My Life With Lifers: Book Review

My Life With Lifers: Book Review

By Dr. Elaine J. Leeder

Book review by John E. Dannenberg

Dr. Elaine Leeder, Dean of the School of Social Sciences at Sonoma State University, offers a concise, compassionate view of the life and psyche of California prisoners serving term-life sentences. After a long career that has included volunteering to teach prisoners in New York State, and, later, for a decade in San Quentin State Prison, Dr. Leeder has blended her deeply personal humane support of the underdog with her expertise as a sociologist to show that people “thrown away” by society upon being convicted of murder are still people, capable of rehabilitation and eager for the chance to gain the tools for reintegration into society through intensive education while incarcerated.

My Life with Lifers chronicles Dr. Leeder’s interaction with life-sentenced prisoners at San Quentin in a round table discussion group she leads at the facility, called “New Leaf on Life.” Each month, Dr. Leeder brings a guest speaker – a professor or student – to lead the group in a discussion on a topic far removed from prison life. The speaker engages the lifers’ minds in thought processes that take them to new levels – daring them to learn, interact in dialogue and yearning to learn more. Many of the prisoners also participated in college-level classes offered by volunteers from a local private university.

But Dr. Leeder found the educational process was a two-way street. In hearing the men speak in the group, and in side conversations, she learned many of their personal stories: their crimes, their troubled upbringing, their lack of education, and, most importantly, their incredible struggle to gain parole. Dr. Leeder gained an education herself from the lifers. In her book, she reveals many of their stories and their struggles (some successful) to gain parole, where they were able to parlay the social skills they learned in New Leaf. “I have learned that there is little to no rehabilitation in prison,” she reported. “If a prisoner is to transform, it is through sheer grit and determination…. It is the power of the classroom interaction that is the profound experience.”

Dr. Leeder identifies failures of the prison system. She notes that aging lifers are becoming an unaffordable fiscal burden that is ironically forcing reductions in education among those not (yet) in prison, literally feeding an incestuous, self-perpetuating cycle of incarceration.

Having seen what is wrong with “the system” through the eyes of lifers, Dr. Leeder offers society a lesson that it needs to hear, and heed.

“I have learned what I teach,” she counseled, that “prisoners are people, too.”

My Life with Lifers is available in ebook format on or can be ordered from