I feel honored to have received a book blurb from Pete Earley, best selling author and mental health advocate. Earley has penned 17 books including 4 New York Times best sellers. My excitement drove me to share this with my friends. Check out Earley’s link — http://www.peteearley.com/
Supermax Prison is so vivid that readers will feel as if they can hear the cell doors closing behind them. Larry L. Franklin and Dr. Rakesh Chandra have written a well-crafted and troubling book that raises important questions about the age old struggle between rehabilitation and retribution that a civil society faces when it encounters the so-called “worst of the worst.” A brilliant portrait of hell. Pete Earley, author of The Hot House: Life Inside Leavenworth Prison
My ebook is available online and the paperback will be available in approximately two weeks.
The ebook for Supermax Prison: Controlling the most dangerous criminals is available. The paperback will be released in late September 2017. Below is one of my favorite excerpts describing our imaginary prison of the future.
While science tells us how to operate the prison of the future, we still lack the will, the inner force that drives success. Nevertheless, we have our imagination and dreams, the incubators where ideas are born. Perhaps there is another chapter to our story; the birth, death, and resurrection of Tamms, our imaginary prison of the future.
A handful of inmates, 2 correctional officers, and a farmer stand in the middle of 236 acres of bottomland in the heart of southern Illinois. It’s mid-summer. A 50-acre stand of toast-colored wheat is about to be cut in early July. Some 150 acres of weed-free soybeans stretch across the horizon like waves of green swinging to and fro from the gentle push of a southernly breeze. Inmates stand silently, marveling at the spiritual alliance between Mother Nature and men willing to work; taking stock of themselves, realizing who they have become. Money from the bean and wheat harvests will be used to pay for inmate labor and equipment they might need.
The farmer and inmates begin playing catch with what we call “farmer talk.” One inmate picks up a clod of dirt and breaks it apart with his bare hand. “Beans look good, but we could sure use a slow summer rain.” Other inmates agree as they kick at the parched soil. Someone asked if it is time to harvest the beans. “Well, let’s take a look see” the farmer says. “If the color is yellow to green the beans are asking for more time.” He grabs a handful of beans and spits tobacco juice onto the ground. “We’re looking for a tan to brown color, and beans that rattle in the pod.” He pulls the pod apart and asks an inmate for his thoughts.
The inmate rolled the beans between his thumb and index finger. “Seems a little damp to me. Maybe need two or three more weeks. I guess Mother Nature has a say.”
“I think you’re right.” As they walk across the field, the farmer whispers to the correctional officer. “This guy is going to make a good farmer.” These inmates are gaining the skills and temperament to be real farmers. When they join the outside world, they might be hired hands on a farm, or perhaps they will own a piece of land someday….
A Review of the Book, “Supermax Prison: Controlling the Most Dangerous Criminals” by Larry L Franklin and Rakesh Chandra, MD, JD
This book provides a frank and fascinating look at life in maximum security prisons. It is both uplifting and depressing reading, and some parts are even quite difficult to read, especially those with graphic descriptions of heinous crimes. While the main focus is on the relatively short life of Illinois’ super-max prison named Tamms, after the small town in the southernmost part of the state where it was built, the story is relevant for all institutions of incarceration. The challenge of balancing the safety of custodians and inmates with the goal of rehabilitating dangerous criminals to reenter society as law-abiding citizens is immense indeed. The book details both successes and failures and culminates with proposals to improve the chances of success. In the end the prison was closed after only 15 years due to pressures from outside humanitarian groups, a terrible financial situation in the state, and other factors; however, the authors feel its demise was ultimately a political decision, one that they think was mistaken. Changing prison cultures from the traditional emphasis on punishment to preparation for a meaningful life requires many support programs, but especially those emphasizing improving mental health. Due to the trend to decentralize mental health treatment into the community, prisons today are defacto taking the place of closed mental health hospitals by having to house those who have such serious mental health problems that community centers can’t handle them. But neither are the prisons adequately prepared to deal with this population. The book ends on a high note with a hypothetical rebirth of a Tamms with the proper structure, procedures and support that result in providing secure containment for those unable or unwilling to be rehabilitated and a path to mental health recovery for the rest. It can only be hoped that the lessons learned from the past can result in better results in the future, and that the dream of such a Tamms can be realized as soon as possible.
