Scott Thomas Anderson, journalist

Author Scott Thomas Anderson’s new book explores America’s appetite for incarceration

PHOTO by kevin cortopassi

The Cutting Four-Piece is available to order online. Anderson will discuss his new book at the Calaveras County Historic Courthouse Museum in San Andreas on May 23.

Journalist Scott Thomas Anderson has stuck his trickiest deadline yet. The author, hard-news evangelist and former SN&R colleague spent the past three years researching and writing his second nonfiction book, The Cutting Four-Piece: Crime and Tragedy in an Era of Prison Overcrowding, a tough work of long-form journalism that pries open the iron gates on America’s penitentiary binge. The book is his second stab at crime-centric literary journalism, following his book Shadow People: How Meth-Driven Crime is Eating at the Heart of Rural America. Both books are bruising examinations of a society failing both victims and addicts. But his latest also contains a love letter to a profession in flux, particularly small-town reporters who out-hustled their big-market colleagues in illustrating how California’s prison realignment experiment warped their communities. Over pints of hard cider and IPA, Anderson explains the origins of our prison crisis, why he hopes his work resonates with convicts and what he learned from SN&R’s most notorious writer.

Congrats on the book’s release. Is it a relief to have this out there?

It feels like the biggest relief I’ve ever experienced. (Laughs.) … I've never attempted anything this complex before.

What was it about the topic of prison overcrowding that caught your eye?

I felt kind of obligated to do it, because I had done the first book, Shadow People, and I did talks all over California for that book. About two years into those talks … what I found out was that it left people with as many questions as it answered for them, as a work of journalism. … A lot of people just told me they wanted to understand more about the cultures of hopelessness that breed the addiction and how it plays out in the justice system itself.

Are the root causes of that punitive justice system being addressed?

The book actually has two different chapters that deal with the history of mandatory-minimum sentencing. There’s no way to have a serious piece of journalism about prison overcrowding and how prison overcrowding flows onto the streets [and] the cycles of crime and victimization without looking at where prison overcrowding comes from. Mandatory-minimums are the main place it comes from. That and a complete lack of checks and balances within the drug war. … Because what I say in the book is, addiction is a malignancy of the human spirit. Wars are fought with force of arms. One can’t defeat the other.

You militarized a response to a health crisis, essentially.

I think that’s true of the drug war. … Most narcotics detectives I know … don’t think they’re fighting a war. If they thought they’re fighting a war, they’d probably quit because most of them are cerebral enough to know they’re losing.

Where did the title, The Cutting Four-Piece, come from?

A four-piece is prison lingo for ankle bracelets and handcuffs that are connected with a center chain. … A couple of really opinionated people told me it’s a bad title. But the fact that every addict and convict I know and am in communication with loves it, I think makes it a good title.

Know your audience.

I care more about what they think about the content than your general reader, because the general reader doesn’t know one way or another whether I’m full of shit or a good reporter. But the people who know are the addicts and convicts and cops and prosecutors and defense attorneys and judges. They’re the ones who know whether it’s real or not. Everybody else is just making a decision of whether they’re going to follow along or not.

You raised about $3,600 through Kickstarter. What did that money buy?

The Kickstarter money is going to allow me to get at least 300 free copies to different community foundations in California.

Are we becoming click-bait drones? Is that where this is going?

The retreat of investigative journalism from one end of California to the other is completely disturbing to me. If the newspaper industry was in the shape it was eight or nine years ago, I don’t even think this book would be necessary, to be honest with you. … I just knew that some of these stories were never going to get told any other way.

This makes two pretty heavy books in terms of subject. Does it make you want to do a book on cupcakes and puppies?

No, but it’s really made me appreciate other forms of journalism more. Now, as a news director for my company … I noticed unconsciously I’m taking a lot of the great food and wine assignments. (Laughs.)

Seeing as we’re both former SN&R interns, I’ve got to ask: Do you have any horror stories?

I actually loved my internship at SN&R. I doubt this will make print, but I learned a lot from [former staff writer] R.V. Scheide. (Laughs.) No matter what becomes of him in this world, I owe a debt of gratitude to him. If his car was broken down in another state and he could somehow contact me, I'd probably go use my AAA to help him out.