Caroline Giammanco is the author of the new book Inside the Death Fences: Memoir of a Whistleblower. It focuses on the Missouri prison system, where her husband, Keith Giammanco, is incarcerated. She also has written the books Bank Notes and Guilty Hearts. She teaches English at a high school in southern Missouri, and she lives in the Missouri Ozarks.
Q: Why did you decide to write Inside the Death Fences?
A: A few reasons led me to write this book. On a personal level, I'd heard the occasional comments from people who mistakenly assumed I'd only become involved in prison reform because my husband is incarcerated. Always quick to assume inmates are manipulative, people have questioned why I wrote my first two books, Bank Notes and Guilty Hearts.
In my first year inside the prison, before I ever met Keith Giammanco, several shocking and disturbing events happened to and around me. This was my chance to show that my experiences alone have been enough to fuel my reform work.
More importantly, people need to know what their tax dollars are paying for, which is a dysfunctional system that produces a very poor product for all the money we spend on corrections. Our communities are not safer when corruption keeps employees and inmates in worsening conditions.
Thanks to some breaking news stories in the past year or two, people are slowly starting to awaken to the fact that the "good guys" aren't always so good. News stories of employees being assaulted, kidnapped, or poisoned by order of their superiors--or at the hands of their superiors--and the millions of dollars that have been paid in lawsuits revolving around such cases, verify that my experiences were not isolated incidents.
As always, I wrote my story in as personal a way as possible. People don't usually respond unless their hearts are involved. Simply reciting statistics or charts from the Federal Crime Bureau doesn't have the impact of putting readers in the moment in the middle of the corruption.
Q: Do you think the problems you encountered are unique to Missouri’s system?
A: The short and simple answer is no. Prison systems across the country are plagued by corruption. I have been contacted by numerous people from across the country who have experienced the same types of corruption as I did in Missouri. In Seth Ferranti's foreword to my book, he says what he saw in federal prison is mirrored in my experiences.
Q: How is your husband doing now?
A: Keith is still incarcerated in Missouri. Because the U.S. Supreme Court in June chose to uphold the use of Dual Sovereignty, our legal recourse for his double jeopardy conviction has reached an end. We are currently working on a clemency effort. We are hopeful that Governor Mike Parson will take an interest in Keith's case.
Keith has spent nearly 11 years in prison and has a spotless discipline record. Unfortunately, Missouri does not give good time behavior credit, therefore Keith will be released no sooner than the biggest troublemaker in the system. He still has over six years before he is eligible for parole.
It's not always easy to keep our spirits lifted, but we are a powerful team, and we will meet whatever challenges are still ahead of us. Keith inspires me every day, and he is a remarkable man.
Q: What do you hope readers take away from the book?
A: I want readers to set aside the urge to punish for long enough to look at what's good for them. Too often, people believe that whatever happens to inmates is okay because they committed a crime.
In the long run, that's not going to create a rehabilitated inmate, and since 97 percent of all inmates return to our communities and the recidivism rate is 68 percent, those aren't healthy numbers for anyone involved. Dysfunctional prisons do not make us safer.
Beyond what happens to inmates, however, is the human toll on the employees who work in the prisons. We have thousands of state employees working in a taxpayer-funded department who live in fear every day of their lives--not just from inmates but from the dangers they face from coworkers or supervisors.
Missouri prison employees are under a gag order, but slowly some are willing to speak even if it is in shadow and with voices disguised. Even so, they fear retaliation. When the department's director and spokesperson directly contradict what the boots-on-the-ground employees are telling the media about assaults and riots, there is a serious problem. It's time we pay for a system we can be proud of.
Q: What are you working on now?
A: I've been writing some fictional short stories for fun, but the major project I've begun is a murder mystery inspired by a real-life event in my hometown. My childhood best friend was murdered in 2003, and this book will be filled with small town intrigue and the skills of a persistent journalist. While loosely based on my friend's death, this will be a chance for me to do some fiction writing after a long stretch of heavy-hitting nonfiction.
Q: Anything else we should know?
A: Thank you for the opportunity to do this interview. If readers would like to find out more, they can go join my fan page.
--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with Caroline Giammanco.