Prison Shadows: A Novel
by Kathryn Den Houter
Mission Point Press

"These lost souls haunt the hallways and evil predators at the top of the food chain cannibalize the weak."

Kathryn den Houter’s creation of Clifford Ratz’s character is incredibly instrumental in revealing that even in the prison system, nothing is black and white, good or evil. In fact, the darkness that permeates the prison systems in the form of corruption, greed, etc., is often perpetrated by those tasked to monitor and run the facilities, prompting the question, who is the real monster?

Delivering marijuana for the first time, Ratz is like a deer in the headlights, inevitably being pulled over for swerving. All it takes is a moment to define a lifetime. For Ratz, a thirty-five-year-old reeling from a severed marriage, a genuine desire to use marijuana as therapy for healing trauma leads him down a path that spirals far out of his control and makes him a fixture in the prison system. Through the progression of Ratz’s story, audiences gain a sense of familiarity with how the stripping away of freedom can eat away at the human psyche.

His first moments in prison send him face-to-face with a behemoth named Simons, who is intent on ripping him apart. Ironically, their relationship improves as their respective journeys move forward. From the strip down upon entering prison to incessantly watching your back to ensure a fellow prisoner isn’t going to attack you, human dignity is nowhere in sight. Naturally, one can argue whether human dignity is really necessary for many of the lawless prisoners who have committed heinous acts undeserving of any mercy. However, it is abundantly clear that not all inmates are created equal or in for the same things. Later in the novel, when Ratz is now at Marquette, he is placed in a cell block with lifers, murderers, and barbarians, served up on a platter and entirely at the mercy of everyone but himself.

The author’s background as a psychologist and K-12 educator is on full display throughout and adds invaluable authenticity to the mental drain and torture Ratz endures both in the prison system and society. In some ways, Ratz is a tragic hero, a man who finds lady love early in life, gets married at nineteen, and works exhausting hours to provide for his family. In nearly every way, he is the prototypical family man. Even in the prison system, Ratz is committed to maintaining a relationship with his sixteen-year-old daughter, Sharm, trying to steer her away from throwing away her future and repeating his mistakes.

With the arrival of Maggie Sweetwater, a high-powered attorney, and Vincent Atwood, a judge and former detective brought onto to investigate the murder of a beloved staffer—a case in which Ratz is the prime suspect—the story provides a spark, a ray of hope so to speak that Ratz’s redemption is still in the works, that the fates have not relegated him to an early grave. As the plot unravels, the truth seeps further and further away, punctuating the notion that inmates are ripe for being victimized as pawns for the gain of those in power. Sadly, even when a prisoner is fully reformed and returns to society, they are too often treated as less than human, turned away from opportunities, and almost compelled to go astray toward their old ways. Probing into the deepest recesses of the mind, the author delivers a scintillating study of both the systematic breakdown of one’s identity from human to prisoner as well as the system. Her book is an unwavering and thought-provoking commentary on being human in the penitentiary.

Houter's Cobalt Chronicles was a 2022 Eric Hoffer Book Award Category Finalist.

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