Corrections officers oversee approximately 1.5 million prisoners across the United States. On a daily basis, guards supervise prisoners in every facet of their lives, from daily showers to bed checks, meal prep and service to prisoner intake and strip searches. Officers are constantly exposed to insults, physical violence, hepatitis, AIDS and other infectious diseases. And that’s just for starters. David Moloney chronicles the lives of nine such corrections officers as they perform their daily routines in his unflinchingly graphic debut novel, Barker House.
Officially known as the Barker County Correctional Facility in New Hampshire, the facility reeks of stale urine, fecal waste, sweat, bad breath and the slop inmates eat in the cafeteria. The atmosphere is at once claustrophobic and abhorrent. It’s not the kind of job you look forward to day after day, nor the kind of job you can just walk away from and forget at the end of a shift. It stays with you. It eats away at you.
Moloney draws on firsthand experience as a former corrections officer in depicting life inside Barker House’s drab, concrete walls. In alternating chapters, the guards take readers on a tour of the facility as they interact with criminal offenders and drug addicts. Virtually no one is left unscathed, physically or mentally. When one of the guards can’t take it anymore and ends his life with a bullet to the brain, the other guards reel from the tragedy and come together in surprisingly sentimental fashion.
Moloney sugarcoats nothing in this novel. Instead he pulls back the veil on this dark underbelly of society in stark and brutal prose. Barker House is not for the faint of heart or a reader looking for a fun escape (in fact, you may want to take a shower after finishing), but its importance as a portrait of our corrections system is undeniable.