Interview with Caroline Giammanco, author of “Inside the Death Fences”

Caroline Giammanco—college educated, daughter of a deputy sheriff—seems an unlikely candidate to find herself inside a maximum-security prison.  When she got a teaching job at the South Central Correctional Center she assumed she’d need to watch out for the inmates, but she soon learned that the greatest risks were often posed by the very people employed to keep the public safe. Giammanco’s experiences working inside a prison are detailed in her upcoming book, “Inside the Death Fences: Memoir of a Whistleblower.” I received an advance copy, which I’ve already reviewed on my blog, and I found that I was still thinking about the book, days after finishing it. I made contact with Caroline Giammanco and asked if she would be willing to let me interview her for my blog. Luckily for me, she said yes!

LB: So, I recently had the opportunity to read your fascinating book “Inside the Death Fences”, and I’m curious; have you always liked to write, or was it your life experiences and a desire to communicate them that made you want to start?

CG: I had always been able to write well, but I never felt a purpose to before my world changed.

LB: Do you have any favourite authors – particularly of memoir or nonfiction more generally – who you found inspired you?

CG: Two of my favorite books are The Great Gatsby and To Kill a Mockingbird. They aren’t nonfiction, but they highlight the humanity of situations, strengths and weaknesses. In all my writing, whether nonfiction or fiction, I try to make it a story about people and not just events or statistics.

LB: That makes a lot of sense. Inside the Death Fences isn’t the first book you’ve written, but it seems to contain more of yourself than your previous books. Was the process of writing it very different?

CG: Writing about my own experiences was different. I felt a lot of pressure with my first two books because those were other people’s stories and I wanted to do them justice, so to speak. With Inside the Death Fences, I didn’t have that pressure because I had lived every bit of it. The hardest part was knowing I could have written a lot more, such as extensive details about the impact on rehabilitation and recidivism, but I’d dealt with that in my first two books and needed to keep this book focused to my experience as an employee. It would have been 800 pages long otherwise.

LB: That makes sense. Were there any scenes or sections that were particularly difficult to revisit while you were writing them?

CG: The worst chapter for me to write about was when I talked about being suicidal. The events leading up to that are still emotionally rough for me.

LB: It’s definitely very raw to read. Were there any scenes that you considered not including, either because they were too personal to you or you worried about how the people portrayed might react, which still made it into the book?

CG: I wasn’t sure if I should include the part where I turned the tables on the wardens when they singled me out over going over on leave time. I’ve since had people tell me they loved it.

LB: It’s a very satisfying scene! And actually, it’s a good example of something I’m curious about. There’s a lot of dialogue in the book, including in that section where you stand up for yourself and turn an unfair situation to your advantage, but also in much smaller or more incidental interactions that appear in the book. Do you have notes from any of those conversations that helped you recall what was said, or were you just being as accurate as you could from memory?

CG: I documented events at the time, and I also have an exceptionally good memory. It was actually my boss, the educational supervisor I talk about, who told me to document everything.

My ex-husband will vouch for my ability to recite word-for-word a conversation from years before.

LB: That’s quite a skill – bet it comes in handy during arguments! I do think your attention to detail really comes across while reading the book.

CG: It does, lol. People want specifics.

LB: Absolutely. Do you have any favourite details that got cut during editing?

CG: There was an incident I considered putting in the book that I didn’t, that maybe I should have. It was an incident that happened with my carpool partner as he, Keith and I left work one day. It illustrated how even good people could be tainted by the prison culture.

We were walking down the sidewalk, and out of the blue he said, “One of these things is not like the other!” which is a line from the famous Sesame Street song. I knew what he meant, and I could tell by the hurt look on Keith’s face that he knew too. I looked at my coworker and asked him what he meant. He said, “One of us dresses differently than the others.” Because Keith wore a prison uniform, the guy thought he was being clever.

I stopped and turned to face both of them. I said, “You’re right! That’s ME–I wear a bra!”

Immediately, my coworker knew how terrible he’d been. He never apologized to Keith, but he did to me multiple times that night and the next day in the carpool. He was an otherwise good person who still dehumanized an inmate just because he could.

LB: Hah, that was a nice turnaround on your part! And interesting (and sad) that your coworker never felt the need to apologise to Keith. I imagine it was pretty common for people working in the prison to make jokes at the expense of inmates, not considering their feelings. In your experience, how much of an impact does that casually unkind “humour” have on the emotional wellbeing of prisoners?

CG: It’s devastating and teaches them all the wrong lessons. They are made to feel worthless and that as long as you have the upper hand you can be abusive. That’s not a good lesson to teach.

At least my carpool partner felt some remorse. Too many don’t or think it’s all part of the job.

Caroline Giammanco with her husband, Keith Giammanco, who she met while teaching in the prison.

LB: There are clearly major problems within the prison system, and they run deep. Honesty and bravery like yours are a big part of exposing these issues so they can start to be addressed. Where do you think change has to start?

CG: Change starts with awareness in the public and a change in the mindset that inmates deserve to be abused in prison. That free pass for the system allows criminal behavior by state employees to run rampant. In reality, the Lord of the Flies mentality of running prisons makes our communities less safe, costs excessive amounts of money, and results in high recidivism.

Once the public demands change, politicians will be forced to address the issues and to institute policy and practice changes. Right now, the prison operates behind the curtain of the illusion of keeping us safe.

Neither employees nor inmates should be subjected to the current prison culture.

LB: I absolutely agree. For people who read your book and want to contribute to change, what do you recommend they do to take action?

CG: Ask hard questions of their elected officials. Demand proof that the politicians have an active role in overhauling the system. Hold them accountable at election time. Run for office themselves. Politicians too often try to deflect responsibility or completely capitulate their power by shrugging their shoulders and saying that’s just the way prisons are. They’ve said that to me. That’s not acceptable.

LB: Thank you so much for your time and agreeing to this interview, I found your book fascinating and it was a real gift to get this additional insight into it. I hope others who read “Inside the Death Fences” will find themselves, as I was, compelled to look more closely at the systems we assume to be working for our benefit.

If you’re interested in reading “Inside the Death Fences” for yourself, you can preorder it now on Amazon UK or Amazon US. It comes out on the 1st of July. You can also check out Caroline Giammanco’s author fan page on Facebook!

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