I’m sitting in my office listening to Eric Clapton belt out some cool sounds. Steady rain outside. Springtime trying to make its way into summer; that’s what is happening in southern Illinois. I’m drinking some wine, looking at my legs while I sport a pair of summer shorts, and evaluating my body’s transition into old age. I’m 72 years old and find myself wondering what happen to all of the hair on my legs. Damn depressing, I might add. I remember my early years when I first saw tiny strains of hair on my legs and some peach fuzz on my face. That was pretty cool. I was becoming a man and would soon enjoy the company of wild girls, a beer belly that would rival the older guys in the Louisville Pool Hall. Party time, that’s where I was headed. Well, I did have some exciting years, but not quite what I had expected.
Now back to my leg hair. No, it didn’t disappear. The hair has moved to different parts of my body. I now have an abundance of belly hair, a nose filled with bushy hair that needs daily trimming, and strains of long hairs growing out of my ears and dangling downward from my earlobes. And my eyebrows. If I didn’t trim them I would have “handle-bar eyebrows.” I assume that if I checked out the DNA of my leg hairs, they would match the hair growing out of my nose. Yes, I’m certain that it’s the same hair.
Now I’m not one to question God, but come on. What’s the point of my hair moving from one part of my body to another? I’m okay with my gray hair as long as it doesn’t turn blue. And the wrinkles come in handy. Being a writer, I believe that every wrinkle tells a story. Apparently I have lots of stories to tell.
Despite the moving hair, things are looking up. I had two back surgeries over the past year; lots of pain and depression. Now I have minor pain at times but nothing that I can’t handle. I’ve begun working out at a local fitness center, and with a little imagination, I can see the beginnings of a six pack. Never had one of those before. Since some of the hair on my legs has moved to my stomach, I would have a hairy six pack. Pretty cool. Maybe….
The wine bottle is empty and I need to take my dog for a walk.
It was the fall of 2002, the exact date I cannot recall, when I arrived at the Dwight Correctional Center for women. I had spent months interviewing Rita Nitz, an inmate convicted of first degree murder for her alleged participation in the shooting and decapitation of Michael Miley, a young gay man. I was never convinced that Rita played any role in the death of Miley. My book, “Rita Nitz: A Life without Parole,” was published by the Southern Illinois University Press in 2005. I interviewed numerous people who knew Rita, her husband, Richard, also serving life in prison, and the victim, Michael Miley. To understand this newly discovered world required some behavior modifications of my own — things are not always as they seem, no two realities are the same, and learn to breathe as I became immersed in my new journey.
You might say that Rita’s emotions were activated by the pull of a “hair trigger.” The slightest provocation could upset her and put an end to our three-hour meetings — the allotted time in the prison’s visit room. Each interview required a gentle stride as I walked through an imaginary bed of hot coals. Any misstep could burn my ass. I suppose that it was inevitable: Rita felt that I was too aggressive when I questioned her possible involvement in the murder. She stood, turned, and quick-stepped her way to another room where she was strip searched before rejoining the general prison population. Six months passed before she spoke to me again. So much to learn. Life changed in so many ways; my horse blinders were removed, a broader, crystal clear vision came forth, and spiritual seeds seemingly sprouted from my soul.
