Ever imagine what would happen if all the people in prison were released at the same time? Author C.J. West has, and his latest novel, The End of Marking Time, is a look at just such a scenario.
Michael O’Connor ended up alone on the streets at age 15 and turned to a life of burglary in order to keep himself fed. He became quite skilled at his chosen profession, and was careful to never commit a violent crime. After unknowingly stealing from the home of the District Attorney, however, Michael’s luck runs out. He’s arrested, tried and convicted, and sentenced to prison.
During the course of a breakout by a fellow prisoner during their transportation to prison Michael is shot in the head. When he comes out of the resulting coma four years later the world is a very different place.
Shortly after Michael entered his coma the Supreme Court declared long term incarceration to be cruel and unusual punishment. As a result, two million felons were released. Not just left to run wild the relearners, as they are called, are monitored 24/7 via a chip implanted in their heads and an electronic ankle bracelet. Additionally, they must complete an individually tailored education program before they will be deemed reeducated and released from monitoring. Sounds straightforward and relatively benign, right? Not so fast.
As Michael quickly learns, there is more going on in the reeducation programs than the public has been led to believe. The relearners’ programs are administered via a black box connected to their TVs, one that has the capability of administering electric shocks. Further, some of the programs’ instructors aren’t above extorting favors from the relearners in exchange for assurance of good performance results. Refusal results in the lessons increasing to an almost impossible level of difficulty and no hope of ever graduating.
Additionally, in exchange for their “freedom” relearners have lost all rights. Should they be arrested for a subsequent offense there is no jury trial, no presumption of innocence, no appeal. If they’re lucky, they are returned to their program for a second chance. If they’re unlucky – or have already blown their second chance – they get sent to one of the last ditch reeducation programs… programs from which no one ever graduates because, as Michael discovers, relearners sent to those programs are subjected to experimentation and torture so severe that if it doesn’t kill them outright the person eventually goes insane and commits suicide.
Told by Michael in the first person in the form of a speech – a plea, really – he’s delivering to an unseen panel he believes has the power to set him free, The End of Marking Time is a fascinating look at a dystopian future in which the public is willing to turn a blind eye to the methods by which criminals are controlled in exchange for a virtually crime free society.
The End of Marking Time will challenge your beliefs about the criminal justice system. Are long term/life sentences cruel and unusual? If so, what’s the alternative and, as presented in the book, is it really any better or more humane? This is not a book for those who want to breeze through some mindless entertainment. Far from it. It is, however, a thought provoking read that presents questions and scenarios that will stay with you long after you’ve turned the last page.