Book cover

Rocco Di Pietro’s The Normal Exception: Life Stories, Reflections, and Dreams from Prison is an outcome of the author’s ten years of teaching college courses to prison inmates in New York, Ohio, and California.

A thoughtful observer, Di Pietro offers illuminating commentary on people's roles and the relationship
between prison and life outside the walls. Incarceration, he points out, “was only one way to transgress
out of the matrix of society; the artist, the poor, the homeless, the ill, the addicts, and psychological
cripples of every sort were also some of the other ways one could slip through the cracks.”

The book consists of essays that Di Pietro had assigned his students to write, interspersed with the
author’s thoughts on the content. For me, the most striking impression taken from these stories is how
many of these individuals had been living in prisons of other sorts long before their incarceration. Many
of these stories are harrowing, and the words of one woman are indicative of the suffering: “Though I
was incarcerated, I began to feel freer than I had in a long, long time. No longer did I live under an
umbrella of constant fear.”

Their stories of pre-arrest experiences are a microcosm of society as a whole, in which broad segments
of the population are entrapped in abusive families or relationships, dealing with untreated mental
illness or drug addiction, and struggling through poverty, hopelessness, and despair. It is a society built
on wealth and privilege, in which millions of people are treated as refuse. One prisoner asserts that
society was the most influential factor in becoming a criminal. The culture “literally turns its back on
many of us,” he adds. Another explains: “Values! The only values I remember taught to me were how to
live in fear.” The Normal Exception is a revealing look into the lives of those in the penitentiary and in
our society at large.

The book consists of three main sections: life stories, reflections, and dreams. Di Pietro observes that
during his time teaching inmates, it occurred to him that the lives of those who passed through his class
were destined to disappear without any trace in the wider world. “Gradually,” he writes, “it dawned on
me. I would bear witness!”

Di Pietro asked male prisoners to write on the theme, why you are a criminal? He had Joseph Rogers’s
book, Why Are You Not a Criminal?, in mind as an example. Rogers’s book includes personal statements

by people who have broken the law and those who abide by it, to illustrate commonalities. Di Pietro
asked the female prisoners to write about their place in world civilization and what they had learned in
class. Prisoners responded with personal stories about their life struggles before incarceration and how
they ended up in prison. Di Pietro notes that the themes of dying and surviving regularly recurred in his
classes. The stories in the Dreams section were written or videotaped and were used by the author as
habilitation exercises.

The Normal Exception is an eye-opening and fascinating look at the lives of people one may not
otherwise encounter. It provides an opportunity to understand a world that remains hidden for many of
us. The author is to be congratulated on his dedication to his years of working with inmates and for
bringing their affecting stories to us.


Rocco Di Pietro is a composer who worked as a prison educator from 1990 to 2001. He began teaching
at Attica State Prison and ended at San Quentin State Prison. In 1995, he performed his musical
composition Prison Dirges at Alcatraz Island. He currently teaches at Columbus State Community
Gregory Elich is a board member of the Korea Policy Institute and a contributor to the collection
Sanctions as War: Anti-Imperialist Perspectives on American Geo-Economic Strategy (Haymarket Books).