My guest is best-selling author, John Lescroart. Welcome back to OpEdNews, John. You have a brand-new book out, The Keeper [Atria Books, May 6, 2014].
JB: Congratulations! In it, you take readers inside the prison system to an unprecedented degree. Why did you decide to focus for this topic in your 24th book, the 16th of the Dismas Hardy/Abe Glitsky series?
JL: In this writing business, you're always looking for something topical to set a book apart from its brothers and sisters. And especially with a long-running series, this is even a more critical criterion. Now it so happens that prison reform has for a long while been a hot political issue in California -- I actually took a look at some of the problems confronting the prisons and the California Correctional Police Officers Association ("CCPOA") in my novel, The Hunt Club, back in 2006 -- and if anything, it's only gotten more controversial. Inmates are being released because of overcrowding; health care within the prisons is terrible; smuggling is rampant; there are literally dozens of ways that the prisons don't work very well.
In The Keeper, I wanted to bring all this a little bit closer to home and concentrate on San Francisco's county jail system. (Much to many people's surprise, jails and prisons are not the same.) Keeping things unique and interesting in San Francisco, it is one of the few American cities where the city and county share the same borders, so there is a continuous (if mostly low-key) jurisdictional anomaly where the Sheriff's department (the county) and the San Francisco Police Department (the city) both work in each other's territory, as it were.
I thought it would be fun to play with this tension. Also, one of the truisms I discovered in researching this book is that the jail's inmates are in many ways a truly invisible population. Nobody spends a lot of time worrying about them, even though the environment is ripe for abuse. If somebody dies in jail, well, it's probably not going to make headlines. In any event, I thought that putting the jail in the center of this book's conflicts would add an unusual and powerful element to what is otherwise a highly domestic story.
JB: Yes, the entire incarceration system is definitely broken. Despite (or because of) the anomaly that you just pointed out, do you think that San Francisco's jails are any more poorly run or more corrupt than elsewhere?
JL: Not necessarily. But I do believe that because of the "invisible population" that I referred to earlier (the inmates at the jail), there is a great potential for corruption. And if something bad happens in jail, the "usual" course of justice does not necessarily apply. The Sheriff in San Francisco is really not answerable to too many other people or agencies, and if he decides that he's going to bend or break some rules, very few people feel that they are in a position to call him on his actions. He is, in a real sense, a law unto himself, with a great deal of both political and man power and a large budget. Who wants to step outside their own jurisdiction to worry about justice in a fiefdom that largely runs by its own rules? This is the situation that I decided to explore in The Keeper.
JB: What kind of research did you do for this book? Did you actually visit the facility? If so, were you welcome?
JL: Funny you should ask. Introduced and disguised as a "Sacramento lawyer" by a connected friend of mine (as you know I am not an attorney and never attended law school), I went and visited the jail. The first moment inside, an inmate in a holding cell just inside the door sprang forward, swearing and spit on me. After this introduction, and quite a bit shaken, I toured the whole facility -- one of the scariest hours of my life. After I got out, I went across the street to meet the friend who'd arranged the tour and he was waiting with not one, but two martinis, knowing that I'd need them. And I did.
JB: Now that you've downed those martinis, if you wouldn't mind, I'd like to know more about your foray "inside". Often, the biggest threat is actually from those running the facility and not the incarcerated. Did you have any interchange with the management? And how did that go?
JL: My foray inside was really pretty uneventful after the initial moment. I had no interchange with the management at all. The guard who showed me around was polite and informative and, given the fact that he thought I was a working defense attorney who'd just been spit on, anxious to make sure that nothing else so dramatic went on that afternoon. Nevertheless, I came away from the experience with a great sense of dread and helplessness. I've talked in my books about trying to "humanize" defendants while they are on trial, and the thing that I brought away from my limited interaction with the jail population is that they become dehumanized, zoo animals to be herded and caged.
JB: Those serving longer terms are further isolated and dehumanized in the process. We have 6.9 million people either incarcerated, on parole or probation. Here's an astounding quote [from a recent episode 5/21/14 of Crossfire, co-hosted by Newt Gingrich and Van Jones]: "Thirty-eight U.S. states are home to fewer people than live under the corrections system in this country." So, we're talking about a major growth industry in America.
Let's flip the coin for a second. While it's pretty well accepted that serving time takes a toll on one's psyche, what's less often discussed is the toll taken by those who man the facility. Is it possible to do such a job and hang on to your humanity?
JL: This is one of the main issues that I address in The Keeper. The close fraternity of the general law enforcement community is exaggerated when a relatively small group of these people work together daily in a constant state of danger and/or privilege. Though many jail guards take their jobs and responsibilities very seriously, the environment itself reinforces an us/them dynamic between the guards and the inmates that is heavily weighted on the side of the guards. These are people who see themselves as basically under siege at all times. And in many ways, this perception is pretty much correct.