In Rita’s world, many of the people — good and bad — had a “hair trigger” of their own, ready to fight at the slightest provocation. We are the product of our genetic makeup and our life experiences. This much I know. Change is difficult, but possible. Of course there are individuals who have been so emotionally damaged that they are beyond repair. That is the unfairness of it all. Most of us have heard the expression count to ten before answering what you perceive as a provocation. This simple rule can be found in Thomas Jefferson’s writings, “The Canons of Conduct.” http://www.monticello.org/site/jefferson/canons-conduct For Jefferson it was common sense, but for many of us it is a lesson unlearned. Hair trigger, count to ten, knee-jerk reaction share the same message — think before you speak. Today it seems more difficult than years past. There is a segment of the population that is aware of America’s short fuse, and use it to their advantage. Its called politics.
Politics is a cesspool that can be found around the dinning room table when certain relatives come to visit, the local coffee shop, and any place where two or more people engage in conversation. The cesspool is filled with the daily shit dumped on the national airwaves. The garbage, that sounds better than shit, is peddled as truth and is designed to activate the hair trigger, knee-jerk reaction, inability to count to ten, and in general terms, reach people unable to think.
We, as individuals, tend to withdraw “talking points” from the cesspool that has grown to the size of an ocean, and hurl them at people who seemingly challenged our integrity. And if you think that we are bad, just take a look at Congress — a collection of people unable to work together, controlled by the most evil thing of all, a wad of cash. (Check out one of my past blogs about truth.) https://authorllfranklin.com/2014/03/13/truth-you-have-to-work-at-it/
Is there hope? I’m uncertain. Maybe it is somehow connected to our inability to think in long-term goals rather than engage in short-term gratification. Several years ago a couple of us met at a local coffee shop located in a university community. It began as a joke that we would watch the students who came to the coffee shop to eat a muffin and drink a cop of coffee. It was our conclusion that the top of a muffin was the best part. So, we decided to see how many students ate the top of the muffin first, and how many ate the bottom half first. The two of us always ate the bottom half first and saved the best part, the top half for last. Being from an earlier generation, we were into long term goals and not instant gratification. We were not surprised at our findings. Nearly all of the students ate the top half first, and were motivated by instant gratification. So sad, so sad.
Oh Thomas Jefferson, where are you when we need you — “count to ten before you speak.”
It was another session with Olivia, the therapist who brought me back from the dark side of childhood sexual abuse. Although I am in a relatively good place, a little tuneup is needed now and then.
“I noticed a significant decrease in the number of blogs that you have written,” Olivia said. “How do you feel about that?” Olivia knows that without writing I tend to lose my way, allowing depression to slide under my door.
My eyes stared at the floor. “I don’t feel good about it. With my back pain and a bit of depression, I am not motivated to write. But I need to write. I can’t imagine my life without it.”
“So what have you been doing?” Olivia asked.
“I’ve been spending some time on facebook,” I answered. “But that’s not without its problems.”
“Tell me about it,” Olivia said.
“Sometimes I get sucked into a pointless political discussion. Reading some far, right wing post pushes my hot button and I feel compelled to respond. Its always a pointless discussion with no resolution. A total waste of my time. Stupid stuff. A real downer.”
My remarks were followed by silence. There’s always the quite moments when Olivia leaves me to think about what I just said. (Its like she is saying, hey buddy, you need to figure out some of this shit yourself.)
“Okay, ” I said. “Let me use a metaphor to explain what is gong on.” I feel like I’m a mouse stranded in a large maze with multiple hallways and individual rooms. Each room houses a friend who shares emotional contact with me, but no physical interaction. It’s an attractive way to spend idle time away from the stresses of life and, oh yes, my nagging back pain. But there is a down side to the pleasantries — the mouse trap, a dark seductive device. I take a stroll down the hallway to visit a friend, and “lo” without warning is a mousetrap topped with a chunk of blue cheese emitting a fragrance that I cannot resist. I know, as certain as I know my name, Mickey, this is a trap that will kill me, slow or fast, my certain death. So far I have pulled away at the last moment, but I don’t know how long I can resist? If I put heroin in the mousetrap I have my story.
“Well, this is certainly about facebook,” Olivia said. “Sounds like you are bored. Although you find the political discussions pointless, your curiosity is challenged. Maybe it is trying to take the place of your writing.”
