The Four Stages of Cruelty: A Novel

The Four Stages of Cruelty: A Novel

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by Keith Hollihan

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Ditmarsh Penitentiary holds many secrets within its walls. A maximum-security prison, it contains every breed of hatred, self-destruction, greed, and regret. Its inmates aren't the only ones who grapple with these emotions. Under constant threat yet given absolute authority, the guards routinely cross the divide between law enforcement and


Ditmarsh Penitentiary holds many secrets within its walls. A maximum-security prison, it contains every breed of hatred, self-destruction, greed, and regret. Its inmates aren't the only ones who grapple with these emotions. Under constant threat yet given absolute authority, the guards routinely cross the divide between law enforcement and criminality.

Corrections Officer Kali Williams takes pains to avoid the complicated traps of inmates and guards alike. Then a young inmate named Joshua comes to her for help. He claims that another prisoner has drawn an elaborate comic book, which holds a guide to the illicit underworld of Ditmarsh. The struggle to obtain the information encoded in its pages has been the cause of ever-increasing violence throughout the prison.

At first Kali can't take Joshua seriously. But soon afterward, the artist-inmate disappears completely. As she retraces his steps, she enters a labyrinthine world inside the prison with unexpected connections to the outside world. Along the way, she uncovers the most bewildering secret of all ...

Keith Hollihan's The Four Stages of Cruelty is a story of the mystery of human compassion, the twisted forms it can take, and the violence and redemption it makes possible.

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The Four Stages of Cruelty

By Keith Hollihan

St. Martin's Press

Copyright © 2010 Keith Hollihan
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4299-2705-5


I can think of no gentle way to begin.

I need to explain why the biggest mystery for me was not how an inmate could go missing inside a maximum security penitentiary, nor what the drawings meant, or even who was involved in the murders. The thing that stays with me, like the memory of a limb now gone, is the mystery of human compassion. The twisted variations of it, the love and the hurt, the obsession and the neglect, the abuse and the need, all commingled and bound. Although I am as cynical and skeptical as can be expected, given my experience, I am not one to deny that genuine relationships can form between inmates and corrections officers. I do know, however, that those relationships are almost universally based on some form of trade, a commerce of getting by. You need them as much as they need you, and I will admit that debts accumulate and sometimes must be paid off in ways that compromise what you think is right. This can happen to any of us.

My name is Kali Williams. I doubt that my parents, when they changed a few letters in the more conventionally spelled Kaylee, knew they were naming me after the many-armed Hindu goddess of darkness and destruction. But out of that dull midwestern instinct to be safe but slightly different, I sprang: a personality of sharp edges and bruising elbows.

If this were just a story about Ditmarsh Penitentiary and my work within it, I would probably start by discussing the routine and even the incidentally interesting aspect of being a thirty-nine-year-old female — one of only 26 women on a corrections staff of 312 — providing daily operational security over 950 (plus or minus) hard-core assholes, sex offenders, addicts, liars, serial felons, white-collar dick suckers, gangbangers, and relatively honest murderers. I enjoyed my job. I liked the bang and clang of the cellblocks, the armored ease you needed to show in getting by, the acute attention to psychology and mood. For the most part, the bullshit bounced off me, the rat-a-tat routine of jokes and looks, the subtle grind of male criticism disguised half-assedly as helpfulness. I never questioned the right and wrong of the work — it was pretty goddamn clear to me, and still is — but there were times when I got stuck wondering how I'd become this person who wore the belt and jangled the keys and relied on the way the quick decisions got backed up by the remorseless rules. Nothing good came of those moods, however, and I avoided them as much as possible. I have an irritable impatience for the overly steeped, self-pitying emotions of anyone with too much time on their hands, including, and perhaps especially, myself.

This is not about my job, though, or about me; it's about what happened, and all those mysteries I mentioned, and the mystery of compassion most of all. Even when I found the body dangling from a door in the abandoned cells beneath the prison, so terribly abused, it was the absence of compassion, the lack of pity in the place, that hit me hardest. Though surrounded by the dark output of violent lives, I had never before seen the ravages of such unrestrained brutality. I forced myself to edge past, pressing up against the cold wall where the scrawled drawings were most tangled, in order to see the face. In that dead gaze, was I the delayed rescuer or another tormenter? I'm not sure I can answer without sorting through the events that led up to it. As I said, I can think of no gentle way to begin.


