By Jenny Hilborne
Author of mysteries and psychological thrillers
Authors are some of the most fascinating people. Almost every time I meet one, I come away with an intriguing new story. Often, it has to something to do with research they've conducted for a novel, as was the case last Saturday with one of thirteen authors who attended a public library book signing event in San Diego.
In researching one of my books, I spent hours inside a police station, experienced the arrest procedure, and found myself locked inside a cell. I wasn't expecting the lock up. The police sergeant treated me to that to give me a true flavor of what a prisoner goes through. The heavy slam of the thick metal prison door and the isolation in a cold concrete cell is something I'll always remember.
One thing I haven't done as part of my research is actually talk to an inmate. I'd love to do it and hear the words of those doing it the hard way. Apparently, it's not that easy to arrange.
One of the mystery authors at the Paradise Hills Library event told me about his interview at San Quentin State Prison with a serial killer. While the shivers ran up my back at the idea of sitting a few feet away from a shackled serial killer, I was engrossed...and a little envious.
Once the prisoner agreed to the interview, arranging it took months. Preparations included a full background check on the author, who told me he got the opportunity via personal connections. Without those connections, he may never have had the chance.
When the day arrived, the author was allowed to take a notepad and pen in with him. He was granted one hour to conduct his interview with the serial killer. An hour with a violent offender seemed like a long time to me. As described by the author, the prisoner was sufficiently shackled with his movements severely restricted. The inmate could bend his head forward to take a sip of his drink, and not much else.
After the interview, the author said he had to hand in his notes for inspection...or scrutinization before he could leave. Every page was carefully examined by the prison guards.
I asked the author his feelings...was he afraid, nervous? Was it difficult to think of questions to ask? What was it like to talk to a man convicted of serial murders? I imagined I'd have butterflies at the very least. (That's a polite way of saying I think I'd be crapping my pants). The author said he felt no fear. In fact, he felt perfectly safe. He said the prisoner was "reformed" and it didn't feel like he was talking to a serial killer at all.
I used the quotation marks around "reformed" as I had to take a step back at this point in our conversation and ask the author, "Can it be so? Do you truly believe anyone convicted of such atrocious crimes could ever be considered reformed?"
The answer surprised me.
The author explained how the inmate killed during a "blackout."
"What does that mean?" I asked, my first thought being of electrical failure.
In this case, blackout meant under the influence of drugs and alcohol. The author said the prisoner battled with severe addictions and told that him he would "wake up" and find himself covered in blood, with no knowledge of what had happened. He knew he'd killed someone in a violent rage, but was not conscious of doing so at the time. Now that the inmate is no longer controlled by those substances, he no longer suffers from those faults. He is reformed.
Fascinating. Even if I wasn't sure I was convinced, it sounded plausible. The more I listened, the more willing I was to consider it possible. I love psychology. It makes the lines between good and evil that much more complex.
For the rest of the signing event, the question rumbled around inside my head: Can a violent offender, such as a serial killer, ever truly be considered reformed?
What are your thoughts?
Authors: have you had the opportunity to interview an inmate? What was your experience?