With the express intent of busting out of my oh-so-comfortable action-thriller box, I’d concocted and sold this career-shifting pitch to Paramount. It was a tear-jerker of a melodrama that took place both in and outside a maximum security prison. But for that one unforgettable night I’d spent in a South Bay jail cell, I hadn’t a glimmer about what life was like “on the inside.” Thus I felt some research was in my immediate future. I made a few calls and secured myself an invite to the infamous Folsom Prison.
Cue the Johnny Cash music.
It was going to be a simple day trip requiring an early morning flight from Burbank to Sacramento, a rental car, and a promise to the War Department to be home before Leno. Since the studio needed to approve my sortie, I dialed up the project’s producer, the one and only Mark Gordon, and ran my prison plan up the flagpole.
“Sounds like a good idea,” said Mark. “Where you going?”
“Folsom Prison,” I said.
“The Folsom Prison?” asked Mark.
“There’s only one,” I said.
“Want some company?”
“It’s prison, Mark. Dangerous men. Don’t think it would be a good idea to send Betsy.”
“Not talkin’ about Betsy,” he said. “I wanna go.”
“You sure?” I said. “It’s up and back in the same day.”
“Yeah. Let’s do it.”
So that’s how it began. We inked it for a coming Friday. We flew, grabbed lunch in quaint, historic Folsom, then arrived around one in the afternoon at the outskirts of the old prison. The hand-cut granite walls and turn-of-the-century guard towers loomed in the distance. Massive gates and no visible windows for those locked inside to peek at the world outside.
But first, we needed to formalize our prison business. We shook hands with the guards assigned to conduct the tour then proceeded to climb into some fudge brown jumpsuits.
“What are these for?” I asked.
“So fellahs in the towers can tell you from the prisoners.”
“What’s wrong with what we’re wearing?” asked Mark.
White shirts and blue jeans were the traditional uniforms of the Folsom incarcerated. As it turned out, Mark and I had both chosen to travel in our own spin on casual Hollywood chic. In other words, precisely the same garb as the convicts.
“Whoops. Didn’t get the memo,” I recall saying.
Next, Mark and I were directed to review and sign a couple of legal documents. Having already been prepped via phone, I knew what the signatures were for so I was quick to scrawl out my name. Mark, on the other hand, wisely didn’t want to scratch his name on anything without it getting looked over by an attorney. With none present, Mark tried to unscramble the legal mumbo jumbo on the printed form.
“What’s this for?” asked Mark.
“It indemnifies the State of California and the Department of Corrections from liability,” said the Tour Guard.
“Liability from what?” asked Mark.
“In case,” said the Tour Guard. “Things like riots and whatever.”
“You have a lot of riots?” asked Mark.
“Hardly never,” said the Tour Guard. “But the D.O.C. makes everybody who visits sign.”
Mark continued to read the document.
“Essentially what you’re signing is this,” I explained. “It gives the guys in the guard towers—you know, the ones with the high-powered rifles? It gives them the right to shoot us.”
“You’re shitting me,” said Mark.
“It’s real,” I said. “It’s a deterrent to keep the prisoners from taking us hostage. This makes sure they have no leverage.”
This was all on me for not having informed my travel companion on all the Folsom fine print. My bad.
“So if the prisoners take us hostage,” confirmed Mark, “We’re giving the guards permission to blow our heads off.”
“Pretty much,” I smiled. Not that I was laughing in the face of imminent danger. Like I said, I’d already been given the details and dangers over the phone. So I was sanguine with the deal. Somehow, I’d forgotten to tell Mark… and my wife.
“Look,” I apologized. “If it’s too weird for you, then we can do what we can without the prison and I’ll come back another day.”
“No, no,” said Mark. “If you’re good, I’m good.” But then he turned to the Tour Guard and asked, “It is safe, right? You do this all the time?”
“Why we have the forms to sign,” said the Tour Guard with a grin. “Haven’t had to shoot a visitor yet.”
“That’s comforting,” said Mark. We all laughed and began the short drive to the prison.
If you haven’t seen photos of the famed Folsom State Prison, think The Shawshank Redemption. Completed in 1920 from granite and sweat, it’s housed more killers than Quentin Tarantino’s imagination.
