Prison Is A Place by Harley M. Sorensen – Available Now from Chronic Discontent Books (Update)

September 4, 2012 - Leave a Response


In 1971, award-winning journalist Harley Sorensen exchanged letters with a group of St. Paul Sunday school children from his cell at Stillwater Prison in hopes of learning what children think of prisons and their occupants and sharing what he knows about both. He had the idea that the exchange would make a great book for young readers. Turned down by New York publishers, the project was pushed to the back burner as Harley was paroled from prison and found work as a newspaper reporter for the Minneapolis Tribune. In time, the manuscript for Prison Is A Place was lost in an abandoned storage bin, to be rediscovered after Sorensen’s death in 2011 by a Minnesota resident who buys the contents of such bins. He contacted Sorensen’s longtime girlfriend, Miss Betty; she contacted me. I have always wanted to publish Harley’s work – we often talked about it when he was alive – and I drove up to Minnesota, where Betty and I bought three worn out, sad-looking plastic boxes. They turned out to be a treasure trove. Prison Is A Place is the first “lost book” from those boxes and will be available for ordering this month. – Thomas Brent Andrews

Prison Is A Place Cover Image

Softcover version $12.50 – Buy It At

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Prison Is A Place – ‘The Prison Mirror’ 5/20/1966

March 9, 2012 - One Response

May 20, 1966 THE PRISON MIRROR*, Stillwater, Minnesota

Harley Sorensen, Editor


One of the men interviewed on KDWB radio was asked in his taped interview to tell what a typical day in here is like. He replied that a day in prison is much like a day on the outside: You get up, go to work, eat lunch, come home from work, eat, loaf around awhile, then go to bed.

What he said was true, and yet he knows – and we all know – that a day in prison isn’t like a day on the outside. Life in prison isn’t like life on the outside.

What is prison like? It’s not the same for everyone; the prison I know is different than the prison you know.

I have been asked to dip back into my nine years under lock and key and describe the prison I know. I’ll do my best … and hope that I’ll also be able to describe, at least in part, the prison you know.

PRISON IS A PLACE where the first thing you notice is a very shiny spittoon. You wonder who had to polish that spittoon, and you wonder how much of your life in prison will be spent polishing spittoons. (You are later relieved to find out that none of it is.)

PRISON IS A PLACE where the first prisoner you see looks like an All-American college boy, and you’re surprised. Later you’re disgusted because people on the outside still have the same prejudices about prisoners that you used to have.

PRISON IS A PLACE where you write letters and can’t think of anything to say. Where you gradually write fewer and fewer letters and finally stop writing altogether.

PRISON IS A PLACE where hope springs eternal, where each parole board appearance means a chance to to get out, even if the odds are hopelessly against you.

PRISON IS A PLACE where the flame in every man burns low. For some it goes out. For most it flickers weakly, sometimes flashes brightly, but never seems to burn as bright as it once did.

PRISON IS A PLACE where you find gray hairs in your head, or where you find your hair starting to disappear. It’s a place where you get false teeth, stronger glasses, and aches and pains you never felt before. It’s a place where you grow old and worry about it.

PRISON IS A PLACE where you hate through clenched teeth, where you want to beat and choke and kick and scratch. But just as often as not you don’t know who you want to do these things to, and you wonder if the psychologists know what they’re talking about when they say you actually hate yourself.

PRISON IS A PLACE where you learn that nobody needs you, where the outside world goes on without you.

PRISON IS A PLACE where you can go for years without feeling the touch of a human hand, where you can go for months without hearing a kind word. It is a place where your friendships are shallow and you know it.

PRISON IS A PLACE where you hear about a friend’s divorce, and you didn’t even know he was married. It is a place where you hear about your neighbor’s kids graduating from school – and you thought they hadn’t started yet.

PRISON IS A PLACE where you feel sorry for yourself. Then you get disgusted with yourself for feeling sorry for yourself; then you get mad for feeling disgusted, and then try to mentally change the subject.

PRISON IS A PLACE where you lose respect for the law, because you see it raw and naked, twisted and bent and ignored and blown out of proportion to suit the people who enforce it.

PRISON IS A PLACE where you’re smarter than the parole board, because you know which guys will go straight and which ones won’t. You’re wrong just as often as the board members are, but you never admit it and neither do they.

PRISON IS A PLACE where you forget the sound of a baby’s cry. You forget the sound of a dog’s bark or even the sound of the dial tone on the telephone.

PRISON IS A PLACE where you wait for a promised visit. When it doesn’t come, you worry about a car accident. Then, when you find out the reason your visitors didn’t come, you’re glad because it wasn’t serious – and disappointed because such a little thing could keep them from coming to see you.

PRISON IS A PLACE where a letter from home or from a lawyer can be like a telegram from the War Department. When you see it lying on your bed, you’re afraid to open it. But you do anyway, and you usually end up disappointed or angry.

