Monday, October 20, 2008

The Hot House Life Inside Leavenworth Prison

Title: The Hot House Life Inside Leavenworth Prison
Author: Pete Earley
Date Finished: October 19, 2008
Pages: 441

I have really been on a non-fiction kick lately, in hopes of expanding my reading base. It has always been so much easier for me to pick up a fiction book and get lost in whatever world the story puts me in. For non-fiction I have this horrible idea that it's going to be a harder read and I won't enjoy it as much, which is completely FALSE!!! At my office, you get a sense of what genre's people like by what you see them reading in the lunch room. About a year ago, I noticed that one of the girls always has non-fiction books based on prisons, true crime, and maybe even a few biographies. I have always been intrigued by these topics, but wasn't really sure where to even being to find a good/interesting book. So, the other day, I just asked her if she had a favorite book, or how she went about choosing the ones she reads. She happened to have one of her favorites sitting on her desk and let me borrow it!

I did not want to put this book down. It was so interesting, and I just got caught up in their world, or at least as close as my mind would allow. Obviously this is something that you would have to have experienced before to really understand, and I can thankfully say that I have never, nor ever plan to be part of the prison crowd. Let me just say that Pete Earley is a very brave man. He spent two years, 1987-1989, going into Leavenworth Prison in Leavenworth, Kansas without protection, to get the "true stories" that he shares. Some history that I was able to pick up on Leavenworth, it was built to resemble the Capitol in Washington D.C., and has a dome and all, obviously it is not made out of the same material. This was the first federal prison built, and is a level 5, Maximum security prison. The inmates are all males, and the majority of the prison staff are male as well. Those females that do venture to work there, are often times kept in assistant/secretary/school teacher type roles, and not guards.

Pete Earley not only interviews the inmates, but the guards as well. Some of them tell about their crimes and their lives inside the prison, others talk about their families and their lives before prison. One of the big controversies that first happens in this book is that the newly appointed warden is a black man. This upsets not only the AB (Aryan Brotherhood) inmates, but also those guards who are resistant to be taking orders from a black man. Some of the inmates that Earley talks to are: Carl Bowles, Thomas Little, Thomas Silverstein, Dallas Scott and Norman Bucklew (whose name was changed to protect him). The guards and other prison workers were: Warden Matthews, Eddie Geouge, Bill Slack, and Elke Shoats.

Thomas Silverstein was one of the most talked about prisoners during this two year period. He was kept in an isolated cell, with no human contact (solitary confinement) and the lights were kept on 24 hours a day. The only human interaction would be with the two guards that are posted outside his cell, but because he killed a guard, they will not speak to him. Although a very creative artist, he is denied drawing materials for quite some time as a reminder of who is in charge. There is a picture of one of this sketches in the book, and I was incredibly impressed with his artistic ability.

As I was reading this book, I kept thinking what life would be like to be a guard at a prison. From the accounts that are shared with Pete Earley, it sounds like there is a fine-line between home and work life, that is quite often blurred. One account, the guy ends up being shot, with a shotgun, by his own children. As the story unfolds it turns out that he was very abusive at home, and the kids finally got sick of it and took matters into their own hands. When you are constantly trying to prove your authority and keep others in check, it would be hard to turn that off when you weren't on the clock. It would be hard to leave this kind of work "at the office" at the end of the day. You would almost be inhumane if you were able to do that on a daily basis and not let the work effect you.

Carl Bowles, one of the inmates, has been in prison for the majority of his life, and is very respected/feared within Leavenworth. He likes to pick new inmates and take them under his wing. The guards and other inmates will often snicker that Carl is only picking the new meat so that they can be his "wife" on the inside. Carl talked to Thomas Little when he arrives and makes it clear that if you don't want anyone to mess with you there are three things you can do. You can team up with someone for protection, let them mess with you, or kill them. Thomas decides to take Carl up on his offer and they form quite a friendship. Carl explains to Thomas, after he hears other inmates calling him Carl's "wife" that after spending so much of his life in prison, he is just looking for someone that he can form a tight bond with. Of course he has sexual desires, but those can be taken care of. It is much harder to connect with someone on a more intimate basis while in prison. Someone you can talk to, and share things with, someone who really understands what you go through on a daily basis, and he found this companion in Thomas Little. Carl also goes out of his way to help have Thomas transferred to a lower level prison. Thomas is a first time offender and his crime was a bank robbery. Carl, after coaching Thomas what to ask, finds out that Thomas has been listed as an escape risk and that is why he was sent to Leavenworth. Apparently at the jail Thomas was being held in, the guard allegedly found Thomas' cell bars had been sawed through, and instead of proving that Thomas was the one that did it, they just made a note in his file and off to Leavenworth he went.

It was interesting to see what the different guards and inmates chose to talk to Pete about. Even though some of these guys are very dangerous people and have committed heinous crimes, they were very open and honest with Pete in regards to a variety of topics. Some wanted to talk about their families, or how they were better suited in prison than the outside world. Inside, they knew the rules and how to handle themselves, but if you open the gates, it becomes a whole new ballgame. Most of the inmates that were released ended up back inside within a year or two. Sometimes when you've lived one way of life for so long, it's hard to reprogram yourself and adjust to being a part of society again. There were even a few guys who preferred being behind bars than out on the streets.

This book was very much outside of my usual realm, but it was very mind-opening and I know it will stay with me for quite some time. I would really like to read something else along these same lines, and if you have any suggestions, they would be much appreciated. If any of this interests you, I would really recommend picking up this book. It is an eye-opening experience and a great read!

1 comment:

Laura said...

Yep, this was a very "eye-opening" experience for me as well! I love finding a book that completely makes you think about circumstances and situations that you don't normally encounter.