“Mainline” by Joseph McCarty is a novel that gives the reader a close up look at California prison culture. The lead character, also named Joseph McCarty, joins a covert program that places military personnel into the prison system. His mission is to observe the prisoners, learn about the culture, and in his final report, make recommendations for improving the system and the lives of inmates. Through the agent’s experiences, the reader is placed in the middle of the volatile prison culture that, surprisingly, also has a significant amount of order. This book includes much of what one would expect from a story about prison life, but also delves into the human-side of the penal system that is rarely discussed.
The Research and Investigation for California’s Administration of Prisons (RICAP) Program began in 2005 under the approval of Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger. Agents are trained by ex-cons during a ten day intensive program then arrested and placed into a prison. Joseph McCarty enters the California prison system on a robbery charge. He is soon given the handle “Seph” by an inmate and quickly becomes acclimated to prison life. In the yard, prisoners separate themselves by race. Seph learns about the dynamics of prison life from one of the older inmates, who helps him see that individuals naturally gravitate to their own race. He is taught how to properly greet his white comrades. Seph also learns that he must be prepared to fight to the death when the whites are “on sight” (basically, at war) with another race.
What the reader learns through Seph’s experiences is that there is a strict set of rules and cultural mores in prison that are taken seriously by the inmates. If an individual breaks a rule, he is punished by his racial group. If a member of one race has insulted or assaulted a member of another, representatives from each side negotiate the punishment to avoid fighting between the two groups. I found these coordinated efforts to mete out appropriate punishments striking. After all, the inmates are in prison for breaking society’s rules and yet, the rules inside prison are viewed as mandatory with violence often leading to death being the punishment of choice for those who violate them.
Seph’s assimilation into the prison culture leaves him with clear ideas about changes that could be made to improve the system and to reduce recidivism. He describes the months of lockdown that the inmates endure and the trouble those who want to further their education have getting assigned to classes. But Seph also suffers on a personal level during his stint as an agent in the RICAP Program. He develops a problem with drugs, violent behavior, and becomes a convincing liar. The character’s experience in the system supports the idea that prison itself creates criminals as opposed to helping those who could make a change for the better.
“Mainline” is a raw, graphic tale of prison culture. It offers the reader an intimate look at the life of an inmate that is disturbing, but also enlightening. The reader will learn a lot about prison culture specifically and human behavior in general. I highly recommended it.