Writers all know how important setting is for their stories. A well-written description of a place and its surroundings can seem just as alive as any hero or villain. Authors like James Lee Burke use setting as if it’s one of their book’s main characters, with emotions, scars, and varying moods. Burke, of course, is a master of the craft. With his exquisite lyrical style a reader can almost smell the Louisiana swamps when they open one of his books.

I sometimes wonder if setting plays a role when Virginia prison officials choose the locations for their corrections facilities. Do the directors purposely place the cold and lifeless concrete, steel, and razor wire facilities among some of the prettiest scenery the Commonwealth has to offer? Is the contrast between cinder block and chain-link and rabbits and pine trees an integral part of the state’s criminal justice?

First, a little background information:

By the time you read this blog, the notorious D.C. Sniper, John Allen Muhammad, will have been executed by lethal injection at Greensville Correctional Center (GCC) in Jarratt, Virginia. Greensville, as it’s referred to by the locals and by corrections employees, was built in the late 1980’s and opened in early 1990. Residents of town of Jarratt strongly opposed having the mega-prison built in their community. After all, the prison was designed to hold over three-thousand maximum security inmates. At the time, the entire population of Jarratt was barely over 500. The disproportionate odds were unnerving to many of the local folks. To add insult to injury, prison officials announced that GCC would also be the new location for the death chamber, where all state executions would take place.

The town of Jarratt is situated within two counties, Greensville and Sussex. The town’s main street is basically the county line, which means that part of the residents live in Greensville County while the other half lives in Sussex County. This also means the town is patrolled by two separate sheriff’s offices. The Sussex County Sheriff has jurisdiction over one-half of the town and the Greensville County Sheriff has authority over the other. However, a mutual agreement between the two sheriff’s allows deputies from each department to make lawful arrests anywhere within the town limits. By the way, the town does not have a separate police department, and the nearest sheriff’s office is eleven miles away.

At the time when GCC was in the planning stages, even though the local residents opposed the prison, both sheriffs lobbied to have the facility built in their county. Their unusual desire was fueled by the fact that a sheriff was allowed to have one state-funded deputy per 1,500-2,000 county residents, and that number includes a prison’s inmate population. GCC’s 3,000 prisoners would allow the local sheriff to hire two additional deputies, an increase in manpower of nearly 20% for the Greensville department.

The state finally decided to build the prison in Greensville County, at the edge of Jarratt’s town boundary. They purchased 1,105 acres and constructed a semi-circular grouping of buildings on the center 125 acres. A new road, Corrections Way, leading to the facility was built, and suddenly the sleepy section of southeastern Virginia that was once home to the Meherrin Indians, several Civil War battles, and Henry Jordan of the Green Bay Packers, was changed forever.

The prison’s cells were built off-site and delivered to the site on large trucks. They were fabricated as two 70 square-foot cell modules complete with all wiring, plumbing, TV connections, ductwork, desks, and bunks. Once the modules were on-site they were stacked on top of one another, or placed side-by-side in their proper configurations. Workers then connected all utilities until the large 3-D puzzle was completed and inmates began to arrive by the bus load. The new paint hardly had time to dry before officials fired up Old Sparky, the state’s electric chair.

How does all this connect to a book’s setting?

(This is a fictional account of what may have happened on the day the DC Sniper was transferred to GCC from Death Row. )

John Allen Muhammad, the D.C. Sniper, was shackled like the condemned man that he was. Guards fastened a bullet-proof vest around his torso and then led him to a white prison van.  With each step the leg irons dug into the tender flesh around his ankles. He climbed into the van and then slid across the bench seat, looking out through the metal screen covering the rear windows. He was leaving Sussex I and Death Row, headed for Greensville Correctional Center and the Death Chamber. The sobering fact that this was a one way trip made him swallow hard.

The drive was short, forty miles or so. He could see the brake lights from the support vehicle in front. Headlights in the rear were from another prison van. Both carried heavily armed guards. He’d seen their automatic weapons and shotguns before they got inside. The DOC wasn’t taking any chances. They didn’t want anyone to kill their passenger before they had a chance to do it.

