Hello! Happy new year! So, back to work, eh? 🙂
Our upcoming guest on Crime Cafe podcast is crime writer Ellery Kane, who has a most interesting occupation, which she’ll tell you about in her guest post today. Along with said guest post, she’s giving away signed copies of two of her books!
Now, that’s an awesome giveaway! 🙂 Just be the first person to email Ellery at this address: firstname.lastname@example.org. Just mention the podcast giveaway in your email.
Here’s the guest post then!
Tomorrow, I return to prison. But don’t be alarmed—I work there. For the past twelve years, I’ve spent a few days each month at various prisons in California conducting psychological evaluations of inmates. It may seem strange to find inspiration in prison, but for a writer, inspiration is everywhere. My experiences in prison have helped me to create many of my favorite characters, like Butch Calder, the newly paroled lifer and Clive Cullen, the serial killer you’ll love to hate. Most recently, my day job inspired The Watch Her Vanish series.
Though it’s old hat now, it wasn’t always this way. Before I started this job, I’d never even been inside a prison or a jail, my perceptions gleaned mostly from a combination of Lock-Up and Shawshank Redemption. When I took my first trip to Pelican Bay State Prison, one of several maximum security facilities housing the most dangerous offenders, it was a shock to the system. And yes, I felt afraid.
I was outfitted in a stab-proof (!) vest and escorted into a barren conference room, where I waited, trying not to wonder why I needed to be stab-proofed. Like many inmates at Pelican Bay, the man I was scheduled to interview was a validated prison gang member. He, like most of the inmates I interview, had committed murder almost a lifetime ago, before I was born. Two officers escorted him inside the small room…that suddenly felt a lot smaller. He was cuffed and wearing a white jumpsuit. I caught my breath. The air felt electric. He was an imposing man, tall and muscular, with long, graying hair and a face as hard as steel. For the first time since I started working as a forensic psychologist, I wondered if I was cut out for this. The look in his eyes suggested he knew my doubts. The guards ushered him inside a therapeutic module, a metal cage, where his handcuffs were removed. He stared at me expectantly. Here goes nothing, I thought, as I began my interview. There’s no backing out now.
Since then, I’ve evaluated over one thousand inmates and fielded countless questions and comments from family and friends, including:
Why would they ever let a murderer out of prison? Aren’t they all high risk? Though we’re often told past behavior is the best predictor of future behavior, it’s not always that simple. Murder is a low recidivism crime, which means that, in general, it’s not likely to reoccur. Many of the inmates I evaluate were incarcerated in their early twenties or late adolescence (and are now fifty years old or older); have been incarcerated for many years; have come to terms with their past behavior; and have made positive changes in their lives. Parole statistics in California and elsewhere have shown that life term (and long term) offenders are among the lowest risk for reoffending.
Have you evaluated any psychopaths? Thanks to popular media and shows like Dexter, psychopath is the new buzz word. Type that word into Google, and you’ll instantly uncover hundreds of checklists that promise to tell you if you’re a) dating a psychopath; b) employed by a psychopath; or c) are a psychopath yourself. The bottom line is that like many psychological concepts, psychopathy exists on a continuum. All murderers are not created equal and the vast majority of individuals who have taken a life do not meet the criteria for psychopathy as defined by Robert Hare. Hare created the PCL-R to help psychologists and other professionals identify the presence of psychopathy in individuals. Despite what popular media would have you believe, psychopathy is quite uncommon. Some estimates suggest that 1% of the population possesses the traits of a psychopath; however, in my experience working with inmates—many of whom have committed murder and other serious crimes—I would posit that number to be far less. Only a handful of the thousand or so inmates I’ve evaluated score high enough on the PCL-R to warrant this dubious distinction. Recent research tells us that the brains of psychopaths are different than so-called normals, with psychopaths showing reduced connections in the areas of the brain responsible for empathy and guilt, and the amygdala, which governs the sensations of fear and anxiety. However, it’s possible to have a psychopathic brain and not BE a psychopath. Just ask researcher, Dr. James Fallon, who was startled to discover that an MRI he dubbed to be psychopathic belonged to himself. Psychopathy is a continuum, and expression of psychopathic traits is likely mediated by environmental factors, such as problems in early attachments and exposure to trauma. Don’t be surprised if you have a few psychopathic traits yourself!
How can you talk to these inmates? I could never listen to all those horrific stories. One of the most important parts of my job as a forensic psychologist is being able to maintain emotional distance from my work. Easier said than done, right? Because most of the inmates I evaluate have committed murder, I’ve read about and heard a lot of frightening, disturbing, sad, and gruesome things. It’s often the cases you least expect that stick with you, but I believe all of them have made an impact, even if only subconsciously. I find myself looking over my shoulder a little more often and, sometimes, imagining the worst-case scenario in relatively benign situations. I’ve read so often about murder that a part of me expects to see it around every corner.
For me, writing has been a great outlet to tap into and express a lot of the emotions I experience as a psychologist. So tomorrow, I’ll venture back behind the fence. There’s inspiration there.
Forensic psychologist by day, novelist by night, Ellery Kane has been writing—professionally and creatively—for as long as she can remember. Just like many of her main characters, Ellery loves to ask why, which is the reason she became a psychologist in the first place. Real life really is stranger than fiction, and Ellery’s writing is often inspired by her day job. A Texan at heart, Ellery now lives in the San Francisco Bay Area of California, a picturesque setting that provides the backdrop for many of her novels.
Ellery was previously selected as one of ten semifinalists in the MasterClass James Patterson Co-Author Competition and is the author of the Doctors of Darkness, Rockwell and Decker, and Legacy Series, with two standalone thrillers from Bookouture coming in 2022.
Ellery can be found at ellerykane.com, on Facebook at www.facebook.com/TheLegacyBooks, and on Twitter @ellerykane.