Friday, April 22, 2011

Girls and guys on the inside

I just finished The Hot House: Life Inside Leavenworth Prison, a pulp paperback by Pete Earley (author of a much more personal memoir about incarceration, reviewed a few years ago).  Through a connection with the Federal Bureau of Prisons, Earley gained unprecedented access to one of the federal system's most brutal properties.  Many of the Leavenworth inmates he profiles are serving multiple life sentences, oftentimes both for crimes committed on the street and once locked up.

One, Thomas Silverstein, killed a guard while at an even more infamous federal prison in Marion, Illinois.  He lives in a cage in Leavenworth's basement that inspired Hannibal Lecter's Tennessee digs in Silence of the Lambs.  Another, Dallas Scott, thought nothing of threatening an inmate's life to induce his girlfriend to smuggle heroin into the prison.  William Post looks after the cats at the prison.  It's revealed far into the book that he married a girl from the outside while serving time in a penitentiary in California, and when denied parole, cut off all contact with no explanation.  Post did this because he gave up hope; there's a lot of that going around in Hot House, even among the guards, who by and large hold a lot of contempt for the inmates, and for their new warden, not least because of his race.  Robert Matthews, extensively profiled by Earley, faces an uphill battle as he replaces a popular (and white) warden named Jerry O'Brien and makes unusual managerial changes. 

This book is not for those horrified by unrepentant violence - and this violence reads quite differently from the made-up murders in mystery novels, or even great magazine pieces on true crime.  The convicts Earley profiles might have come into prison with a less-than-shocking story; a lot of them robbed banks and left no casualties.  Prison life, however, deepens extreme defensive instincts, with constant threats of shank attacks and rape, the necessity of joining a group or gang for protection, and the underlying tension between guards and inmates.  I read this book because I like Earley and I wanted to delve further into the subject of the American prison life and the Aryan Brotherhood, two horrors that inspired me to work as a public defender.  What I found required some detachment from the narrative.  Morbid curiosity only carried me so far; by the end, I admit I was grateful to leave the Hot House and back into the world of fake murders, where there's more romance to killings - and more reason than deep-seated and festering hatred. 

There's at least one more account of a federal pen out there if you're curious but can't quite handle the grittiness of Hot House.  Piper Kerman's memoir Orange is the New Black: My Year in a Women's Prisonshows a far less brutal, and more easily digestible, world in America's federal prisons: women's medium-security, mostly populated by nonviolent drug offenders.  Kerman, whose post-college wild streak included a liaison with an international drug trafficker named Nina, pled guilty years later and ended up in a facility in Danbury, Connecticut.

At first I had difficulty sympathizing with the memoirist, who had so much more - money, a life to go back to, a loving fiancĂ© who visited often - than the other women serving time alongside her.  However, Kerman is a great writer, and soon I found myself fascinated by the rituals in Danbury, including inmates giving each other pedicures, throwing birthday parties, and cooking favorite dishes in the microwave using an inventive combination of ingredients from the commissary.  These inmates have more freedom than those in Leavenworth (although in 2005, the Kansas prison was downgraded to a medium-security facility).  The focus, then, shifts away from threats and divisions as the story unfolds, bridging cultural and socioeconomic gaps to form the friendships that helped Kerman survive.  For a prison memoir, this might be an oddly uplifting book, but it certainly takes you to a place you've never been before, with well-edited episodic storytelling and familiarizing detail.  Where you sometimes have to turn away from Earley's subjects, Kerman draws you in.


Julie @ Read Handed said...

The first book sounds really grim. I admire you for getting through it. I'm probably more interested in the second, mostly because I "can't handle the truth" of really bad situations. Thanks for your review.

What Book Today said...

Thank *you* for stopping by! I do love Pete Earley, and even though the book is brutal I like his writing enough that I could go on. You'll definitely enjoy Kerman's memoir.

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