Thursday, October 08, 2009

by Laura Caldwell

Last week I toured Stateville Correctional Center, a maximum security men's penitentiary in Joliet, Iillinois. I went with my law students so we could better understand our Life After Innocence clients who have been wrongfully convicted, many of whom were imprisoned at Stateville for decades before proving their innocence. As a writer, there was an added bonus for me because the background of a minor character in my new book includes imprisonment and execution at Stateville.

The long debated question, "Should you write what you know?" has been by batted around authors forever. I have always been firm in my answer: certainly, it helps to write what you know, but when you can't? Do the research. It's a close second. I've written books about Russia based on talking to locals and studying maps and guidebooks. I've written about a member of a covert op in Vietnam after reading books and interviewing men in the same position.

Now that I've spent five hours in Stateville, many of those hours in the general population of prisoners, I could write what I know, I suppose. I can tell you what it looked like to stand in a room painted powderish green with 4 floors of cages (or "cells" if you want a nicer, cleaner word). I could tell you what it would look like to watch one man in his cell urinate while we stood a foot outside and our guard/guide spoke about prison procedure. I can tell you what it looked like to watch another man do sit ups, to hear another prisoner hurl insults at my law students (surely those weren't meant for me). I can tell you what it looked like when one of my law students waved at someone on the fourth tier, and what it sounded like when a chorus of shouts, hoots and lewd screams erupted.

We can tell you what we saw when we walked in the "round house", the only round house prison left in the world. The room was cement and steel gray; 5 floors of cages, circling around a guard station in the middle, shotguns at the ready. Prisoners threw themselves against the bars of their cells or the plastic that had been put there to protect guards from urination or spitting. I can describe the madness in the eyes of some as they watched us, free, standing and observing them as if in a zoo.

I can tell you what it was like to walk into the death chamber - the kleig lights making it look like a tiny stage, the exhaust fan with mint green paint chips hanging from it, remnants of days when executions were done by electrocution. Silver brackets hung on the wall, ready to be adorned with IVs and used for lethal injections. Despite a moratorium on executions in Illinois, the red phone was still on the wall, awaiting a call from the governor to halt everything. And a few steps down and visible through a Plexiglas wall was the gallery. Where people could watch someone else be killed.

I can describe all these things in more detail. I will in my future book. But I don't know if I will ever be able to describe the energy of the place, the feeling of being in that round house, the vibrations that coursed through our bodies as we stood in the death chamber. How do you write those feelings? I suppose I "know" them now. But I can't find the words. "Jumping out of my skin" is way overused. So I need some suggestions. Got any? To use another cliche, I'm all ears.


Libby Hellmann said...

Wonderful post, Laura. You captured such telling details. I went to Cook County jail maybe six years ago -- I remember when we walked into the main corridor, and I heard the door clang shut behind me, I immediately became claustrophobic. My chest got tight and it was hard to breath. I wanted to escape. Right away. Fortunately, I could.

Barbara D'Amato said...

You don't know if you'll ever be able to "capture the energy of the place."

Laura, you just did.

I've been in several prisons and your description is perfect.

Dana King said...

I'm in the process of reading THE FRIENDS OF EDDIE COYLE again, and I'm struck with the amount of atmosphere Higgins created through nothing but dialog that describes little of nothing about where the speakers are, or with a couple of peripheral events. (A legless man selling papers. Hare Krishnas soliciting contributions.)

Don't worry too much about how well your words convey what you were feeling. It will be there, "between the lines," if nowhere else.

David Heinzmann said...

Terrific post, Laura. Having been in a few prisons, including Stateville, you clearly have the feel of the place. One thing I was struck by in your description, however, was the hooting and taunting from inmates. Whenever I've been in the cellblocks of a prison, or Cook County Jail, there have been no women along, and I found inmates to be much more subdued.

Laura Caldwell said...

Thanks guys, much appreciated. Libby I think the sheer physicality you pointed out--ribs clenching, breath short--does a lot to show that energy. Muchas gracias.

Laura Caldwell said...

Dave: By the way, in addition to my law students (both male and female) being remarkably smart and motivated, they are very attractive. So they got a big reaction. Well deserved.

Patti McCoy Jacob said...

Laura - My first year traveling in Up With People when I was only 18, we did a special show at this maximum security prison in Canon City, Colorado (the prison is no longer there, I'm told). We had to be fully dressed in show costume before arriving, not allowed to bring in brushes or hairspray or makeup, nothing but the clothes on our back. Walking through a courtyard on the way to the "theater," we saw off to the right a gated area with about 50 prisoners behind it, watching us walk by. They were the ones kept away from the general population for a variety of reasons, and were also not allowed to see the show for their own safety. At the theater, we were greeted by "lifers" who had not only committed horrific crimes, but talked about them over appetizers. They were the trusted ones, so were given host duty. We were encouraged to ask them why they were in prison, and nobody was shy answering. I remember this one former Hell's Angel guy telling me about all the women he had raped. First time I every truly felt the need to don a poker face, reacting as if he was telling me about some stock he had just sold.

I was a dancer and MC in the show, and I remember wondering if we should do the disco number because our costumes were SO risque, low-cut leotard, see-through chiffon skirt that had a seven-veil look to it, except more like only two veils, plus there were a ton of lifts by our partners in that dance where it was easy to catch a glimpse of something inappropriate if an audience member tried. More than that, even at my young age I thought it was almost cruel to tease these guys with our slinky bodies inside slinky costumes, saying "look but don't touch" for another couple decades or more. But these guys were surprisingly respectful, no hooting or hollering, standing ovation at the end. I think they were just so happy to have some normalcy in their abnormal lives, if only for a couple hours, that they didn't want to do the wrong thing and be removed from the room.

My feeling that whole time was sadness. As I gave an MC, I was looking at boys maybe a year or two older than I was, boys who would be at least in their late 30's before they got out. And even though I know there were those wrongfully accused as you have (thank God for you) proven, the majority were undoubtedly guilty of crimes that destroyed innocent lives in one way or another. But to look at them sitting there in the audience, faces animated, pure joy watching us sing and dance... it made me wish I could turn back time for most of them to right before they made that life-changing decision that landed them in prison, stopping them before they went through with it.

So Laura, I would have to say that heartsick would be the best way to describe the emotion I felt visiting a maximum security prison. Not scared, not claustrophobic. Simply sad.

Michael Dymmoch said...

I visited Stateville 40 some years ago with a sociology class, and it was a life changing experience. Although we were kept away from the inmates, the atmosphere of the place was devastating. After touring the round house, I decided that life in a prison like that was cruel and unusual punishment--more so than execution. Anyone sentenced to spend time there would surely come out worse than he went in. I haven't seen anything since then to change that observation.