Life Behind Bars

Author Holman gets inside look at how prisoners endure jail life

She compiled years of notes
from working in prison system

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (June 2017) – In her new book, “Decades Behind Bars,” Gaye Holman takes a serious look at the correctional system. Stemming from a project she began 20 years ago while working for Jefferson County Community and Technical College, this book follows the lives of 17 men still in prison.
At the time she was employed by the community college, she spent three days in an office in the prison. As a professor of sociology, she taught some of her classes in all the area prisons and coordinated college programs for them.

Gaye Holman

She began interviewing and recording the personal stories of 50 incarcerated felons from Luther Luckett Correctional Facility and the Kentucky State Reformatory in Oldham County. Holman opened the project to anyone who was interested in telling their story. She eventually tucked all of the information away in her basement, knowing it would someday make a good story.
In 1994 she took a sabbatical from teaching and found the forgotten material. She decided it would “make a really good book,” she said, “because most people do not have this kind of access.”
She started corresponding with the men again, 17 of whom were still incarcerated. She sent them questions, and they wrote back to her. “A few found it difficult to put their answers into writing, so I visited with them,” said Holman, 72.
“I chose men instead of women; there’s a difference in their experiences. Then I focused on the 17 that remained in prison.”
The result, “Decades Behind Bars,” is a look at the long-term effects of incarceration. More than 2 million people are incarcerated in America’s prisons; one in nine is serving a life sentence.
“I think we don’t understand the criminal justice system.”
Holman said individuals are unsure of the laws, how the system works or its purpose. “Are we rehabilitating, punishing or asking for retribution?”

The book tackles many topics such as childhood, school experiences, crimes, aging and dying in prison, and prison life in general. Of the later, she said, “We often don’t think about it from their perspective.”
Holman had “a uniquely critical position while I was warden at the Kentucky State Reformatory,” said retired warden Larry Chandler. “She was counselor, administrator, advocate and all around education guru for the inmate population. Her passion for educating inmates put her crossways with the administration policies at times because she always fought for inmate education with tenacity and passion.”
Holman said the prison experience has “saved some and ruined others.” Her book explores the points that influence the outcome and what we can do to change this from a negative so that the released prisoners will become contributing members of society.
Chandler said, “It has been said that prison is a place where good things can happen with a great deal of effort, or a place where bad things can happen with no effort at all.”
He taught criminal justice classes at the University of Louisville for many years and spoke about corrections in many different forums. He agrees with Holman in that, “The public does not fully grasp or appreciate the criminal justice system.”
A negative to having so many inmates in the system is that “they are eating up our budget, Holman said. Mass long-term imprisonment devours state budgets and adversely affects community well-being.
Holman said her book is “balanced, not one sided,” in that she also interviewed prison administrators, correctional officers, chaplains and parole board members.
Chandler said the book provides the general reader “with a good insight as to the impact on men with long sentences. Had Gaye chosen to write about inmates who serve short sentences, I believe it would have been a different book, but her choice provides the reader with a good representation of the impact of corrections.”
A short book could not adequately describe the criminal justice system, said Chandler. “It’s easy to spotlight the problems, bad arrests, inadequate resources in the jails, sentence disparity, bad prisons, inconsistent parole decisions, and then the daunting task of returning to society after a long sentence. It is harder to highlight the successes.”
Holman has roots in Trimble County, Ky., where her mother grew up. Before she began writing “Decades Behind Bars,” Holman had been working on a book about the social history of Patton’s Creek in Trimble County. “I had almost finished it, then put it aside to write this one,” she said.
Holman remains involved in efforts to help ex-offenders re-enter society. She has also recently been accepted into the Kentucky Humanities Councils’ Speaker’s Bureau.

“Decades Behind Bars” can be purchased at Karen’s Book Barn, Amazon, Barnes & Noble, McFarland Publishers, Carmichael’s and the Oldham County History Center.

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