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Inside : THE HOT HOUSE: Life Inside Leavenworth Prison By Pete Earley , (Bantam Books: $22.50; 383 pp.)

February 16, 1992|Charles Bowden | Bowden's most recent book is "Desierto: Memories of the Future."

Carl Bowles spent his days tending flowers in front of the Leavenworth prison hospital building.

He became so zealous about nurturing his tulips and morning glories that guards began to call him a "flower child." One day, in a reshuffling of the administrators, he got a new boss who told him the garden had to go. So he ripped up all the plants he had coddled for months.

Bowles felt bitter about killing the only things he loved and said, "I have spent twenty-three . . . years of my life in prison. Doesn't that count for something? Is there some redeemable value to me? If not, then what . . . is the point of all this? If all this is meaningless, then why not take me out to the city dump, hit me in the head with a hammer, and leave me with the garbage?"

Bowles was born in Lubbock, Tex., in 1940 and was sent to the Texas reformatory at age 15. He got out after nine months, and within four weeks shot a boy and got four years in the federal youth facility at Englewood, Colo. He got out after two years, within two months stole a car, was jailed in Oregon, escaped twice, and was sentenced to eight years in prison. He got out after six years in 1965, immediately began a crime spree, held more than six people hostage, then kidnaped a family, and finally killed an Oregon policeman. He was 25 years old and given life for murdering the cop. Nine years later he got a four-hour pass to visit a girlfriend, escaped, broke into the home of Earl C. and Viola Hunter, an elderly couple, took them hostage and a few miles from their home shot them in the head and left them dead in a field. He got a couple more life sentences. His education ended at age 11 and except for a few months on the street, he has spent his entire life since age 15 in prison.

Bowles and half a dozen other characters are the vehicles that Pete Earley uses in "Hot House" to show us the world of Leavenworth. Before we had schools of journalism, there was a straightforward task called reporting that took you where you had not been, and told you what you had not known. This book is by a reporter, and gives the reader reporting at its very finest.

Earley came and went in prison from July, 1987, until July, 1989, with the complete freedom, day or night, to talk to anyone. He had a simple idea: "By observing the routine, rather than the aberrant events in the prison, I hoped to understand the inmates, the men who guarded them, the institution itself."

Sometimes he did not enjoy this new understanding. One night he was talking to a convict when the singing of Hank Williams Jr. roared from a radio in the next cell. The convict, a murderer, got up, plucked a knife from a hiding place, excused himself and walked next door. The music stopped. Later, the man explained that, yes, he would have killed his neighbor for "disrespecting" him if the noise had continued. He would have killed him by a technique called "run the gears." "You slam a shank into his chest," the man explained, "and pull up and over and down and over, just like shifting gears in a car." Earley notes, "It is difficult to peer into such blackness without eventually being sucked inside."

"Hot House" is a book that sucks one deep into the darkness. Leavenworth opened for business in 1906. Its first inmate was a Native American named John Grindstone (who also became the first corpse in the prison's Mount Hope cemetery). By 1987, the federal system had 47 prisons, a staff of 13,000 and 44,000 convicts, and Leavenworth, called the Hot House because of the furnace-like Kansas summers, was the elite spot (along with Marion, Ill.) because it got the toughest inmates and the toughest guards.

From 1958 to 1975, the system dedicated itself to a belief in rehabilitation of the inmates through a theory that saw criminal behavior as a sickness. By 1987, even the memory of this belief had largely vanished, and the system was dedicated to keeping criminals locked up and guards alive. Thanks to tough federal sentencing guidelines, the system is booming and anticipates 17 new prisons by 1995 and an inmate population of 85,000 to 125,000.

Constructed much like a novel, "Hot House" follows a clutch of characters whose lives unfold over the two years Earley poked around Leavenworth: Carl Bowles, the killer, who is looking for the perfect friend; Robert Matthews, the new warden, who is anxious to rise in the system (being black is greeted at first with hostility by the guards); William Post, the Catman, who raises cats in prison, cons various lonely women on the outside, and keeps his soul alive by remembering a shootout with the cops; Dallas Scott, one of the founders of the notorious white-power gang, the Aryan Brotherhood; Norman Bucklew, a killer, bank robber, escape wizard and self-conscious professional criminal; Eddie George, the tough but fair guard; Bill Slack, the humanitarian in charge of a wing of Cuban boat people, who tries to reach inmates with something beside simple force.

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