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Not to be too pedantic, but this book ought to be required reading for anyone who wishes to be considered an educated citizen of the United States. Thirty years after the Supreme Court restored capital punishment, twenty-five years after Ronald Reagan ushered in a new era of law-and-order, twenty years after the crack craze, twelve years after Rudy Giuliani started cleaning up New York, it's all too easy to forget how central crime and the fear of crime were to our politics and to American life by the end of the 20th century. Since 1993 we've lowered violent crime rates by almost 60%, so it's only natural that the problem has moved to the margins of our consciousness. In fact, even support for the death penalty has fallen somewhat in recent years -- though it remains at about two-thirds, that's down from the 80% it hi in, not surprisingly, 1994. But behind our success in the war on crime hides a staggering fact: some 2 million Americans are in prison today. In a very real sense, we've bought our freedom from crime by taking away the freedom of a huge chunk of the population. And, once they're off the streets, we give them hardly another thought. Indeed, many who oppose the death penalty strike a pose about how much more humane they are than the supporters, without pausing to consider the realities of life in a modern prison. Pete Earley's book provides an invaluable corrective to our willful ignorance and their vacuous posturing. For what he reveals is a system that, even after it's been reformed and made as decent as we're ever going to allow it to become, is still incredibly brutal and often intentionally anti-human.

In the first place The Hot House is a remarkable piece of journalism, Mr. Earley having been provided unprecedented access to the Federal Penitentiary in Leavenworth, KS and to the prisoners there. Time and again as he recounts conversations, obviously conducted one-to-one, with the most incredibly violent men you'll have ever been privy to the innermost thoughts of, the reader can't help wondering where he found the courage to be alone with these guys. For the sake of narrative focus he wisely restricts his cast of characters and focuses in particular on six inmates -- Carl Bowles, William Post, Thomas Little. Dallas Scott, Thomas Silverstein, and Norman Bucklew -- two guards -- Eddie Geouge and Bill Slack -- and the warden -- Robert Matthews. Beyond the themes of how the convicts do their time, how the staff supervises them, and how the prison system functions generally, there are also major subplots, including the large population of Cuban prisoners who had been transferred to Leavenworth after rioting when they were going to be sent back to Cuba after the Mariel boatlift turned out to be a convenient pretext for Castro to clean out his own prisons and racial tensions--between inmates, between inmates and guards, between guards, etc....

There's an interesting problem with the book -- one of the few significant ones -- that's pointed up by this last issue. Mr. Earley seems not to have been able to form a close relationship with any black or Cuban prisoner, so at the same time as he's drawing our attention to the racism and racial separatism that prevails at Leavenworth, these groups remain dark presences looming in the background, rather than integral parts of his story. Warden Matthews is black and we do meet a couple of minority guards, but their perspectives are obviously quite different than those of the prisoners would be.

Strangely enough, the most compelling storyline may be that of one of the worst convicts: Thomas Silverstein. A genuine sociopath and a key figure in the Aryan Brotherhood, Silverstein has been kept not just in solitary but without human contact since he killed a guard almost ten years earlier. He's watched constantly, by guards who despise him and won't speak to him, in a cell that's lighted 24 hours a day. He's become so used to the hostility around him that he went six months taking cold showers because he assumed what was actually the oversight of not turning on the hot water had been intentional. By the time Mr. Earley got to know him even Silverstein acknowledged that this level of isolation was having an effect on his mental state. Contra Jean-Paul Sartre, Hell is the absence of other people and Thomas Silverstein has been placed a carefully constructed and deliberately anti-human miniature version of Hell.

Meanwhile, in the years since we've moved to the creation of SuperMax prisons that impose such isolation as a matter of course and, with a growing prison population and the Supreme Court's ruling that prisoners can't be segregated by race, we have to anticipate that the 2 million plus population in our prisons will be ever more isolated. In effect, we've made a decision as a society to inflict severe emotional/psychological damage on prisoners in order both to protect ourselves and to protect them from each other. The cost of cutting down on violence, murder and rape in prison turns out to be intentionally pushing prisoners towards psychoses. And we're going to keep doing it. Folks who pat themselves on the back about how humane they are for opposing the death penalty have to reckon with the fact that they've opted to torture convicts for the duration of their natural lives instead.

There are no easy answers here, but Pete Earley confronts us with the questions in a unique and necessary way. It's a truly important book.


Grade: (A)


See also:

Pete Earley Links:

    -ESSAY: Missing Alice (Pete Earley, 1986, Washington Post)
    -AUDIO INTERVIEW: Gerald Shur and Pete Earley (Fresh Air from WHYY, February 18, 2002, NPR)
    -INTERVIEW: The mobsters and terrorists next door: The founder of the federal witness protection program talks about hiding killers in the suburbs and why even al-Qaida members can become law-abiding citizens. (Suzy Hansen, Feb. 28, 2002, Salon)
    -AUDIO INTERVIEW: Why Spy?: Noah Adams talks to Pete Earley, author of Confession of a Spy: The Real Story of Aldrich Ames, about what motivates spies. He says the biggest motivator is money. (All Things Considered, February 20, 2001)
    -ARCHIVES: "pete earley" (Find Articles)
    -REVIEW: of Confessions of a Spy: The Real Story of Aldrich Ames By Pete Earley (Bob Hoover, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette)
    -REVIEW: of Confessions of a Spy (Christopher Lehmann-Haupt)
    -REVIEW: of FAMILY OF SPIES Inside the John Walker Spy Ring. By Pete Earley (Lucinda Franks, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of Super Casino: Inside the "New" Las Vegas By Pete Earley (Michael Sims, Book Page)
    -REVIEW: of THE BIG SECRET By Pete Earley (Patrick Anderson, Washington Post)
    -AUDIO REVIEW: of Lethal Secrets, by Pete Earley (Alan Cheuse, NPR)

Book-related and General Links:

    -BOP: Federal Bureau of Prisons Web Site
    -United States Penitentiary (Leavenworth, Kansas)
    -Prisons in the United States (Wikipedia)
    -America's most dangerous prisoner?: BBC News Online's Chris Summers investigates the case of Thomas Silverstein, a man considered so dangerous he has been isolated from the outside world for 18 years. (Chris Summer, 8/10/01, BBC News)
    -ARTICLE: U.S. prison population soars in 2003, '04 WASHINGTON (AP, 4/24/05)