Route 40 was two lanes. A double yellow line ran down the center, split occasionally by dotted lines for passing. At 4am, traffic was light. The vehicles that did pass were probably guards on their way to work at one of the area prisons. There were several – the largest employer in the area, followed by plywood plants and farming. A beat up Ford truck pulling an aluminum boat passed by. The guard waved to a driver he couldn’t see. A southern thing. They all do it.

The entourage turned left on 301, instead of I95. Stony Creek. A one-horse town. Nothing there but a truck stop, a hotel, and one traffic light. He remembered passing through the area when going to D.C. from Alabama. Or maybe it was Louisiana. He couldn’t remember. Everything was a blur from back then.

The asphalt was uneven. Pot holes the size of hubcaps. No street lights. It was pitch dark. He couldn’t remember ever seeing that many stars. Country-ass place.

The turn signal on the van in front began to blink, indicating they were turning right. Corrections Way. The road looked out of place. The new pavement was extremely wide with freshly painted lines down the middle and near the shoulders. A crackle spewed from the guard’s walkie-talkie. He held it close to his mouth, mumbling something Muhammad couldn’t understand.

They drove for a mile on a road that was as straight as a yard stick. The shoulders were narrow, dropping off into ditches filled with black, brackish-looking water. A couple of raccoons ambled along the edge of the pavement, turning to look at the van when it rolled by. The animals’ yellow eyes seemed to look directly at Muhammad. He shivered.

They rounded a curve to the right and were suddenly bathed in the hot white light that illuminated the grounds of Greensville Correctional Center. The place was freakin’ huge. A gun tower was directly in front of the van. A guard holding a high-powered rifle in the crook of his left arm stood on the catwalk.

The entourage stopped. One of the guards in the lead van got out and walked to the sally port. The driver of Muhammad’s van rolled down his window. Muhammad leaned toward the opening and took a deep breath knowing it would be his last taste of fresh air. Outside, a frog burped out a steady melody. Bats flew in wide, quick loops around the large lights. Catching bugs, Muhammad thought.

Wispy tendrils of steam rose from a storm drain near the main gate. He smelled freshly cut grass. The inmates from the camp must have mowed the lawn earlier in the day. The odor reminded Muhammad of that parking lot in Maryland, the one where the guy was cutting the grass at the auto mall. Or was it when that woman was reading her book?

They all seemed to run together.

Did he pull the trigger on both of those?

The sally port gate opened and all three vans pulled inside.

No more fresh air.

It would all be over soon.

John Allen Mohammad

Officers searched cars in the D.C. area after one of Mohammad’s shootings.

The Death Chamber at Greensville Correctional Center

11/10/09 – A vehicle carrying Mohammed’s body leaves GCC enroute to the morgue in Richmond where an autopsy will be performed.

Mohammad’s attorney, Jon Sheldon, is led away from the press conference at GCC by a fellow attorney.

People for and against the death penalty wait outside Greensville Correctional Center for the news that Muhammad had been executed.

Mildred Muhammad, ex-wife of John Allen Mohammad

*Reuters photos

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Writers Police Academy

There has been a slight delay in getting the Writers’ Police Academy registration online. We want to make sure everything is perfect before we do open registration. Hopefully , we’ll see it in a day or two. Thanks for your patience.

There is a test page up at www.writerspoliceacademy.com so you can get an idea of what the site looks like.  Keep in mind that this is just a test page. There are still a few errors, missing information, and incomplete text.

Remember, the hotel has limited space due to other large events in the area. Please register early! In fact, some people have already begun securing their rooms. If you plan to attend the academy I strongly urge you to do the same.

Yesterday, I attended a very interesting Sisters In Crime meeting in North Carolina. The drive over from our house was quite pleasant. Traffic was light and the scenery was outstanding. No one was in a hurry, which is pretty normal for these parts. And that slow pace gave me time to really take in my new surroundings.

