30 Years Behind Bars

Trials of a Prison Doctor

Non-Fiction - Memoir
384 Pages
Reviewed on 06/12/2021
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    Book Review

Reviewed by Lorraine Cobcroft for Readers' Favorite

Karen Gedney's 30 Years Behind Bars: Trials of a Prison Doctor is the true story of a female doctor’s thirty years of service to the United States Corrections System, serving as the prison doctor in a male prison. That she accepted the challenge in the first place, as a young graduate, is surprising. That she continued after being the victim of a violent crime is astonishing. That she remained in the post for thirty years is nothing short of awesome. Her story is one of the most inspiring and thought-provoking tales I have read in a very long time. Karen Gedney poses some challenging questions in 30 Years Behind Bars. If you are among those who, like me, have been tempted to say that we should lock up criminals and throw away the key, she might make you uncomfortable with that belief. She might even change your view entirely. Gedney tells in one chapter of a program that involved bringing aggressive dogs into the prison for the prisoners to train. She asks the question if we can believe that an aggressive animal can be tamed with love and guidance, why not humans? She points out that punishment isn’t working to stop recidivism, and asks if maybe a different approach would be more successful. One can’t help but wonder!

Gedney speaks with great empathy and understanding of the prisoners she treated, many of whom were lifers who committed horrendous crimes. And yet she sees goodness in them. She sees hope. She sees that helping them to find a purpose in life and a reason to want to change can drive real change. And she tells with justifiable pride of the projects she instigated and ran in her spare time to teach prisoners how to change and to motivate them to want to. This is not a book you read for entertainment. It’s a very serious study that will, at times, cause great discomfort. But it’s a book that should be compulsory reading for everyone involved in the criminal justice system or correctional system. It’s a book that will hopefully inspire many to volunteer their time, energy, and skills to work on projects that give prisoners hope and to lobby for reform of a flawed system. I congratulate Karen Gedney MD both for her amazing work and for writing her inspiring story. It does what I believe all good writing should do. It nudges the world a little. It shines a light in dark corners and prompts us to think about how to make the world a better place. Well done, Dr. G. Thank you for your service.

Divine Zape

Karen Gedney MD's 30 Years behind Bars: Trials of a Prison Doctor is a fascinating memoir that tells the story of an internal doctor who spent almost thirty years as a doctor in a male prison. Readers meet Karen, enthusiastic and driven as she starts her career, but she is also naïve and as soon as she starts her work in a male prison, the crude reality hits home. The prison is structured not to offer healing and correction in the holistic way she had imagined, and she will have to deal with hardened criminals, addicts, and a prison hierarchy created to leave no room for reform. While she faces many challenges in her work, she has to undergo the nightmare of being held hostage and raped in her own office by an inmate. In this memoir, she documents her experience with unbridled honesty and shines a lambent light on the place of holistic healing and humanity in prison systems.

As one reads this memoir, one is confronted with a voice that is both resolute and confident, the voice of a skilled storyteller and a gifted healer. Karen’s experience as documented in this book is one that provokes reflection and that should inspire genuine conversations on prison reform. This is because most people leave the correctional system more broken than they were when they went in. The insightful writing allows readers to see what doesn’t work in the correctional system that is more focused on punishing inmates rather than helping them heal. Karen Gedney MD's 30 Years behind Bars: Trials of a Prison Doctor is a tale of courage, healing from trauma, and the commitment to live one’s core values in the midst of adversity and challenging situations. Karen’s writing mirrors her honesty and her exquisite prose makes for an enjoyable reading experience. Readers get a clear portrait of prison life while understanding what is broken in the system.

Christian Sia

Karen Gedney, MD's 30 Years Behind Bars is an inspiring and powerful story that documents the author’s experience of almost three decades behind bars as an internal medicine specialist. Sent to a male medium-security prison, Karen is enthusiastic about the placement, but the naïve young woman quickly discovers that the prison is far worse than what she had imagined it to be, a place where the focus is more on punishment than rehabilitation. As a holistic doctor, Karen’s passion for healing and reintegration drives her as she helps the inmates, navigating a treacherous world filled with addicts, people who are broken, and even rapists. At the heart of this story is her experience of trauma and a journey toward healing. It is filled with lessons and offers readers a brilliant portrait of what an unyielding prison system looks like.

Karen’s memoir is written from the heart and in a voice that is irresistible and filled with honestly. She says things as they are, and even when talking about her experience of being held hostage and raped by Moth, an inmate, she captures raw emotions with clarity. The detachment she demonstrates in the situation is brilliantly captured in the writing: “When he did rape me I did not feel anything, except that I was in control.” The writing is stellar, and Karen has the gift of exploring strong emotions with descriptions that are vivid; the dialogues are expertly reconstructed, flowing naturally. Karen Gedney, MD's 30 Years Behind Bars is a tale of bravery, resilience, and grit, and uncovers one woman’s courage in dangerous situations. Faith in her calling and her refined sense of empathy will inspire readers to look past the brokenness in criminals and see human beings in need of healing. It is a page-turning memoir that is as poignant as it is revealing.