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Wrongful Imprisonment and the Limits of Tabloid Journalism

Stolen Years tells infuriating tales of wrongful convictions. Its tabloid style has zip—and avoids any real discussion of the system that makes those horror stories possible.
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Stolen Years: Stories of the Wrongfully Imprisoned. (Photo: Tantor Media)

Reuven Fenton’s Stolen Years: Stories of the Wrongfully Imprisoned begins with a description of a “perp walk,” the New York tabloid term for when police shame a cuffed subject by walking him publicly into custody while reporters shout questions and photographers snap pictures.

Fenton is a reporter for the New York Post, so the introduction makes sense. It also sets the tone for a book that reads like a very long (if atypically nuanced) tabloid article.

Unfortunately, Fenton’s use of tabloid writing conventions—like using the word “thug” to describe a violent criminal, and “stunner” to describe an attractive woman—lend themselves to a two-dimensional morality while giving the reader a cheap sense of titillated superiority. Yet the style also makes Stolen Years accessible to an audience that may not know how widespread wrongful convictions are in the United States. Perhaps these readers will be shocked—or titillated—into action.

Each of the book’s 10 chapters profiles a person who was convicted and sentenced for a crime they did not commit, before eventually being exonerated, usually thanks to work by legal non-profits like The Innocence Project. These people come from all over the country, in rural and urban areas. They are male and female, white and black. They spent between nine and 30 years behind bars for crimes they did not commit.

There is Damon Thibodeaux, who was sentenced to death in Louisiana in 1997 for the murder of his step-cousin. Thibodeaux was exonerated via DNA evidence in 2012, but not before spending over a decade on death row. There, he “grew flabby from the high-fat, high-sodium prison food,” woke up every night in “a pool of sweat” in his sweltering cell, and regularly watched his fellow inmates take their final walk to the execution chamber.

The suggestion at the heart of Stolen Years is that the true injustice in our penal system is the imprisonment of innocent people. But the book levies no larger critiques about whether the system itself is ever just, for anybody.

There is Drayton Witt, sentenced to 20 years in prison in Arizona (of which he served 10) for shaking his baby to death. While behind bars, Witt was brutally stabbed by members of the Aryan Brotherhood, the white-supremacist prison gang. He was let out of prison only after medical experts finally determined that the baby had actually died of natural causes.

There is James Kluppelberg, a Chicago man who was sentenced to life in prison for murder in 1988. His conviction was based on faulty forensic science that indicated he had set a house on fire, killing a mother and her five children inside. He also “confessed” to the crime—after he was beaten so badly by the Chicago police that he “pissed blood for a week.” A judge later threw out that confession, but the charges held. Kluppelberg spent a full 24 years behind bars before his conviction was overturned.

Where Fenton really excels is in his interviews. The book is primarily an oral history that lets its subjects tell their own stories. Like any tabloid reporter, Fenton doesn’t shy away from gory details: We hear about a Chicago prison gang that chained an inmate to a toilet and raped him repeatedly—as well as a description of an incident in which inmates in a Kentucky prison were served spoiled chicken, suffering food poisoning as a result.

There is some exposition to break up the dialogue, but very little in the way of systemic critique or analysis. In the book’s conclusion, Fenton explains some of the factors that commonly lead to the convictions of innocent people. These include an over-reliance on the Reid Technique, an increasingly controversial type of interrogation that often leads to false confessions, particularly among young people and the mentally ill. Then, there is the problem of the informant system, which incentivizes indiscriminately naming people—guilty or innocent—as criminal suspects. There is also the issue of police misconduct—often code for police torture or brutality, acts which violate both U.S. law and international human rights conventions.

The suggestion at the heart of Stolen Years is that the true injustice in our penal system is the imprisonment of innocent people. But the book levies no larger critiques about whether the system itself is ever just, for anybody.

The horrors of American prisons as illustrated in Stolen Years are many: rape, stabbing, beating, solitary confinement, shamefully poor health care, food that is unhealthy at best and contaminated at worst, isolation from the outside world, lack of guidance and resources for re-integration upon release. While reading the book, I found myself asking why anyone—yes, even a thug or a perp—should be subjected to a system so inhumane, particularly in a country that positions itself as a global leader on human rights. Stolen Years feels isolated from any systematic discussion of the American criminal justice system.

Of course, the problems with the American criminal justice system are so numerous and so massive that any halfway decent interrogation of them would fill a library. Maybe a single book has room sufficient only to explore one facet of the problem. For that reason, Stolen Years is best read as part of a longer list that tackles other elements of the system. There is Michelle Alexander’s now-ubiquitous The New Jim Crow, which explores the way that people of color are disproportionately incarcerated, and the way that convicts are trapped in a caste system that prevents them from finding work or housing even after they get out. There’s Nell Bernstein’s Burning Down the House, which looks at the cruelty of the juvenile justice system. There is the Guardian’s series reporting on Chicago’s Homan Square, a black site where criminal suspects were disappeared without due process and tortured by the Chicago Police Department. There is Foucault's Discipline and Punish and Angela Davis’ Are Prisons Obsolete?, both of which offer philosophical, historical, and structural critiques of the prison system itself.

The other day I was having lunch with a journalist friend who has spent time in Turkey, Iran, and Nicaragua. While discussing this book over cheeseburgers, he mentioned an apocryphal Dostoyevsky quote: “The degree of civilization in a society can be judged by entering its prisons.”

By this metric, America is brutally uncivilized.