“Wow,” I said. “You cut to the point, hard and fast, like a box cutter slicing through a cardboard box. You’re right. I’d better be careful or I will become a political pundit instead of a writer.” The two of us laughed followed by silence.
“So, what can you write about?” Olivia asked.
Silence again. “I know what I’ll write,” I said. “I’ll write about facebook and how I feel like I’m being stalked by a mousetrap.”
It’s interesting how skills acquired during one occupation are applied to a future endeavor. I’m thinking about the connection between music and writing: how to perform or write the perfect phrase. I have my bachelor’s and master’s degrees in music, played first trumpet in the US Navy Band in Washington, D.C., and taught trumpet at Southern Illinois University for five years before moving to a different profession. My trumpet performances and teachings were focused on the classical genre where perfection is the key. The great musicians perform a near, and sometimes perfect phrase, while the lesser musician’s efforts are sprinkled with flaws. A tone as pure and clear as a freshly fallen snow, meticulous mechanics, and your musicianship lead to perfection.
Musicians have different ways of achieving perfection. I used a technique common to both musical performance and writing that originated in my 6 x 10 foot cell-like, smoke-filled studio: two filing cabinets leaned against one wall, a couple of chairs and a black music stand stood in the center, a tile floor partially covered with cigarette ashes, a desk marked by cigarette burns and coffee spills, and a reel-to-reel tape recorder waiting to record the perfect phrase. Smoking cigarettes was a large part of the process, but that’s when smoking was cool. Each recording was viewed through my internal microscope as I examined the cell structure of each musical phrase. It had to be perfect.
In 2003 I received my MFA in creative nonfiction writing at Goucher College in Baltimore, Maryland, which served as an incubator for my growth as a writer. I read book after book, and secretly hoped that each author’s creativity would magically slip through the pores of my skin. Eventually I returned to the techniques that I had learned as a musician: how to perform the perfect phrase.
Oh, what makes a perfect phrase/sentence, the one that makes goose bumps appear on your skin, curls your toes until they begin to cramp, gives you the illusion that you are a great writer, and allows your emotions to drift to a higher, more spiritual place? A certain amount of the perfection is in the eyes of the beholder. That makes sense. But you can study the works of the authors who have grabbed a critics praise, impressed academia, and yes, are worthy of your time. What is it about that particularly sentence that stirs your interest, and causes you to sit with the author and imagine what he/she did to produce such a masterpiece? Thank God for my internal microscope, or “shit detector” that has given me the ability to determine what makes a sentence work. (I wrote an earlier blog about the value of a shit detector.) The process did not happen in that same smoke-filled, cell-like studio that I had used decades earlier. I moved from one coffee shop to another, sometimes a McDonalds, my home office which my wife calls my “man cave,” and in the confines of my head. Writers constantly think about their work.
I remember reading “On a Hill Far Away,” a short story by Annie Dillard, and being so taken by a particularly sentence. “In Virginia, late one January afternoon while I had a leg of lamb in the oven, I took a short walk.” Dillard provided the unexpected punch that caused me to read and reread the simple sentence. Oh, if I could write like that, I thought. I tried duplicating the structure and strength of Dillard’s sentence. Sometimes I almost succeeded, but most efforts ended up as waded, crunched up pages lying in and around my trash can. I chewed on each word of that sentence, swallowed it, and now have it as a part of my DNA. While reading the entire story was important, I learned more from dissecting that single sentence.
What about “The Bell Jar,” by Sylvia Plath? She could put together a strain of words that would rip the heart from your chest. “It was a queer, sultry summer, the summer they electrocuted the Rosenbergs, and I didn’t know what I was doing in New York. I’m stupid about executions. The idea of being electrocuted makes me sick, and that’s all there was to read about in the papers — google-eyed headlines staring up at me on every street corner and at the fusty, peanut-smelling mouth of every subway.” Oh my God that was so good. Get the idea? I tasted the flavor of each word and even memorized one sentence at a time. This is what makes a great writer.
