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38 of 41 people found the following review helpful:
5.0 out of 5 stars A Memoir Worthy of a Major Publishing House, July 2, 2008
By 

Grady Harp (Los Angeles, CA United States) -

(TOP 10 REVIEWER)    (REAL NAME)      

Robert J. Gagnon has written a self-published book that is one of the best studies of the internal realities of American prisons to appear before the public. The book is so rich in texture and flavor, so informative and enlightening, and at the same time so entertainingly interesting to read that it deserves to be revised and published by a major publishing house, giving it the chance for the PR and distribution it so justly deserves.

At age 15 author Robert Gagnon participated in a bank robbery to obtain money to support his drug and alcohol habit, a major mistake in the first place, made more consequential by the shooting of the bank manager. Even as a juvenile he was tried as an adult and sentenced to life imprisonment in Florida. It is this experience of moving from prison to prison from 1975 to 1985 when he was eventually paroled that serve as the diary or memoir of this stunning book. Written long after this life altering experience, Gagnon writes reflectively but with a keen sense of atmosphere and attention to detail that makes reading this book a mesmerizing experience. There is more to learn about the prison mentality from the perspectives of both inmates and law officers than other more famous novels about prison life.

Though we know very little about the current life of the author, we can only appreciate that this man has developed into a sensitive chronicler with writing skills that would suggest this is not a first book. Perhaps writing the book years after the experience has given him insight and philosophical musings not readily apparent in the mind of a fifteen year old felon, but the degree of sophistication with which he relates 053803:LIFE AT FIFTEEN has moments of rather profound insight into the tribal life system that pervades the prisons across the country. 'Few people like to admit it but man is an animal before he's a human being. Animals have only two reactions to attacks, fight and flee. What makes people human is the ability to reason. An animal in a trap will chew off its own paw to escape, whereas a human knows to wait and see if it can fool the trapper'. 'Humans...have been away from the jungle a little but too long. Very few of us could survive without the most basic of tools, in the very least a knife. Since we've killed off or restrained most of our natural enemies, our worst threat is each other. The rules of civilization have domesticated people by using the fear of discipline to stifle the instincts of the masses.' But in addition to these reflections, Gagnon describes in raw detail the day to day life of the prisoner - details that include not only some fairly horrific events but also include an odd, twisted humor and the overall obsession of surviving the life that each of these men endure. It is frank, it is informative, it is gory, and it is all true. The fifteen-year-old Robert comes across as a rather amazing survivor and as a lad with skills of adjustment and intuition far beyond his years - even in an adult prison.

Yes, there are problems with a self published book: despite a fine cover with a photograph of the confinement wall of the prison, the layout of the pages is cramped without the usual paragraph placement, the punctuation and spelling could benefit from an editor's hand, and the flow of the pages is often disrupted by illogical spacing. But the story is so very well written that this raw version of 053803:LIFE AT FIFTEEN could serve as a fine manuscript for a major publishing house to polish into what seems to be a surefire success on the wider market of bookstores and with PR in the right places. Robert J. Gagnon is a very fine author. Hopefully this book will flourish in a more refined format. It most assuredly deserves it. Grady Harp, July 08

