Cover image for Hard time blues
Hard time blues
Abramsky, Sasha.
Personal Author:
First edition.
Publication Information:
New York : St. Martins Press, 2002.
Physical Description:
xx, 284 pages ; 25 cm
General Note:
"Thomas Dunne books."
Format :


Call Number
Material Type
Home Location
Item Holds
HV9950 .A335 2002 Adult Non-Fiction Central Closed Stacks
HV9950 .A335 2002 Adult Non-Fiction Open Shelf

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In September 1996, fifty-three year old heroin addict Billy Ochoa was sentenced to 326 years in prison. His crime: committing $2100 worth of welfare fraud. Ochoa was sent to New Folsom supermax prison, joining thousands of other men who will spend the rest of their lives in California's teeming correctional facilities as a result of that state's tough Three Strikes law. His incarceration will cost over $20,000 a year until he dies.

Hard Time Blues weaves together the story of the growth of the American prison system over the past quarter century primarily through the story of Ochoa, a career criminal who grew up in the barrios of post-World War Two L.A. Ochoa, who had a long history of non-violent crimes committed to fund his drug habit, who cycled in and out of prison since the late 1960's, is a perfect example of how perennial misfits, rather than blood-soaked violent criminals, make up the majority of America's prisoners. This is also the story of the burgeoning careers of politicians such as former California Governor Pete Wilson, who rose to power on the "crime issue." Wilson, whose grandfather was a cop murdered by drug-runners in early twentieth century Chicago, scored a stunning come-from-behind re-election victory in 1994. In so doing, he came to epitomize the 1990s tough-on-crime politician.

Award-winning journalist Sasha Abramsky uses immersion reportage to bring alive the political forces that have led America's prison and jail population to increase more than four fold in the past twenty years. Through the stories of Ochoa, Wilson, and others, he explores in devastating detail how the public has been manipulated into supporting mass incarceration during a period when crime rates have been steadily falling. Hard Time Blues deftly explores the War on Drugs, the Rockefeller Laws, the growth of the SuperMax Prisons, the climate of fear that led to laws such as Truth-in-Sentencing, and how the stunning repercussions of imprisoning two million citizens affect all of America.

In the tradition of J. Anthony Lukas's Common Ground and Melissa Fay Greene's The Temple Bombing , Abramsky explores this new and dangerous fault-line in American society in a dramatic and compelling manner. From the opening courtroom scene through the final images behind the electrified fences of the nation's toughest, meanest prisons, Abramsky paints a grimly intimate portrait of the players and personalities behind this societal earthquake. Hard Time Blues combines a sense of history with a powerful narrative, to tell a story about issues and people that leads us to understand how The Land of the Free has become the world's largest prison nation.

Author Notes

Sasha Abramsky is a journalist whose work has appeared in The Atlantic Monthly , New York magazine, The Village Voice , and Rolling Stone . Originally from England and a graduate of Oxford University, he lives in Brooklyn, NY with his wife. He has a master's degree from the Columbia University School of Journalism, and in 2000 he was awarded a Soros Society, Crime and Communities Media Fellowship. This is his first book.

Reviews 3

Booklist Review

Since 1980 the U.S. prison population has soared from 300,000 to nearly 2 million. In exploring "a quarter century of domestic war--War on Crime and War on Drugs--and the remolding of America as a penal state, even as the crime rate stabilized and then fell," journalist Abramsky focuses on three "characters." The first is Billy Ochoa, a middle-aged, small-time crook, sentenced under California's three-strikes law to 326 years for welfare fraud worth $1,200. The second is former California senator and governor Pete Wilson, a political star for his advocacy of tougher laws and more prisons. The third is the American public, the electoral majority whose media-and politician-hyped fear of crime has justified ever-more-draconian punishment. Abramsky traces the history of U.S. crime fighting and prison building, interviews the people most directly impacted--victims, prisoners, and the families of both--and illuminates the powerful but largely unacknowledged impact of race and class on whom we punish and how we punish them. An involving study of an important social issue. --Mary Carroll

Publisher's Weekly Review

Journalist Abramsky delivers a carefully rendered, emotionally charged portrait of America's embrace of maximum imprisonment and punitive justice over the past two decades. Focusing on opponents of rehabilitative ideals and casualties of punitive practices, Abramsky zeroes in on two principal figures: former California governor Pete Wilson, who hitched his wagon to the 1990s war on crime, and Billy Ochoa, a hapless middle-aged heroin addict who, under Wilson's popular "three strikes" paradigm, received a 300-year sentence for a $2,000 welfare fraud. Abramsky also looks at prosecutors, survivors of crime and victims' rights advocates, and corrections employees who energized the prison juggernaut, offering a poignant, disturbing view contrary to standard "tough on crime" rhetoric. He situates these personal narratives within broader transformations in urban life, public safety and media coverage of crime between the Carter and Clinton eras, whereby many politicians (particularly Wilson, Reagan and Gingrich) fortified their careers with sweeping, draconian laws in response to such phenomena as crack-related violence. The sad case of Ochoa, a nonviolent career criminal who poses little threat to society relative to the expense and harshness of his punishment, reveals what Abramsky interprets as the decimation and electoral disenfranchisement of minority communities via imprisonment. Abramsky skillfully navigates a difficult proposition: that while particular crimes like Polly Klass's murder (and the crack epidemic generally) are horrifying and demand justice, the wholesale forfeit of civil liberties and race-related mass imprisonment generated by the drug war will threaten society in the long term. The vibrant personal accounts in Abramsky's jeremiad distinguish it in a crowded field. Agent, Paul Chung. (Jan.) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Library Journal Review

This study by journalist Abramsky is a harsh indictment of the U.S. criminal justice system, especially in California and New York State. Abramsky documents how former California governor Pete Wilson rose to political prominence by touting the crime issue. Boosted by the media after the murder of Polly Klaas by a parolee, Wilson convinced the state both to elect him and to enact the "Three Strikes" law. As a result, thousands of men and women are now serving life sentences for petty, nonviolent crimes for which Europe or Canada would have brought noncustodial sentences. Across the continent in New York, the same thing is true of the 25-year-old Rockefeller drug laws. Former governor Nelson Rockefeller, politically ambitious, passed laws that have resulted in thousands of mandatory sentences. The prison system has become America's number one public works program, but with a cruel twist. Unlike the public works programs of the Depression, this one creates jobs at a cost in human suffering. Abramsky's well-researched, easy-to-read study should be an eyeopener for many readers. Highly recommended. Frances Sandiford, Green Haven Correctional Facility Lib., Stormville, NY (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.