is a 2009 memoir by American author and convicted murderer Kenneth E. Hartman. Hartman is serving a life-term jail sentence without possibility of parole for the unpremeditated murder of a homeless man in 1980. He committed the murder at the age of nineteen, and underwent a twenty-eight-year-long transformation, within the prison system, from a ruthless and violent criminal to a philosopher, student, activist, reader, practitioner of Buddhism, husband, and father. Later in life, he founded an organization called The Honor Yard, which provides rehabilitative social and intellectual resources to inmates. The memoir was acclaimed for providing firsthand insight into the inequities of the prison-industrial complex, and for its story of self-transformation.
Hartman begins his memoir by characterizing his life before imprisonment. Born into a dysfunctional family in California, he fell into a life of crime early, spending much of his teenage life in juvenile detention facilities. He recalls believing in his identity as a criminal in order to rationalize his incorrigible behavior. One night in February 1980, Hartman was wandering in a park near Long Beach, having been recently released from his most recent sentence in juvenile prison. Drunk and high on marijuana, he engaged in a fistfight with a homeless man who had no chance of winning, stomping on him until he was unconscious. He calls this moment his “pinnacle of antisocial behavior.” The next day, Hartman was arrested and learned that the man had died. This time, rather than being sent straight back into juvenile prison, Hartman was convicted of murder and tried as an adult.
Ever since his sentencing in 1980, Hartman has lived in prison. He is one of the first California residents to be given a life term without possibility of parole, due to a new law that was implemented just before his crime. Over the next three decades, Hartman reflected on his crimes, transforming into a compassionate student of philosophy and activist for prison reform. He expresses that the most difficult obstacle in this process was dealing with the shame and final nature of his crimes.
Over the twenty-eight years between his first internment and the time of writing his memoir, Hartman moves between six prisons. At first, he spends most of his time in solitary confinement, forced into submission by a system that prefers to isolate rather than rehabilitate. Though this experience was severely dehumanizing, it gave Hartman little else to do than think about himself. He recalls, plainly, how the prison guards treated them worse than cattle, perpetuating a tense and angry cycle of violence and retribution with the inmates. While caring little whether the prisoners lived or died, or killed each other, the guards threatened to murder them if they attempted to escape. Amid the prison’s chaos, Hartman gradually realized that the only way he could escape from this virtual hell was to atone for his crimes and focus on becoming a better person.
One day, while trying to reach an inmate’s lawyer via phone, Hartman met his assistant, Anita. She asked him candidly about life in prison, and he answered in kind. After speaking several more times, Anita visited Hartman in jail. They later married and utilized California’s progressive visitation rights (which have since been abolished) to conceive a child. Hartman gave up on drugs, even cigarettes and alcohol, started going to therapy, and immersed himself in literature. With Anita’s help, he founded the Honor Yard Program, which helps inmates rehabilitate their lives with space and enrichment activities. The California State Prison in Los Angeles officially implemented the program beginning in 2000.
Hartman’s memoir does not attempt to exonerate him from or minimize his brutal crimes. He accepts his life-term prison sentence, ambivalent about his fate only because the prison-industrial complex is so deeply dehumanizing and unjust. His memoir is a testament to the convict’s ability to transform virtually every aspect of his or her life, as well as an exhortation to lawmakers and prison administrators to reform the prison system.