Hands down, The Hot House: Life Inside Leavenworth Prison is one of the most interesting books I have read all year. Also, it is the furthest from my "norm" of books I generally pick up to read. I think it's great to have friends with completely different tastes in books...I gave my friend The Book Thief to read, and she really liked it. To be fair, I had to read one of her books. She generally reads true crime and non-fiction books about prisons--two genres I NEVER venture into. I have had The Hot House for several months, and it took a combination of the looming end of The Non-Fiction challenge as well as a bit of feeling guilty for having the book so long to force for me to finally start reading. Once I started reading, I couldn't put it down!
Pete Earley was the first person ever to be given access to a maximum-security prison, and he basically spent two years of his life inside the prison walls. He conducted hundreds of interviews with the inmates and guards of Leavenworth Prison, which is "...the oldest federal prison, and one of the most dangerous in the nation." Why did he want to put himself in such a dangerous situation day after day for two years? I asked the same question before I started reading, and he answers the question very early in the book:
We are all affected by crime, even those who are never directly victims. We avoid walking the streets of major cities at night for fear of attack. We are not permitted to board an airplane without first walking through a metal detector. We awaken in the middle of the night startled by a noise and lie paralyzed with fear that an intruder is lurking in the shadows. Who are these
criminals who terrorize us? (36).
While Earley interviews a large number of inmates, there are six in particular who are willing to be open with him and frequently talk with him. They have a broad range in age, background, crimes committed, and length of time spent in prison. Not all of the inmate had terrible childhoods, filled with abuse and neglect, although many of them did. Several of the inmates mention their principles, and how important it is to stick to them. They know that their values are not the same as most peoples', but they are proud to have stuck with their principles before and while they are in prison.
Some of the inmates describe their crimes, while others tell about their families, what they were like before prison, what upsets them about the prison system, and what survival methods they have learned. Some dream about the day they will walk free, and several have actually escaped and experienced freedom for a time before being caught. The inmates who had absolutely no hope of ever being released had to learn how to spend their days without going crazy.
Earley also interviews many prison guards. I found their stories to be just as interesting as the inmates. Many of the guards grew up in the town of Leavenworth, and it was very normal for them to work at the prison after high school. Prison brutality was common, but many of the inmates would do terrible things to the guards as well. Some of the guards seemed to enjoy the power they had over others, while others wanted to do their jobs well, and believed in humane treatment for the inmates.
In his book, Earley does not have a hidden agenda. He is not pushing for prison reform or arguing there should be longer sentences or harsher treatment of convicted criminals. Instead, he gives an unbiased look into the prison system, and into the lives of the inmates, guards, and prison officials. (Note:Because of the nature of the book, there is quite a bit of language, as well as some disturbing descriptions of events.)
Date Completed: August 31, 2008
Number of pages:441