Bookwire Review
 
053803: Life at Fifteen
Robert J Gagnon
R.J. Gagnon Publishing, Palm Beach Gardens, FL, $14.95 USD, softcover (336p)
ISBN: 0-9778662-0-3
053803: Life at Fifteen is the frankly horrifying memoir of Robert Gagnon. Hoping to get access to drug and alcohol counseling by getting arrested, fifteen-year-old Robert held up a savings and loan with the help of a friend. Unfortunately, their simple robbery went wrong, and Robert wounded a bank employee in the resulting struggle.
 A prosecutor and hard-nosed judge conspired to get Robert tried as an adult; thanks in part to their manipulations, he was sentenced to life in adult prison in 1976 at the age of fifteen.
 A smart guy and a good judge of people, it didn’t take long for Robert to learn how things worked inside the Florida correctional system. By listening to older inmates, he avoided most of the cons run on new inmates that ensured they wound up at the mercy of older men. Nonetheless, Robert found himself navigating brutal fights, gang wars, sexual violence, riots, and a corrupt system of prison guards and parole officers.
 As part of a relatively small population of white prisoners among a larger population of African Americans, Robert was told by an old-timer, “Don’t accept any loans and stay away from the blacks.”
 Robert describes a complicated system of sexual favors and violence, made even more volatile by the presence of crooked prison guards willing to beat confessions out of prisoners. Prisoners entertained themselves with casual acts of cruelty, such as exploding frogs in the machine shop and running mind games on other inmates. Robert was no exception. In a complicated plot to regain his lost status as head of the small machine shop, he invented a cult of Ra that sacrificed whatever animals it could find. It’s a smart manipulation of his fellow prisoners, but the cruelty on display is stomach turning.
 Robert knew that many prisoners who were released couldn’t cut it on the outside and
ended up back in the system, so he devised ways to maintain his sanity. He devoted himself to learning auto mechanics so he’d have a trade. Ten years after sentencing, he walked out of jail and into freedom.
 Robert Gagnon is a good storyteller, and he certainly has plenty of material here. While
typographical errors lend the book a less-than-polished air, they seem somehow not out of place in this nightmarish memoir.   
 Gagnon seems to have escaped deep scarring from his time in prison; several appalling episodes are related with an almost devil-may-care insouciance. Even so, it’s difficult to tell if the air of casual bigotry and cruelty has lodged itself in his personality, or if his references to “sissies,” “fags,” and “hamsters” (a prison expression for African Americans) are just a device to recapture the flavor of prison language.
 Not an easy read, 053803: Life at Fifteen will be most compelling to those interested in the criminal justice system.
BookWire Review
July 27, 2006

5.0 out of 5 stars You will not want to put this one down!, June 9, 2008
By  Rachelle (Maryland, USA) - See all my reviews
I've got to say, this book is one of the few books that I was able to read cover to cover, without wanting to put it down. I was drawn into the world of a young man sentenced to life in prison at the young age of 15. From beginning to end, this book held my attention to see just how the author used his instincts and wit to get himself out of many questionable and potentially dangerous situations. Far from boring, you will read about the true life interactions between inmates of all races, statuses and ages, the good the bad and the frustrating. I must say I love the way in which Mr.Gagnon wrote this memoir. The dialogue was excellent and he leaves out no details. Whether my heart was pounding with anticipation, or I was laughing out loud at his many comical actions and pranks, I felt I always knew what the author was thinking at any given moment. Through the crime, the trials, the fights, the riot and much more, you will be glad you chose to read this book.

Author Description

Before the time of youthful offender camps, a fifteen year old bank robber is sentenced to life in an adult prison. Covering a 9 1/2 year period from 1975 through 1985, the author gives a vivid description of how he survived by using his wits, luck, and creative remedies. Insightful, informative and at times humorous, prison life is explained from a unique perspective that anyone can relate to. Thorough descriptions of actual escapes and a prison riot are included along with a breakdown of prison policies and inmate mentality. Listed in the National Criminal Justice Referral Service Library as a study aid for its social and educational value.
 
 NCJRS abstract:
 
Written in the first person, the author begins his story just before he committed the crime of armed robbery with his accomplice, Zig. At the age of 15 years, Robert Gagnon, the author, walked into a savings and loan bank in Fort Lauderdale on December 19, 1975 and robbed the bank. As he left, the manager attacked him from behind and in the midst of the fight, Gagnon shot and critically injured the manager. After he and his partner were questioned by police, Gagnon took full responsibility for the crime, even adopting the media account of what had occurred, in an effort to save his partner who was an adult. Gagnon writes that he was convinced the State would only sentence him to 1 to 5 years imprisonment, but instead he was sentenced to spend the rest of his natural life in a Florida State prison with a minimum of 3 years before parole. His story of life in confinement begins. He mainly focuses on life with his fellow inmates and the lessons learned from some of the “old convicts.” He tells of learning how to take care of himself in the midst of dangerous offenders and of eluding the many “tricks” of law enforcement and corrections officers. Gagnon explains that convicts have different types of personalities and are referred to as “hustlers, dealers, players, and racists,” to name a few; everyone is placed in a category. He recalls a prison riot in 1982 and about the lost feeling he had after being released following nearly 10 years in institutional confinement. An after note by Gagnon tells the reader he now works as a mechanic and has stayed out of prison.

Bowker "Books in Print" Description:

Memoirs of a 15 year old bank robber sentenced to life in prison circa 1976. From crime to parole explains what happens and why in adult prison. Uses substories as parables that lead into every chapter.