After walking through a few electronically operated locks, we found ourselves walking across a neatly mowed grassy area and into a widened space filled with picnic tables, a baseball diamond, and exercise equipment. As the Tour Guard rambled about architecture and history, Mark began to gaze at the men ambling about wearing the same casual chic we’d arrived in.
“Excuse me,” interrupted Mark. “But where are we now?”
“This is the main yard,” said the Tour Guard.
“You mean we’re inside the prison?” asked Mark.
“Yes, sir,” said the Tour Guard.
“So these guys walking around…”
“I… I… I… didn’t know,” said Mark. “… that we’d be inside the prison. The actual prison.”
“What did you think?” I asked.
“I thought we’d be just outside, you know?” said Mark. Then he laughed, “Sorta like a zoo.”
“That makes sense,” I said, joining in.
“Prisons aren’t built for spectators,” said the Tour Guard. “You’re either inside or outside. No middle ground.”
I began to wonder if the sortie was a mistake. Was Mark suddenly looking pekid? Or was that his normal pallor from years spent indoors either grinding or cajoling agents and executives via the telephone or reading countless lousy scripts in search of Saving Private Ryan.
Yes. I said Saving Private Ryan . Mark spent years developing the classic war movie with my old college classmate Robert Rodat before Steven Spielberg had so much as heard of it. And if this reads like a shameless shout-out to the talented duo, so be it.
Now, back with the story.
Noting how pale Mark appeared, I asked him if he was okay.
“Fine, fine,” he said. “Any more surprises?”
“Plenty,” joked the Tour Guard.
“Okay,” laughed Mark. “So bring ’em. And let’s hope I don’t get shived.”
I believe we walked every cell block. Learned that despite our liberal thoughts on segregation, keeping the race populations separate was a matter of life and death on the inside. Then after interviewing a couple of lifers who spent their days in the prison library, we stopped by a guard’s station that was only yards across from a prison shower. About twenty naked inmates waited their turn at one of the six nozzles streaming freezing cold water. Two women guards stood watch, blasé about the endless parade of male anatomy.
Mark and I were kind of shocked though. Then he gamely joked:
“Maybe we should’ve brought Betsy.”
“Isn’t this dangerous duty for women?” I asked. “I mean these guys are killers and rapists.”
“In fact,” answered one of the duty guards, “The inmates are extra polite to the women guards otherwise they’ll find a nightstick upside their skulls.”
“Seriously?” I said.
“Ask ’em,” suggested the Tour Guard.
And that’s just what I did, siding up to one of the women guards for a brief interview. Meanwhile, Mark had spotted himself an old, rotary-styled phone sitting on the duty desk. Only the phone had no dial. Mark asked if the phone connected to an outside line. I’m not certain anybody had ever asked before.
“Just need to call my office,” said Mark.
Moments later, Mark was hooked up to his Paramount office via the prison operator. Once he was connected to his assistant, he could roll all the calls he wanted. I grinned and watched as Mark, with his feet up on the desk, mere yards from violent—not to mention—naked felons standing in line for a twice-weekly shower, returned some of the two hundred or so calls he gets in a day.
“Hey, buddy,” said Mark with his trademark greeting. “Guess where I’m calling from?”
I think Mark must’ve returned twenty calls. Me? I didn’t have any calls to make other than to the War Department to tell her all was well from inside Folsom State Prison.
“Inside?” asked the War Department.
“Yeah,” I said. “Across from the showers. Lotta naked killers and such.”
“Guess I’m the one missing out,” she laughed.
Of course, Mark and I survived the excursion. And the script I eventually penned made Mark cry before he’d turned the last page. The studio, it appeared, was equally moved. Lights were green as far as I could see. But then I received this fateful call from Mark.
“Hey, buddy,” said Mark, his voice no longer buoyed by his usual ebullience. “I’ve got good news… and I’ve got bad news.”
Next week, PART 2 of ACTION PRISON BLUES.
Read my new thriller, THE SAFETY EXPERT. Available in trade paperback and ebook at Amazon.com and Barnes and Noble.