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The Hot House; Life Inside Leavenworth Prison - A Book Review

By Ed Mead

I have just finished a pretty good book. A comrade gave it to me late yesterday afternoon. I went back to my cell and started reading it, and then kept on reading until exhaustion overtook me at 3:00 in the morning. I woke up four hours later, at 7:00 a.m., ate a quick breakfast, and continued to read until finishing the book at 11:00 a.m. It is titled The Hot House; Life Inside Leavenworth Prison, by Pete Earley. The book is about the federal prison at Leavenworth, Kansas, during the two year period between 1987 and 1989, and it consists of a series of interviews with prisoners, guards, and prison administrators. The author is white, and it appears as if all the prisoners he interviews are also white and either members of or else sympathetic to racist gangs. Needless to say, the plight of black prisoners is not explored. Still, the writer does manage to communicate the terrible reality of life inside a maximum security prison. At least he succeeds in understanding that in an irrational world, such as a prison, irrationality makes perfect sense.

So I'm reading this book up until the wee hours of the morning, then finally drop off to sleep. The next thing I'm conscious of is the guards loudly laughing and carrying on down at the lock box. I am disoriented, though. I slowly become aware of the fact that I am in a cell at Leavenworth (where I've done time before) and that these pigs are disrespecting me by making all this noise. Anger rushes through me and I am ready to yell out some obscenity at them when a shadow of doubt suddenly crossed my mind. "Maybe I'm not at Leavenworth," I wonder, and just as that implausible thought is in the process of being dismissed reality makes its welcomed appearance. As my eyes open I see that I am indeed here in Monroe, and for some reason I feel better. I lay there for several minutes, then gout out of bed and got ready for breakfast. Strange, I said to myself, dreaming I'm in yet another prison.... The book was vivid enough to cause me to lose touch with the reality of my location as I slept.

The author's racial blinders is an important point to note because he uncritically discusses how well the prison administration is able to manipulate prisoners on the basis of this weakness. When trying to divide the American from the more militant Cuban convicts ("disruptive" might be a better word, as the Cubans holding Atlanta prison gave up Tom Silverstein to the feds as a show of their good faith). Earley quotes Leavenworth's Associate Warden Smith as saying: "We told the American convicts that they were getting the best cellhouse in the prison. We also told them that we had planned to do a real thorough shakedown for weapons and other contraband but because of the Cuban riots we needed their cooperation." Smith offered the prisoners a deal. "If they were willing to move from C and D cellhouses [where rioting Cuban detainees were to be moved] without causing any problems, then we were willing to ease up on the shakedown." The move took place without incident. When the Cuban prisoners did create a disturbance the warden got together with his associates. "We don't want to take any privileges away from the American convicts or get them upset," the warden said. "We don't want to be fighting both groups at the same time."

When a team of Bureau of Prisons investigators subsequently came in to inquire into allegations (made by a staff member) of guard brutality against Cuban prisoners, they concluded that the allegations of brutality could not be substantiated. The author just happens to note in passing that the investigators had never spoken to a single cuban prisoner. Hence, even though the author does not appear to be conscious of this underlying dynamic, it is clear that this most disruptive element of the population was allowed to be brutally treated, and that the administration was able to accomplish this by successfully exploiting the narrow self-interest and racism of American convicts.

Anyway, if you want a good read despite the book's political weaknesses, then I would recommend you check this one out. It is The Hot House; Life Inside Leavenworth Prison, by Pete Earley, published by Bantam Books, 1992. Incidently, for the sake of historical accuracy, Leavenworth prison has historically been called "The Big House," not The Hot House. It was the Big House back in gangster days and before. Old time gangsters were sent to the Big House where they walked the Big Yard and planned their next job with their criminal cronies.

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