On Thursday I had the opportunity to speak to more than two dozen inmates in the prison library at the Minnesota Correctional Facility in Shakopee, which is an all-women facility (and the only state prison for women in Minnesota). Eagled-eyed readers will remember that Serena visits an inmate at the Shakopee facility in STALKED, before her terrifying drive back to Duluth.
It's a prison that doesn't look like a prison at all. There is no fence. No barbed wire. From the outside, it looks more like a series of college dormitories. It's not until you go inside that you find the guards, the metal detectors, the bullet-proof glass, and the locked doors. Even so, the facility feels more like a community than it does a traditional prison, and that's deliberate. There's even a parenting building in the complex in which children sometimes spend the night with their mothers under certain conditions.
Are there violent offenders at Shakopee? I'm sure. Was I talking to any of them? I don't have a clue. I will say that listening to the women, I was reminded of the philosophy behind my psychological suspense novels - that the heroes are not all good and the villains are not all bad. I want the reader to understand the backgrounds of the characters so they can recognize the influences that led them across difficult lines and into some bad choices. I think that message resonated at the prison. I hope so.
These were ordinary women of various ages and ethnicity. I confess I found myself looking at many of them wondering: What are you doing here? How did you get here? But that again is the writer looking for the story. They asked great questions - in many cases, better than many reporters and book clubs with whom I've chatted in the past. As the librarian noted to me, these are women looking for the emotional makeup of the characters, and so their questions got to the heart of how you put a character together on the page.
The lightest moment was during the introduction. The librarian mentioned that one of the inmates at the facility had introduced her to my books and was a huge fan. She'd been released a month before the event. The librarian said it was almost a shame, because she knew this woman would have loved to meet me.
"I suspect she's still happier anyway," I said. They all laughed.