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.