"So, how do they achieve this? By relying on an uncommon work force in Corrections."
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"One of our most gifted novelists." MICHAEL CONNELLY, author of the Harry Bosch series

Hello Everyone,

We're a month from the release of my new novel, The System, in the U.S. and U.K. Launching a book during a pandemic is not without its challenges—it has already taken away in-person events like bookstores and festivals—but it already looks as though we'll be able to do at least one really important thing...

United Kingdom: December Prison Outreach

I will be taking part in an initiative to encourage writing in UK prisons by partnering with The Reading Agency & the Prison Libraries Group. This will include an appearance on National Prison Radio, donating books to prison libraries all over the United Kingdom, and judging a short story contest for prison writers. I'm honored it has come together in the way that it has. As long-time readers of this newsletter know, I spoke to over a dozen formerly incarcerated folks (who spent time in California jails & prisons in the '90s) for research & background on The System, and they all spoke glowingly of the impact reading had on turning around their lives, so it feels only right that I continue to share in that spirit.

So, why the UK? Even prior to my work mentoring prison writers with PEN America, the UK has always been at the forefront of encouraging my outreach to incarcerated writers, including a special reading & signing event in HMP Greenock in western Scotland for the 2017 Edinburgh Book Festival.

Recommended: The Marshall Project's New Newsletter

Rather serendipitously, my favorite website on criminal justice in the United States—The Marshall Project—has released a new, limited-run e-mail series entitled, of all things, "The System." It bills itself as a breakdown on how the criminal justice system "actually works," & may well be an excellent primer prior to reading my novel next month. You can learn more about it, and even sign up, here.

Now then, for the newsletter this month, I'd like to delve into the time I spent with Special Agent Eric Kraus as part of the ongoing series only available to newsletter subscribers, I’ve been sharing stories from my 6 years of research on The System.

The Safest Jail in America?

I first met Eric Kraus for an early dinner at Amor Y Tacos in Cerritos, California a number of years ago. (If memory serves, I had a 3-taco plato--tinga de pollo, queso quemado, & short rib while Eric had a chop salad.)

Special Agent Kraus is calm, considerate, & forthright. That much comes across as soon as you meet him. He asks questions and leans in to listen. When speaking, he keeps his voice down, so you know his response is only for you—not the next table over, or anyone else.

He is an expert on white prison gangs (which led to a gig as an advisor on Ric Roman Waugh's Shotcaller, among other films), a part-time professor at Santa Ana College, & a major part of the Fugitive Task Force in Orange County. The FTF's mission is simple: when folks leave prison & commit further crimes--it is Eric's job to catch them as fast as possible. He once described his job to me as: "All the best parts of law enforcement, all the time: stakeouts, investigations, and captures. Our brief is keeping people safe."

He made it clear that this particular meal was a favor. He was only meeting me because he respected the person who had introduced us, & he also made it clear that he wanted to read my work before he agreed to spend any further time with me, a condition I readily agreed to. Then he asked me what the book was about.

When I told him that it would cover every phase of the criminal justice process (investigation, arrest, custody, and trial), he laughed, then said, "You're going to learn about all of that before you write it? Sounds like a ton of work!"

He wasn't wrong.

And so it was that we had a pleasant, if measured, dinner that lasted not much beyond thirty minutes, I paid, & we parted after I gave him a copy of Safe. He said he'd read it, & if I knew what I was talking about, he'd call me.

A few weeks later, he called and invited me to audit his class on prisons. I jumped at the chance. A major component of the course is understanding custody facility architecture (linear vs. modular): how to recognize it, and how to understand and plan for the different security needs of each. It also covered some elements of law, as well as prison gangs in California. The bonus, of course, is that he also took the class on tours of a number of facilities: Theo Lacy, Orange County Jail, the California Institutions for Men and Women in Corona, and the Santa Ana Jail. (As it happened, this laid the perfect template for how I approached all the other facilities I toured; I knew all the right questions to ask, & I knew how to show up prepared--essentially with my driver's license only, a notebook and a pencil; everything else got locked in the glove compartment of my car.)

In previous newsletters, I have discussed a few of these visits, especially Corona Men's side. Yet, what I've never written about before is my experience within Santa Ana City Jail, which might just offer a glimpse into some broader answers to crucial questions about the criminal justice system in America.

Santa Ana City Jail is a blocky box of concrete a stone's throw from the Orange County Jail. (In fact, they both share a parking garage.) SACJ houses federal prisoners awaiting court appearances, & a number of ICE detainees. Nearly all of their contracts, I was told, are federal, not state or local.

In terms of disciplinary record, it is one of the most exemplary facilities in America, having not reported an incident of violence in years. (At the time of my visit, I believe we were told the last incident was over 5 years previous.)

The reason why is they put a premium on respect for inmates and staff alike. No deputies carry weapons within facility. All issues are dealt with by clear communication. (This is easier, of course, in a modular facility when supervision can see every prisoner at all times.)

So, how do they achieve this? By relying on an uncommon work force in Corrections.

SACJ has a female warden and majority female staff (upwards of 60% at time of my visit) with no previous experience in Corrections. In fact, they recruit from one particularly surprising work background: retail. If you've worked at Macy's, Nordstrom, or in a boutique, they'll consider you. Their presumption—which has long since proven true—is that female supervisory staff are more likely to do deal with issues by reaching a solution by talking, and they recruit women who are excellent at being empathetic listeners & problem solvers.

What they have been able to achieve is nothing less than extraordinary. Our entire tour group entered a number of modules where the prisoners walked freely with jail staff, who operated from a small lectern--not unlike those found in university classrooms. It was in this way that I learned we were walking amongst incarcerated MS-13 gang members, as well as their rivals, with no discernible conflict present.

It truly was an extraordinary experience, & that was only one that Special Agent Kraus was able to connect me to; the book truly is so much richer for his wisdom, patience, & kindness.

Advanced Reading Copies for The System Are Available in the USA & UK

Ready to read it? For those who wish to read The System right now, & review on Goodreads, Amazon, or elsewhere, you can get a digital proof copy of the novel via NetGalley USA or NetGalley UK. If you've never reviewed before, fear not. My understanding is you can qualify so long as you promise to review honestly.

See you next month. In the meantime, please do stay safe & well.

All best wishes,


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