Prison insiders view their lives within Leavenworth's walls

March 15, 1992|By Hiawatha Bray | Hiawatha Bray,Knight-Ridder News Service

THE HOT HOUSE: LIFE INSIDE LEAVENWORTH PRISON.

Pete Earley.

Bantam.

381 pages, $22.50. The federal prison at Leavenworth, Kan., was designed to resemble the Capitol in Washington.

The architects weren't making a joke. At the turn of the century, when Leavenworth was built, many correctional experts believed that a well-designed, well-run prison could convert hardened criminals into model citizens.

What would those innocents have made of Leavenworth today? Eight decades after it opened, it houses 1,400 of the nation's most brutal and least repentant criminals -- mobsters, bank robbers, rapists and cop killers.

Yet even these monsters have tales to tell -- and so do the prison officials who keep them in their cages. Veteran reporter Pete Earley has collected their stories in this harrowing book.

In 1987, he persuaded federal prison officials to give him free run of Leavenworth for two years. Mr. Earley was given a special pass that let him come and go as he pleased, any time of day or night. He was given permission to speak with any convict, guard or prison official.

What he wasn't given was protection. Once the cellblock doors closed behind him, he was on his own, armed with only a notebook.

Mr. Earley could have written about his experiences as an outsider on the inside, but he's too shrewd for that. Instead, he records the experiences and thoughts of the real insiders, the people who live and work in a very dangerous place.

The convicts damn themselves by their own words. These are some truly evil men, proud of the horrible things they've done. Yet they retain just enough wisdom and compassion to prove themselves human.

There's Thomas Silverstein, the convict so hated by Leavenworth's guards that they refuse to speak to him. Like Hannibal Lecter, the maniacal killer in "The Silence of the Lambs," Mr. Silverstein lives under constant surveillance in a solitary confinement cell where the lights burn around the clock.

Mr. Silverstein says prison officials do it to torture him. He's right. They're upset that one of the four men he murdered was a prison guard. Yet even he can arouse sympathy, so relentlessly cruel is his confinement.

None of this sympathy comes from Robert Matthews, the first black warden of Leavenworth. He's a tough workaholic with no sympathy for the criminals in his care, but a determination to treat them with as much kindness as the law demands.

Through Mr. Matthews, Mr. Silverstein and others, Mr. Earley tells us the story of Leavenworth. In the process, he creates an exceptional work of journalism, a frightful, depressing survey of criminal America.

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