PRISON IS A PLACE where you see men you do not admire and you wonder if you are like them. It is a place where you strive to remain civilized, but where you lose ground and know it.

PRISON IS A PLACE where you forget what put you there, where you have a vague idea you are being punished but you don’t know for what.

PRISON IS A PLACE where, if you’re married, you watch your marriage die. It is a place where you learn that absence does not make the heart grow fonder, and where you stop blaming your wife for wanting a real live man instead of a fading memory of one.

PRISON IS A PLACE where you go to bed before you’re tired, where you pull the blanket over your head when you’re not cold. It is a place where you escape – by reading, by playing games, by dreaming, or by going mad.

PRISON IS A PLACE where you fool yourself, where you promise yourself you’ll live a better life after you leave. Sometimes you do, but more often you don’t.

PRISON IS A PLACE where you get out some day. When you do you wonder how everyone else can be so calm when you’re so excited. When the bus driver goes over 25 miles per hour you want to tell him to slow down, but you don’t because you know it’s foolish.


* This story was published again in The Prison Mirror, April 17, 1970 (Tom Hamilton, editor), with the following [Editor’s Note: “Prison Is A Place” first appeared as a column in The Prison Mirror on May 20, 1966. Later it won an award as the best column appearing in a penal publication in 1966. Since then it has been reprinted in almost every penal publication in the United States and Canada. Often it is printed without a byline, or with a note that the author is “unknown.” To set the record straight, Harley Sorensen, the author of “Prison Is A Place,” is known. He is also alive and well and living a short, happy life as Prison Mirror Intertype operator.]


Welcome to The Harley Sorensen Project

March 7, 2012 - Leave a Response

Harley M. Sorensen, b. Nov. 12, 1931, d. Feb. 15, 2011 / Photo courtesy of Miss Betty Wyren.

Welcome to The Harley Sorensen Project. This site is dedicated to the memory of Harley M. Sorensen, citizen, journalist, iconoclast, and friend.


June 4, 2011
Good Day Friends, Family and Others,
We all knew or knew of Harley Moran Sorensen (how he hated his middle name) so I know that your memories of Harley are not going to be the same as mine, but I feel our collective views will give each of us a better understanding of Harley. I want to thank from the bottom of my heart Brent Andrews and his charming, beautiful, intelligent wife, Ginny for suggesting  this memorial website for Harley. I sometimes can’t believe he has been through what he has been through and really is a kind, compassionate person who thinks of himself as a stand-up comic. Let me introduce myself by saying that I am Miss Betty and was Harley’s girlfriend for the last 17 years right up until I put my hand over his heart and he was dead.  Most people that I have come into contact with are polarized in their views of him – depending on if he was drinking, in jail, a newspaper man, a father to an eight-year-old boy or an advocate for prisoners. What follows is a just some of the stories that he worked on when he was a newspaper reporter. You may wonder why so much crime coverage, but that’s generally where they started reporters and of course they probably figured Harley had a leg up in that department. We have the years during which he wrote 179 columns. I learned during those years (I was his first line editor before he sent it to the paper) that writing almost anything about our Jewish friends unless it was highly complimentary is not done. Telling the truth depends on the paper’s version of the truth. There are other interesting incidents in his life that I will share, I just haven’t gotten to them yet. Harley did a lot of living! So please keep coming back from time to time and check out what is new.
– Betty Wyren

NEW From Harley Sorensen Covers the Sinking of the Edmund Fitzgerald (breaking news story from Tuesday, Nov. 11, 1975): Cargo Ship, Crew of 35 Missing In Lake Superior; ’25-foot Waves, 75 mph Winds’

Last Trip To Vegas by J.V. Adams – A Book Harley Sorensen Liked and Reviewed for The New York Times Harley Sorensen Archive

Chronic Discontent Calls Out The San Francisco Chronicle and The Press-Democrat of Santa Rosa: Where Are Your Harley Stories? Is It Personalities, Or Malpractice?

Chronic Discontent: On the Road with Harley Sorensen

Minneapolis Star-Tribune: Farewell To A Great Storyteller, St. Paul Native Harley Sorensen Harley Remembered - Rosenblum Your Harley Sorensen Stories, Please

Chronic Discontent: Loss for the Left: Harley Sorensen Dead At 79

W.C. Varones: Harley Sorensen and the Fair Use Man Harley Sorensen: ‘I Miss the ’60′s’

The Pot Plan: Foreword by Harley Sorensen

Chronic Discontent: YouTube: In Oaksterdam with Harley Sorensen

Chronic Discontent: Friend Remembers Harley Sorensen’s St. Cloud Reformatory Days

MinnPost: ‘Harley Was A Great Police Reporter, Too Good At Times’

Time: How Not To Cover A Kidnapping, April 8, 1974

Introducing the Suggestion Box

March 7, 2012 - Leave a Response


Harley M. Sorensen, editor of The Reformatory Pillar, Minnesota State Reformatory, St. Cloud, Minn., introduces his “suggestion box” for the men on Thursday, May 3, 1956. We’re working on getting this into better text format but could not resist publishing this gem immediately. – TBA

