From the outside, Soledad prison in Central California is as stark and imposing as a prison is meant to be. With acres of farmland separating it from everything else, except the prison next door, it’s sort of a town in and of itself.
What would happen if a man who’d been wrongfully imprisoned for fourteen years was finally exonerated but knew the prison gang he’d joined in order to survive would kill his sister and her kids if he didn’t continue to support their illegal activities? How would he ever really “get out”? And what would happen if, in exchange for his sister’s protection, this man was willing to go back inside a different prison in order to expose a new gang? To complicate matters even more, what would happen if the Assistant Deputy Warden of this Supermax, a woman, wasn’t pleased to have such a man in her prison because she knew there was no way to protect him?
Whatever happened, it would involve plenty of danger, I knew that much. The potential for high-stakes conflict against such a gritty backdrop got me excited to write INSIDE. But I knew, in order to pull off the story the way I wanted, I’d have to make the setting more believable than ever—and that meant I had to go “inside” myself.
I didn’t have any contacts at Pelican Bay, where the story is actually set, but I drove the long windy road from my home to explore the area. And I contact a friend in corrections who could get me a tour of Soledad Prison in the Central Valley.
On the morning my husband and I were scheduled to tour, we arrived to find a line of people already at the entrance, hoping to visit a friend or loved one. Those at the back grumbled about how difficult it was to get in, but we were there for a different reason and were lucky enough to have an escort—Investigative Officer David Doglietto, or Dog as he’s called. Once he met us, we passed through the metal detector and signed in without a problem. Then we were taken to another checkpoint, where we again showed identification and were admitted to a long building with a surprisingly casual atmosphere. Maybe it was the mural-covered hallway, but it felt more like a high school to me—until we reached the cells.
Knowing Soledad housed Level 3 offenders, some of whom had committed serious crimes, as evidenced by the pictures we saw of gang stabbings and the instruments used to perpetrate this violence, I didn’t want to be left alone with any of the inmates. But those we encountered as we moved from R&R (Receiving and Release), the dining hall, the various cell blocks, P.I. (prison industries) and the yard, typically nodded hello. Some even muttered a greeting before striding past us with much more of a sense of purpose than I expected. Of course, Soledad isn’t Pelican Bay, where I chose to set INSIDE, the first book in my new trilogy, but it provided me with a rare and intriguing up-close encounter with California’s prison system, and that made it possible for me to create an especially authentic setting, one that showcases the extreme risks my hero, Virgil Skinner, takes when he agrees to go undercover inside the concrete walls of a prison notorious for housing “the worst of the worst.”
Despite all the things I’ve seen on TV, or perhaps because of them, I didn’t realize just how difficult it would be to spend years upon years in such a place (some programs paint prison as too hard, others as too soft). The degree of difficulty became clear to me, however, when Dog asked two inmates to come out of their cell and allowed me to go in. I’d been in empty cells before, but never an occupied one, and it was a completely different experience. With two small TVs playing (each occupant had one rigged above their bunks), personal items stacked wherever they’d fit, laundry strung across the entrance, and my husband behind me, there was so little space I could hardly turn around. I have to admit feeling a moment of panic when Dog closed the door—and I knew I wouldn’t have to stay.
In addition to touring Soledad prison, I visited Crescent City while researching INSIDE, the small city along the Northern California coast, only twenty miles south of the Oregon border, near which you’ll find Pelican Bay. Nearly four hundred miles from Sacramento and San Francisco and eight hundred miles from Los Angeles, Crescent City has been called “California’s Siberia,” and its remote location definitely adds to the mystique of the prison. Although I wasn’t allowed to take pictures at Soledad and was afraid I’d be arrested if I tried taking pictures at Pelican Bay (which might look suspicious), I took quite a few snapshots of Crescent City, which I loved despite the trouble involved in getting there.
Setting remains an important element in the two following books, IN SECONDS and IN CLOSE, which take place in a small fictional town in Montana near a dot on the map called Happy’s Inn (The Thompson Chain of Lakes area). I became aware of this part of the state when my best friend talked me into going with her to visit her parents, who live on one of the eighteen lakes within fifteen miles. We thought it might be fun to have some “girlfriend” time in an out of the way place that doesn’t even have cell service, and it was. As with the prison setting of INSIDE, I quickly learned that this area was a world in itself. Locals warned us to keep an eye out for bears, which are prevalent there, everything in the stores boasted huckleberry flavor or scent, articles appeared in the paper about mounting problems with wolves and every call to the sheriff’s department, no matter how inconsequential (and most were inconsequential) was reported to the public. I loved it!
As the mist rose off Crystal Lake on a cool November morning, I sat in my pine-scented room and wrote a good chunk of IN SECONDS. Although book two and three of the trilogy don’t utilize any of the prison research I did for book one, except when it comes to the escaped convicts who become the villains, I feel their setting is just as authentic—and unlike Pelican Bay or Soledad, Happy’s Inn (Pineview in these stories) is somewhere I’d like to return. I hope you’ll feel the same.
To learn more about Brenda Novak, please visit her website.