 21 in Folsom; as racially divided and violent as prison was, it was the first true community he’d found.

Hartman was entirely invested in this culture, and easily might have wound up killed. Yet he began to strive for something else. He attributes his turn to the woman he began dating -- to falling in love, and feeling increasingly human -- but it’s hard to imagine that this very smart autodidact might not have changed on his own.

He dropped drinking and drugs, took classes, taught himself to meditate, transferred to newer prisons. He read. He published articles. He helped architect an Honor Yard with a few small freedoms for prisoners willing to abide by strict rules. He married his girlfriend, had conjugal visits and fathered a child. These things are pretty phenomenal, considering the nihilist he was as a young man.

They’re all but miraculous for someone in prison. There were constant physical threats, simmering anger, racial and gang tensions and capricious rule changes. The three-strikes law, passed in 1994, led to severe overcrowding; with California’s prisons now close to double their capacity, every threat is exacerbated.

Because of the numbers and increasingly dire budget pressures, the rehabilitation programs that Hartman benefited from are disappearing fast. What’s more, the very idea of rehabilitation seems to have left the public discourse.

Yet Hartman’s book shows the most vicious of young men can grow to be centered, thoughtful and invested in daily life, no matter how circumscribed. This is the kind of person society would benefit from seeing released, but his sentence remains. Not once in “Mother California” does he advocate in favor of rehabilitation; he simply proves that it is possible.

-- Carolyn Kellogg