Another example of some remarkable writing is drawn from “Seabiscuit: An American Legend,” by Laura Hillenbrand. I was particularly taken by a her description of Tom Smith, the manager of the race horse, Seabiscuit. He was fifty-six but he looked much older. His jaw had a recalcitrant jut to it that implied a run-in with something — an errant hoof or an ill-placed fence post — but maybe it was the only shape in which it could have been drawn. He had a colorless translucence about him that made him seem as if he were in the earliest stages of progressive invisibility.”
With each example, notice the rhythms, the punctuations, the tension and release, the vocabulary and the use of action verbs. It’s how the authors use the tools of their trade that creates interest, excites your emotions, and can even stir your hormones. If you can’t get this excited about writing, then you should consider doing something else. Life is too short.
For your information, I found “Literary Nonfiction,” by Patsy Sims to be quite helpful in examining the author’s craft. Sims takes a close, analytical look at outstanding contemporary essays by fifteen accomplished writers. Examine powerful writing, that’s what Sims does.
It was a cold, fall day. Red weathered Maple leaves were on the ground. Becca and I were sitting in the visit room at the Dwight Correctional Center where she was serving a sixty-year sentence for allegedly killing her five-year-old step-daughter. Becca still does not remember committing the crime, but believes that she did because the authorities told her that she did. I often wonder if Becca’s abusive husband might have killed the little girl. The two of us, Becca and I, had numerous visits spread over a three year period. I continually tried to crawl into her mind and grab hold of her feelings; experience her emotions, and then put them into words. As a writer, that’s my job.
Throughout my book, “Cherry Blossoms & Barren Plains: A woman’s journey from mental illness to a prison cell,” I used metaphors to describe Becca’s mental state. “It was as if someone or something, possibly alien, took over her mind. I can see how an imaginary octopus-like creature might have controlled her thoughts. Living in the lowest part of her brain and hidden by darkness, this creature, the one I imagined, reached outward with it eight tentacles, each lined with two rows of suction cups, and latched onto her mind. No one escaped its grip. When threatened, it released an inky-black liquid that allowed it to slip away. Even if one of its tentacles was severed, one quickly regrew, making it impossible to kill. This octopus-like creature, the one that I imagined, the one that invaded Becca’s mind, is called bipolar disorder, also known as manic-depressive illness.”
I’ve felt the soul-sucking depression before. Not to the extent of someone suffering from bipolar disorder, but enough to put me into a fetal-like position, while I waited for the darkness to pass. It was the same feelings I experienced in therapy when I relived my memories of childhood sexual abuse. The idea was to desensitize the feelings of depression so I could better manage them. “Manage” is the key word. They never completely go away. Now, I sense when depression is on the horizon. Although it moves in like a fog at morning’s first light, it’s quite different. A black fog, yes that’s what it is. One that seeps upward through the earth’s crust, and most likely originates from hell. The devil must regurgitate this foul smelling substance and send it my way. Sometimes I run away or walk around it. Other times I am able to muster up an invisible shield that protects me from its onslaught. But I must admit that there are moments when the black fog reaches me as I struggle to escape. If unchecked, it can engulf me into total darkness with no way to escape. Sometimes I play dead until it passes. For some, it can be so bad that they choose to die.
One time, while in a sleep-like meditation, I thought about the people who weren’t able to escape depression. I was focused on a person that I had known from years past. She was found hanging from the ceiling. How could she have chosen such a painful way to end her life, I thought. Then, right before my eyes, I imagined this person like I had never seen her before. I believe that she showed me an image of her inner self on that tragic day. No words were needed. The dark bags under her eyes pulled her sight downward. Skin the color of tree rot covered his face. And if she had tried to smile, her face would have broken into a billion pieces. The hair on her head had been pulled in different directions at the same time. This woman yearned to scream, but she was unable to utter a single sound. And then came the blackbirds singing in the dark black night. There was no escape. She chose to die.