Book Review: “Lifeline to a Soul” — A Memoir on Prison Education and Reform

Book cover for "Lifeline to a Soul" by John K. McLaughlin features a sun rising over a vast open landscape, with barbed wire in the foreground.
People still need lifelines, even when they don’t realize they are drowning.

“I’ve never taught a class before,” I told them. “And I’ve never been in a prison before, so it’s safe to say I’m going to learn a lot more from you over the next eleven weeks than you could possibly learn from me.”

page 83

In Lifeline to a Soul, John K. McLaughlin offers a firsthand account of what it’s like to teach a business class to incarcerated individuals. Set in the Palisade Correctional Center (renamed), a minimum-security prison in North Carolina, McLaughlin—known as “Mr. Moose” to his students—navigates his unconventional first teaching gig with complete dedication, gaining a newfound perspective of prison life and dynamics of power. Lifeline to a Soul is an inspiring memoir that challenges prevailing stigmas surrounding the carceral system and reveals how we can better treat individuals sidelined and ignored by society.

Choice and control under capitalism

“I figured it was a lot easier to ask for forgiveness rather than permission.”

page 102

From day one at Palisade, Mr. Moose encounters the cycle of unchecked power that dehumanizes prisoners under the care of the state. His persistent efforts to provide his class with necessary supplies and reading materials are met with resistance at the prison gates, but his determination to make a difference remains unwavering. The author challenges the status quo, sneaking in books and printouts and his essential DVD player to share slides and video testimonials of ex-prisoners to his students. He even looks up available nearby properties for a student who wants to build up his ministry and garden that he started while in prison (reader: it does come true!).

McLaughlin’s mantra for getting by—ask for forgiveness rather than permission—sheds light on a system that incentivizes privilege and punishment. Moose learns that, as a visitor, even if he oversteps a rule or two, he holds a certain kind of privilege—the kind that bears lighter repercussions that don’t significantly impact or alter your life’s trajectory. Not everyone is able to waltz past prison guards with educational contraband that’s actually useful. In a prison environment in particular, no one gets by on forgiveness without suffering consequences determined on the whims of your warden.

Reflecting on his own privilege as a white man who narrowly escaped incarceration in his youth, McLaughlin raises insightful questions about personal responsibility, societal structures, and the need for comprehensive support systems to facilitate successful reentry after incarceration and reduce recidivism. If the state won’t provide it, as Moose comes to realize, the onus is on the outsiders—the people prison guards can (relatively) subjugate the least—to stimulate the flow of resources.

At large, the book emphasizes to readers unfamiliar to these conditions two crucial themes embedded in the carceral state: choice and power. By interacting with his students and learning more about their lives before and outside of prison, McLaughlin explores how the underlying social factors of race and class shape what choices are available to us as we navigate society.

To this point, his students’ responses emphasize the significant impact money—particularly not having enough of it provide and survive—has on what decisions we can make from the limited choices our social structure has given us. And if the choice you want to make isn’t on your list, a new choice, one that exists outside the law, fills the void. Eventually, as he packs up his teaching gear and walks out the Palisade prison gates, McLaughlin recognizes that it is the responsibility of outsiders—friends, family, teachers, strangers—to notice when someone is drowning and extend a lifeline to those in need.

An essential read for anyone interested in prison education, teaching programs, and community organizing, Lifeline to a Soul is an important catalyst text for discussions on education and reform in prisons.

*Disclaimer: I received a copy of the book from the author to read in exchange for an honest review.

Book info:

Title: Lifeline to a Soul: The Life-Changing Perspective I Gained While Teaching Entrepreneurship to Prisoners
Author: John K. McLaughlin
Publisher: Lifeline Education Connection, April 4, 2023
Available in print and e-book at Bookshop, Barnes & Noble, Amazon, and Walmart

John K. McLaughlin spent half his life building his start-up business to an industry leader. His desire to teach what he spent his career learning led him on a remarkable journey through the gates of a minimum-security prison where he taught entrepreneurship for almost three years. John has an MBA, a teaching certificate, and a marketing management certificate from Harvard Extension University. He enjoys riding his tandem bicycle with his wonderful wife, Reba, on the greenways of Charlotte, North Carolina, where they live with two extremely spoiled cats, Moe and Joe.

More resources:

PEN America Prison and Justice Writing program – A landing page for resources and writing opportunities for incarcerated writers and mentors navigating the prison system.

National Lawyers Guild – Their resources page includes free reading materials on knowing your rights, guides to setting up bail and legal defense funds, the Jailhouse Lawyers Handbook, and more.

The Fortune Society – A nonprofit organization that provides housing, education, employment, health, and legal services to people coming out of prison or jail. Their resources page includes guides for community and reentry advocacy.

The Brookings Institution – A think tank that conducts research and analysis on various public policy issues, including criminal justice. Their free multi-chapter published report gives recommendations on how to improve prison conditions, rehabilitation programs, and reentry services for people who have been incarcerated.

Alliance for Higher Education in Prison – A national network programs dedicated to advancing the field of higher education in prisons across the US. They offer community events, workshops, and resources to support educators who teach in prison settings. Their national directory of higher ed in prisons provides statistics and contact info of facilities and academic institutions that participate in higher ed in prison programs.

The Legislative Analyst’s Office – A nonpartisan office that provides fiscal and policy analysis to the California Legislature. Their free comprehensive report evaluates the effectiveness and cost of various in-prison rehabilitation programs offered by the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR), and have suggested ways to improve them.

Prison Book Program – A “Books to Prisoners” group for mailing approved books to prison libraries. Their directory of state-by-state programs also includes locations in Canada and the UK.