A Year Since Harley’s Death – Miss Betty Reflects

February 7, 2012 - Leave a Response

Harley Sorensen died a year ago Feb. 15, a date his fans will never forget. Miss Betty reflects on his life and passing –

IT HARDLY SEEMS possible that Harley has been gone for almost a year. I stumbled across a column the other day that Harley wrote and was in the Examiner March 13, 2000. It was entitled “A death away from home.” It was about the death of my father. Harley went on to talk about life and old people in the 21st century versus old people in earlier times. I have to agree with Harley. Sure we have countless medical tests and procedures we can perform on the elderly, we have rehabs and hospitals they can stay in, so “we the family” can “catch a break” from some of the end of life drama.

I spent a good part of last year retyping Harley’s manuscript for an incredibly talented writer and friend in Tennessee, Brent Andrews. Reading it was like sitting and listening to Harley tell me about his life all over again. He’d start off by saying “I may have told you this before …”

I’d reply, “Only ten times but go ahead and tell me again.”

Of course there were some things I never heard. I could imagine him reading each word out loud, like a mantra. He bared it all, heart and soul as painful as some of his life was.  His life experiences certainly made him into one of the best writers and thinkers we never heard of. He would have been so interested in all the things going on worldwide and he would have an opinion on every single one.

Harley you made everyone who ever came into contact with you think a little differently.

Love you Sweetie,

Miss Betty

Harley in the Examiner: ‘A Death Away from Home’: March 7, 2000

February 5, 2012 - Leave a Response

We had the following exchange, via email, with Miss Betty:

Harley On High: Harley Sorensen In A Hot Air Balloon

June 24, 2011 - One Response

Photo taken circa August 1973, by Mike Zerby of the Minneapolis Tribune. From the Harley Sorensen Archives, courtesy of Miss Betty Wyren.

Gold In Them Thar Molars

April 11, 2011 - 2 Responses

By Harley Sorensen

The dentist put the gold in my mouth when the cost of gold was only $35 an ounce. The device he installed was called a “fixed bridge” and its size was three-and-a-half points. I never did find out what a point was.

My fixed bridge served me well, but I always thought of it as an investment. If the bottom ever dropped out of my life, I figured I’d always have one full ounce of gold to fall back on. That meant about $400 as the 1990s rolled around, not enough to move up on the hill but maybe enough to stay out of a soup line for a month.

The 1950s, when I got my gold, slid away, as did the ‘60s and the ‘70s. My life slid away, too. I got married, then divorced, then married again, then divorced yet again. I had good times and some that weren’t so good, but I survived and life in general was good.

In the late 1980s I inherited a son through my second marriage. Modern Americans that we were, I took over the responsibility for my second ex-wife’s son while she went off seeking other husbands. Raising one child, relatively late in life, turned out to be my life’s greatest adventure. I can’t say I loved every minute of it, but I did love every day of it.

People who avoid parenthood are absolutely nuts, I decided. And I’ve racked my brain trying to figure out why I didn’t become a parent much earlier. I guess the prospect of all that responsibility overwhelmed me. Nobody ever told me how much fun being a dad would be.

We didn’t have much money, and it seemed like I had to spend my whole life working, yet my son and I did everything together. He was a nut for airplanes, so we took a tour of Ellsworth Air Force Base in South Dakota to put him up close with B1 bombers. We spent a day at the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, we went to a few air museums and, of course, he flew a lot shuttling back and forth between his mother and me.

We went to Disneyland a few times, to Great America, and I took him to Las Vegas or Reno whenever I had a few bucks to throw away. We toured the Black Hills, saw Mt. Rushmore together and spent time at Yosemite. Living in San Francisco as we did, we explored every nook and cranny of that fascinating city.

I also met all of his teachers, and most of the counselors in his school district. My son was, and is, a lovely person, but he had an identity problem: He thought he was Huck Finn. There was no mischief known to man or boy that he didn’t discover, experiment with and perfect. He was always in trouble, but it was small trouble, boy trouble, and I rarely worried about him. He was instinctively kind and loving, and I knew those traits would carry him through in the end. They did. He’s a wonderful adult today.

As I approached retirement age and developed health problems, I became concerned about my son’s future. When I was diagnosed with heart problems, I had to consider the possibility that I could die without warning. I wondered if my son was in any way prepared for such an eventuality.

So one day I asked him, “What is the first thing you should do if I were to suddenly die at home?”

His answer was earnest and immediate. “Get a pair of pliers and pull the gold out of your mouth,” he said.

If I ever had any doubts before, I knew then that my son was prepared to face the world.##

(C) 2011 The Harley Sorensen Project, Thomas Brent Andrews, curator. Special thanks to Miss Betty Wyren.

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