It’s fall in our neck of the woods, and the area trees have gone way above and beyond the call of duty to provide us with a spectacular showing of color. Even though it was a sunny day, there was a slight crispness in the air that reminded me of growing up in the south. Sometimes, on cool autumn nights, my mother would load a cookie sheet with freshly-dug peanuts, right off the vines and still in their shells, and roast them in her old gas oven. The smell of those toasty legumes would quickly fill the house, drawing my father, my brother, and me to the kitchen like hogs to slop (I’m trying to fit in my new hood. Is it working?). There’s not another smell (the peanuts, not the hogs) like that on earth. It’s wonderful.

For me, the south is peanuts, tobacco, soy beans, red clay, pork barbecue, sweet tea, sitting in the shade, lightening bugs, catfishing, good friends, magnolias with leaves as large as dinner plates, and kids that still say “Yes Ma’am” and “No Ma’am.”

What the south isn’t, is the stereotypical place that’s filled to the brim with dumb redneck men, and wimpy, faint-at-the-drop-of-a-hat, women. However, there are some people below the old Mason Dixon line who still think the woman’s place in this world is in the kitchen, not writing books, or anywhere else that doesn’t involve cookin’, cleanin’ and birthin’ babies. Which brings me back to the Sisters in Crime meeting and one of the topics we discussed – writing cross gender.

The timing of this meeting with a group of strong, successful women writers, was perfect. I’d just finished reading a book where the author chose to write the female hero as a wimpy, yet over the top character who couldn’t make a move without consulting her male partner. This so-called hero, who, while lacking in basic skills like decision-making and backbone-wearing, could fly helicopters, shoot any weapon known to mankind, and build explosives and other handy-dandy life-saving devices out of household products, such as oatmeal and dental floss. Yet, she dressed in high heels and low-cut tops while saving the underdog from death and destruction (I’m sorry, but it would be nearly impossible to chase down and fight a bad guy while wearing sexy platform slingback heels). She used her femininity to the point of being downright slutty. In other words, the author committed what I believe to be one of the deadliest writing sins ever – thinking female cops are wimps, therefore overcompensating for what the writer obviously thought was the protagonist’s major flaw, being a woman.

Folks, there’s no need to do this. In fact, please don’t do this. To write female cops in this manner and style is a real show-stopper for me. I’ve worked with many female officers in my day, many of whom were quite feminine, and every single one of them were every bit as suited for the job as their male counterparts. Actually, many women score higher than men, academically, in the basic police academy. Some female trainees outperform men in various practical exercises as well, and continue to do so throughout their careers.

On the street, female officers are equal to male officers. Sure, some female officers excel in certain areas, while other duties aren’t their strong points, but the same is true for male officers. Bravery is not an issue for officers of either gender. I’ve been in some pretty tough situations where my backup was a female officer, and in each situation the woman jumped into the fight without hesitation. Again, there’s no difference in the job performance of the two sexes.

Female and male officers receive the same training, wear uniforms manufactured by the same companies, take the same oath, drive the same patrol cars, carry the same weapons, and arrest the same bad guys. Male and female detectives work the same cases. They solve the same murders, question the same witnesses, raid the same crack houses, and testify in the same courts. So why write male and female cops differently? Why do the writers of the Castle TV show write the female M.E. weaker than the male M.E.? Why is she a wimpy character? His character is certainly very strong.

The problem, I think, with people writing opposite genders is that some authors simply try too hard. Being a woman is not something that should require an apology, which could be what all this over the top stuff is all about.

Sgt. Kimberly Munley, the hero at Fort Hood.

What do you guys think? Why do some authors write women heroes differently than they pen their male protagonists? Are there authors who do a good job at writing opposite gender? If so, who are your favorites?

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Writers Police Academy

There has been a slight delay in getting the Writers’ Police Academy registration online. We want to make sure everything is perfect before we do open registration. Hopefully , we’ll see it in a day or two. Thanks for your patience.

There is a test page up at www.writerspoliceacademy.com so you can get an idea of what the site looks like.  Keep in mind that this is just a test page. There are still a few errors, missing information, and incomplete text.