I-Team Reading Challenge — Unlawful Contact chat

    Welcome back to the I-Team Reading Challenge!

    First, let me apologize for Blogger. The colors in my sidebars here are all wrong, and they are unfixable. So if things seem weird looking, they are. It’s not you.

    Second, I’d love to hear from those of you who are participating in the challenge to hear how far you’ve come. I know some of you are already done, which is amazing.

    Third, thank to all of you for the wonderful birthday wishes! I had a wonderful day yesterday. Ronlyn sent me flowers at work, which helped brighten the day considerably. Beautiful yellow roses and daisies, they are so cheery and lovely! Then last night I went out to dinner with my parents, and my mother surprised me — that is far too mild a word for it really — by giving me my grandmother’s wedding ring as a gift.

    The ring — antique gold with an antique solitaire diamond — is so delicate and beautiful. My grandmother wore this ring on her finger when my grandfather was off chasing German U-boats in the U.S. Navy during World War II. She had two young children and a baby — my mom — and had to take care of them, plant and harvest the garden, tend the chickens and the goat. She had to wash laundry in a tub and run it through a ringer. Wearing it on my finger makes me feel very close to her and puts me in mind of the lives women used to live.

    Needless to say, I got all teary-eyed.

    But on to Unlawful Contact! Marc has waited long enough. And now I turn my blog over to Kara... Oh, wait.

    I guess I’ll share my thoughts about this book first.

    As all of you know by now, Unlawful Contact was based on real horrors that occurred in Colorado’s prisons. I began covering issues related to women in prison in 1997, when it dawned on me after some high-profile violence in the men’s unit at the local lockup that we never heard about women at our county jail. I called the sheriff and asked rather stupidly, “Do we have women in our jail?”

    Indeed, we did. But no one was looking at their situation. No one was reporting on issues that were affecting them such as separation from their children or the lack of training programs for women as compared to men or substandard health care for women. So I jumped into the deep end on these issues — quite literally.

    I worked with the county jail captain to be arrested on a bogus felony and locked away for 24 hours in the women’s unit with the inmates. It was the 24 scariest hours of my journalistic life and, I believe, my finest. During that 24 hours, chronicled in detail in my Goldilocks Goes to Jail diaries, I learned so much about the impact of violence on women’s lives. What is the No. 1 thing that most women in prison have in common? Childhood sexual abuse.

    I could go on and on and on and on about the things I learned in that precious, terrifying 24 hours. But we’re here to talk about Unlawful Contact. It was actually the second book I had planned for the I-Team series, but my editor thought the content was too dark.

    “You had some other idea, didn’t you?” she asked. “Why don’t you write that instead?”

    Okay, sure, except that human sex trafficking isn’t a light-hearted either. If the sexual abuse of female inmates is too dark, what about the sexual enslavement of teenage girls? Well, I didn’t ask that question. Instead, I wrote Hard Evidence, afraid the entire time that she would reject it for being too dark. She didn’t. And she let me move on to Unlawful Contact at that point without a single word about how dark the subject matter was. I guess I had convinced her I could handle it and still have a romantic story.

    There are so many real things in this story, from prison slang to inmates OD-ing in prison to the sexual abuse of teenage girls by adult male guards to the rape of parolees by a parole officer to the stillbirth of an inmate’s baby that resulted from neglect on the part of the guards to the shackling of pregnant inmates during labor.

    I lost sleep over these abuses. I lay awake at night thinking about these women, feeling rage and despair that we as a society could take people and treat them like this. It wasn’t the fact that they were behind bars. It was the fact that their sentence came with grotesque violations of their human rights. The guards who methodically raped those teenage girls got less time in prison than the girls were serving in juvie. Rape and abuse and the loss of one’s baby should never be part of a person’s prison sentence.

