Entering a maximum security joint gets to you. The sights, smells, tastes, sounds, and dreariness of a prison envelope you even if you are an outside observer.
Readers often ask me if I posed as a convict when I went into Leavenworth for what turned out to be a one year-long period and the answer is no. Convicts survive by reading others, quickly identifying who they should be suspicious of and who can be preyed on. While Hollywood might think posing as a predator is possible, hard-core convicts can tell instantly if someone is faking it.
Consider how Carl Bowles, a triple killer who has spent nearly all his life in prison, knew from asking a new convict just two questions that something was odd.
“First time in a penitentiary?” Bowles asked.
“Where you from?”
“A state joint in Michigan.”
That was enough.
“There are only two reasons why the federal prison system (Leavenworth) accepts a state prison,” Bowles told me. “The guy is either such a mean son-of-a-bitch that the state joint can’t handle him or the state has to get rid of him because he’ll be killed by convicts if they put him in a state joint. Now, even an idiot could see that this guy ain’t no ruthless motherfucker, so I figured something was wrong with him.”
It turned out that the convict had kidnapped, molested, and murdered several children — crimes so monstrous that state prison officials had hidden him in Leavenworth just as Bowles suspected.
Of all the guards and convicts in my book, I’m asked the most questions about Thomas Silverstein, who stabbed a guard to death in 1983 and has been kept under “no human contact” ever since. When I met him, he was locked in a basement cell buried so deeply under the prison that the only sounds were the buzzing of the fluorescent lights in the ceiling. Those lights were kept on twenty-four hours a day. Imagine being locked up in total isolation inside four walls since 1983 — your only contact is with guards who detest you — and the entire time the lights are kept burning non-stop.
That is Silverstein’s world. Little wonder that he spends much of his time drawing disturbing sketches.
Even though I saw fist-fights, guys stabbed, and acts of tremendous bravery and savagery, my most frightening moment in the Hot House came while I was talking to a convict about his dreams. It was his words that scared me:
When I first came in back in ’78, I was always in the free world when I dreamed at night, but recently I stopped dreaming about being outside. Now, even in my dreams, I’m in the penitentiary.
I’ve been dreaming a lot lately and having this same dream a lot. I’m coming up the tier and there is a riot and guys are sticking all the snitches and burning the prison. In my dream, I go into this room where there are four or five of these little turd guards. You know, the ones that always act so tough and always give you a hard time by messing with your mail. Super cops.
These pigs are crying and moaning and begging for their lives and I walk up and down looking at them, and suddenly I grab one of the fat hacks by his curly hair and I jerk him out in front of everybody and I tell him to pull down his pants and he is begging me not to kill him and he is crying about his wife and kids and telling me how he is sorry for everything he has done.
After he drops his pants, I order him to turn around and bend over, and when he does, I rip off his shorts and I start fucking him… and then out of nowhere I suddenly have a knife and I start stabbing him in the back over and over and over again.
What’s wild about this dream is, it’s black-and-white until I start sticking this pig and then everything shoots to Technicolor. Brilliant colors, man. Bright reds, yellows, greens.
I used to dream about women, beautiful women with great big tits.
I used to dream about being on the street or in the backyard with my old lady and kids.
But this is what I dream about now. I dream about fucking a fat prison guard and stabbing him in the back. It’s scary man.
I wonder what I’ll be dreaming a year from now, you know, or maybe five years from now. I wonder what I’ll be dreaming when I finally get back on the streets.
The Hot House was a regional best-seller in hardback (number 6 in Chicago) and a best seller regionally in paperback (number one for three weeks in Denver).
The Hot House
Life Inside Leavenworth Prison
With the cooperation of the Bureau of Prisons, Pete Earley spent much time from mid-1987 to mid-1989 at Leavenworth, a maximum-security institution whose nickname, the Hot House, derives from its lack of air conditioning despite the searing Kansas summers. An explosive eyewitness portrait of life inside the notorious prison, Earley spent two years among 1,400 of the nation’s most dangerous criminals to write this gripping, New York Times bestseller investigative report.