 

Book Review By Bob Howdy phD

     This autobiographical, 10-year segment of a young convict's life in Florida prisons starts December 19, 1975 with the robbery of a Savings and Loan in Fort Lauderdale. The 15-year-old is quickly busted and dragged off into the Lauderdale Police Station, then sent to Pompano Detention Center for Juveniles with a court appointed lawyer. He is indicted at the Broward County Jail and winds up at the Annex of the Fort Lauderdale City Jail.

      Once there, his naive opinions ("The one thing I was always good at was using the rules against themselves ;") begin to unravel. His smartass mind is sharp but undeveloped. The justice system recognizes the bad attitude of a social misfit when he refuses to plea bargain, tries to outsmart his Psychological Evaluators, and pays no attention to his "bad” attorney. Disrespecting the judge, he and his concerned family turn a jury trial into such a fiasco that he is found guilty of armed robbery in the first degree. After six months of rigmarole and jail time, he is sentenced to life in prison with a minimum of 3 years before parole. It takes him about ten years to obtain release. .

      He spends these years bouncing around the dormitories and compounds of the RMC (Reception and Medical Center) near Lake Butler, the Butler Transit Unit, Sumpter Correctional Institution, and the Desoto Correctional Institution, until he is transferred eventually to a work release complex across the highway from Tampa stadium. Release finally comes mainly because the state is pressured from prison overcrowding.

      Sumpter, his first permanent camp, is 10- Located in the middle of Florida, surrounded, by swamp, deep woods, and watermelon patches. Most of the memoir is set there, a large, well maintained camp with good and ample food. When a contract on him is let by other convicts, $30 for a fight, and $75 for whoever stabs him, he turns down a transfer to Desoto, considering that a sign of weakness. Ultimately, he is transferred there where accommodations and conditions are poor and the food is bad. He avails himself of the leather shop at Sumpter and the auto mechanics shop at Desoto.  053803 describes prison work vaguely, but activities outside supervised work explicitly, in a profane style that screams with obscenities. These activities revolve around  fighting, copulation, drugs, and thievery.  Cell block violence and romance dominate. The fighting involves extreme violence, injury, deformity, and gruesome death. The copulation involves freakishness, violence, sexual disease (gonorrhea, syphilis, etc.), and bloody death. The drugs involve What ever can be innovated or bought inside prison,eg.”huffing” wood putty in bread bags, makeshift injections, or robbing the infirmary of Demerol. The thievery involves anything which can be considered property, ego cigarettes.. Koolsare the main cigarette of the astute convict and “DC's”, Department of Corrections cigarettes, are supplied by the state. Convicts can get killed over cigarettes. 

     He describes a riot on January 10, 1982 in which he is "clocked in the head twice with a fence post and knocked senseless. The riot develops over a measly scheduling conflict between a TV football game and a prisoner head count by guards. It turns into a race conflict over property, and ends with a gang rape where the victims are burned alive with butane lighters. Punishment for violations sometimes involves an isolation tank air conditioned to 45 degrees, placement on a restricted diet, sprayed with mace, doused with a fire hose, and left to freeze. This treatment is repeated every four hours never allowing sleep until pneumonia sets in. Bizarre factual events like these are recounted with a studly nonchalance that is unbelievably hard for a reader to accept.

 You can check the website www.053803.com for pictures of the author and additional information on his book. One review stated: “... while typographical errors lend the book a less than polished air, they seem somehow not out of place in this nightmarish memoir." I almost agree, but what the book lacks in grammar, punctuation, typography, and technical nuance due to vanity publishing, it makes up for in creative style and realistic impact. The book is anything but entertaining. Rather, it is instructive to the maximum: do not go to prison. I think its least favorable attribute is a lack of consistent time line; and its most formidable trait is the depiction of prison life and routine as bearable to only the few, the numb, and the lucky.

 Read the book and you'll never become a convict. If you know a convict and want to send him this book without defying complex institutional mail directives, you can send it from Barnes and Noble or another recognized bookstore. 053803 is listed with the Justice Department library, but, according to the author, “unless it is pre-approved or sent through the chaplain, there is no guarantee he'll get it. Still, when it comes down to it the guards take whatever catches their eye." He did the crime and he spent the time. He got away with nothing. He was punished. Was he deterred from further crime? Yes. Was he rehabilitated? Yes. Figuring out self-rehabilitation is the message of his book, and it certainly reminds you of how great your freedom is. Mr. Gagnon lives in Palm Beach, Florida and has worked as a mechanic.

Lock the Gate.

Bob Howdy, phD