    All of my passion for this topic — women in prison — went in to writing Unlawful Contact. I actually got out my old case files and read up on minute details. The autopsy report I describe in the story is from a real autopsy of an inmate who overdosed. The details of certain acts of violence are straight from my interview notes. (Note to the reader on Goodreads who said that the violence in the book is clearly exaggerated and that the author resorted to hyperbole: In fact, she did not.)

    Then at the end of the book I engaged in a fantasy that all the wrongs were corrected, that new laws were passed, that the bad guys were defeated and there was liberty and justice for all who deserved it. But it was a fantasy.

    Unlawful Contact came out in 2008. I tried that year to get a senator friend of mine to carry a bill that would outlaw the shackling of inmates during labor and delivery. He was not interested in carrying such a bill. I waited, did other things. And still I was haunted by the idea of women being chained to beds during the hell that is labor.

    As most of you know (or maybe not), last year I took up that issue again. I started from the beginning, spending months negotiating my way into the Denver women’s prison. I was not honest about why I was there; I told them I wanted to see what kind of prenatal care the women got. What I really wanted to do was get the inside scoop on shackling. Within a month, I had the detailed research I needed to take to lawmakers. I arranged for a meeting with the senate president (a wonderful man from my town). He listened. He was appalled. And thus the ball finally started rolling on what eventually became Senate Bill 193. I wrote the first draft of the bill, was the primary expert who testified on this practice in the House and Senate committee hearings — and the damned bill passed with only one “no” vote (from a lawmaker who is currently hungry for my support of one of his bills). The whole drama of the shackling bill is preserved on this blog for anyone who wants to search for that label.

    For me, the bill’s passage felt like the culmination of so many years of hard work. More than that, it made it easier for me to sleep at night. And a strange thing had occurred — fact had become fiction had become reality. Is that life imitating art? Not sure. But can you see what it meant to me?

    When I think of Unlawful Contact, that’s what comes to my mind. Let me put it this way: Extreme Exposure was based on one five-month-long investigation. Hard Evidence grew out of a single cover story and several interviews. But Unlawful Contact was the bringing together of more than a decade’s worth of experience covering prison issues.

    (Similarly, Naked Edge was more than a decade of reporting on Native issues and close ties and friendships with Navajo people, as well as my own catastrophic climbing accident and a lifetime lived with rock jocks and other crazies. But Gabe has to wait for his own turn...)

    In terms of the fiction, writing Marc was pure pleasure, though Julian was such a tough act to follow that I was really off-kilter for a while. Julian kept stealing scenes, and I had to keep cutting him out. The scene in the cabin when Julian finds Sophie... Let’s just say no one who loves Julian loves him more than I did in that moment when I wrote that scene.

    The tension between Julian and Marc was the beginning of a wonderful bromance that has continued to bring me joy in my writing up through and including Breaking Point. In fact, I think it kind of reaches new heights in Breaking Point.

    As for the scene that made some readers hate me: Sophie spat out the morning-after pill. Get over it! I am not a guidance counselor, sex educator, nurse, Planned Parenthood PR person or in any way responsible for ensuring that people use contraception. Sophie loved Marc. She knew she might lose him at any moment. Quite literally any moment. And she let nature take it’s course. I would do the same in her shoes. If you don’t like that, feel free to throw the book against the nearest wall.

    To this day, Unlawful Contact is a very special story for me. I cried so hard when I wrote that scene at the end that made all of you cry. I played “A Time for Us,” the love theme from the 1968 Romeo and Juliet over and over again to make myself as sad as I could possibly be, and I wrote my way through an entire box of tissues to make that dark moment seem real.

    If I can say one thing about all of my books, it’s that I’ve always felt that romance could be about something. I’m not trying to push a political agenda. I’m not trying to tell anyone how to vote or what to think. I just want to write stories that reflect the world in some way and that resonate back out into the world.

    And that’s what I have to say about that book. If anyone has actually read this far, congratulations! And I appreciate it.

    So now I yield the floor...

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