Friday, July 23, 2010

Million Dollar Riot

By Sean Black

Intro by Russel D McLean

I'm fairly harsh on my action thrillers. Its the rare one that combines truly gripping writing with a believable and exciting plot. But a few people manage it well, including the delightfully dangerous Zoe Sharp and the terrifyingly talented Brett Battles.
Now I can add a new name to my Top Action Thriller Writers List (tm): Sean Black. His debut, LOCKDOWN (out now in paperback!) was one of those books I simply devoured upon first read. His hero, Ryan Lock, could seriously kickthe arses of both the Jack's (yeah, I'm talking both Bauer and Reacher) without breaking a sweat. In short, these books are the perfect burst of adrenaline. And they're bloody well written, too. One of the things that interested me most about Sean as an author was his dedication to research. Unlike many authors, he doesn't thrust that research in your face, but its there and it informs the action of his novels in a subtle and convincing way. So I was delighted when Sean - yeah, we can call him Sean; DSD's a lovely, informal blog - agreed to guest blog for me while I'm away at Harrogate, talking about some of the incredibly intensive and practical research he did for his second novel, DEADLOCK.

And let me just add that DEADLOCK - I had the honour of reading an advance copy thanks to the lovely folks at Transworld - is a brilliant thriller, with a very nice central conceit as it sends Ryan Lock undercover to protect a federal witness in a maxiumum security prison.

But enough from me. Here's the man himself:

Thanks to Russel for lending me his usual Friday spot. This week sees the publication of the second book in the Ryan Lock series. The book is called DEADLOCK and it sees Lock going undercover inside Pelican Bay Supermax Prison in California where he has one week to keep a leading member of the Aryan Brotherhood prison gang alive until he takes the stand to testify against his former compadres.

To research the first book in the series, which was also my debut, I underwent an intensive three and a half week bodyguard training course in the UK and Eastern Europe. Living in barracks with over a dozen other men, as well as the rigors of learning the close protection game, took me well outside my comfort zone. DEADLOCK would take me even further outside those boundaries.

In January, 2009, after an extended period of negotiation with the California Department of Corrections, I arrived at Pelican Bay. The statistics surrounding this institution tell you all you need to know about the environment I was entering.

The Bay holds three and a half thousand men. Somewhere between seventy five and eighty percent of those men are serving sentences of life without possibility of parole. It has no death row, that's at San Quentin, but it does have a Secure Housing Unit which is home to around twelve hundred men who are locked down for twenty three out of twenty four hours.

I was already aware of the prison's no hostages policy before I drove the seven hours north from San Francisco. My permission to visit was granted at the last moment. I was told not to, under any circumstances, wear anything blue in colour. The inmates wear blue and so it would be an escape risk for me to wear it. Also, if there was an incident on the yard, sometimes live rounds are fired, so it was important for me to be visible. I promptly went out and bought the reddest shirt I could find.

Part of the reason for the hesitation in allowing me access was that the week before there had been a riot on the main yard. Riots are not infrequent at Pelican Bay. Racial tensions, powerful prison gangs, and a healthy commerce in all range of goods and services conspire to create a lively atmosphere among men who are especially articulate with their fists and spend large amounts of time either working out or fashioning makeshift weapons.

This time the flash point had been a white inmate who on the outside was a member of the Crips, which is a predominantly African-American street gang. On arrival he had been advised to associate not with his fellow gang members but with other white inmates. As I was told by a guard, as far as the white inmates are concerned a white man who associates with black men 'is lower than a child molester' in the prison pecking order.

Having ignored some well meaning advice, the end result was inevitable and they showed me the footage. There is no pavement dancing as a prelude to an attack on the yard; no veiled threat; not even a succession of body language signals. There is only brute and brutal violence, swift and without warning. Violence on the yard doesn't so much break out as descend.

There was an almost comedic pause in the first few seconds after the young Crip was attacked. You could almost hear the wheels of his African American compatriots turning over. He was one of their own and yet he was other. Finally, they piled in to aid their fallen brother and it descended into a scene from Braveheart with tear gas taking the place of a misty moor.

Then came the puff of dust. Tiny. Barely perceptible. The first gunshot from the tower signaling that playtime was over, the point had been made, and now it was time for everyone to kiss the dirt or face the consequences.

On New Years Day, 2000, thirteen inmates at Pelican Bay were shot during a major riot. Miraculously, only one inmate died. It took a hundred and twenty guards a full half hour to stop the violence. But as I walked the yard one statistic was pressed upon me by my guide. The medical bill had been a million bucks.


Mike Dennis said...

Sensational post, Sean. You're right. The stats, cold as they are, tell the story in their own inimitable way. It must've been quite an experience.

Steve Weddle said...

sounds great

Unknown said...

fascinating stuff. that's another writer to be added to the TBR pile.

Rebecca Cantrell said...

Great post! You realize you are making the rest of us look like wimps in the research department, right?

As a girl nerd, I feel obligated to tell you that in Star Trek, the guy wearing the red shirt always dies, in Buck Rogers it's orange (and often just kidnapping).

Just in case you need to make any more prison fashion decisions.