I liked the in-between times, too. It was the illusion of control, the condensed privacy. The post-dinner lull was a favorite of mine, a period in which inmate frustrations seemed to ebb and alpha energy got transferred into focused tasks. Even in the winter I often crossed the yard when I moved from building to building, avoiding the tunnels just to take it in. The cell lights showed narrow slashes in the granite, like countless white crosses in a military cemetery. In the mess hall, you knew the born-agains were with group. In the gym, the squeak and snap of basketball. In the library, the amateur lawyers searched for precedents like paleontologists dusting off dirt-covered rocks. In their cells, the book readers flipped pages of dog-eared mysteries, hoping the endings hadn't been ripped out. At key-up, when we sealed the cells and locked the blocks, the inmates got restless and edgy again, but after midnight, those who weren't asleep wanted to be alone, and that suited us fine. All the innocence held until an hour before breakfast, when a sizable minority woke and did whatever exercises, prayers, or self-abuse rituals their OCD fixes demanded. By that time their brains were stirring and they had plans or worries or irritations to ponder, and for those of us who watched them, that was the beginning of another shit day.

Joshua Riff was an in-between kind of inmate. The first time I met him, I came in three hours prior to shift change, just after four in the morning, to wake him up in his cell. Most inmates jump long before you key, but Josh was still a puppy, a pale-skinned nineteen-year-old with wispy chin whiskers and sleepy eyes, sporting bed wood and mussed-up hair, a delinquent little brother late for school.

His cell was a dump. The typical inmate keeps a tight drum, even if it's overflowing with stuff, but Josh had scattered his belongings everywhere without organization — wet towel, dirty socks, one shoe flopped over, the other climbing the wall. He didn't have much, and he lacked the electronic amenities, visual distractions, and cardboard shelving units of a resourceful inmate, but if this were general population, someone would have rapped his head against the wall hard and forced him to tidy up his moldy shit.

Josh was not housed in a normal range, however, but in the Ditmarsh infirmary, or what we called the howler ward. It was a storage house for misfits — the injured, seriously ill, and not-all-there. I'd probably passed his cell a hundred times and never looked in. Like most COs, I didn't give the howlers and cripples and AIDS carriers much thought; it wasn't contempt so much as indifference to anyone who was too vulnerable to pose a threat or too weak to command attention. When Keeper Wallace told me where Riff was located, I made the quick assumption that my new friend was bugged up or self-injurious. He seemed utterly normal to me now, and that put another irritant into my brain, making me wonder why he wasn't shelved in gen pop like the other inmates. He was young and soft, but that shouldn't have made a difference — the cubs got tossed in with the wolves. So why the special treatment? Nothing pisses me off more sharply than unearned privilege, and I was already confused about the strange and unusual task I had been given.

It was not a good day for Josh either.

"Why?" he asked in a low, sleepy voice.

"Why do you think?" I answered just as quietly, and told him to suit up.

I could see the memory pass over him in the grim, stilted way he got dressed. His father's funeral, and me his reluctant escort. I'd delivered inmates to court or the hospital before, and once to a school, but never in the middle of the night without paperwork, assistance, or formal permission, and never with the strongly worded advice to remain discreet about what was going on. I should have asked why. I should have mentioned that a pile of rules were being violated and a stack of lies were being told. But I kept thinking, what good would that do me against Keeper Wallace? Whistle-blowers never won out, they just got the hurt.

Josh avoided glancing at me as we walked. I figured he was probably rattled by the whole father funeral thing, and the less we said to each other over the course of the day, the better we'd both bear up. I brought him down the darkened stairwell of the infirmary and through the tunnel into the main hub. He looked up and around like a nervous tourist passing through. The hub was the focal point of the entire prison, the center space from which the four cellblocks, the education wing, and Keeper's Hall stretched out. When empty, it had a vacant stadium feel. At ground level, squatting in the exact middle was the bubble — the caged, bulletproof-glass central control space for guards, equipped with closed-circuit television monitors scanning every cellblock and most of the hallways and access points. Below the bubble was the armaments room — where wistful COs went to fondle the weapons they could not carry — and deeper still the old isolation range we called the City, our medieval dungeon, our prison within a prison, welded shut these past five years in accordance with the kinder, gentler approach of the current administration.

Six stories above, a full two stories beyond the four levels of cellblocks, was the glass dome. At night it reflected a muted glow that turned the entire hub into a dimly lit cathedral, while in the day, it was the world's strangest greenhouse, the sun grinding through hundreds of years of dirt. It must have cost a fortune when it was built, and it must have seen a hundred thousand inmates and COs wasting their lives below. And for what? Once upon a time, the architects and builders had believed that inspiration for reform would come from the contemplation of God, visible no doubt through that far aperture. The hub-and-spoke system, with its stacked tiers of narrow cells lit by high windows, was made purposely cramped and austere in order to restrict activity and encourage spiritual reflection, a miscalculation regarding the true nature of human psychology that only got more ridiculous as the years went on. Reform was a hopeless dream, I believed. You could restrict what inmates did, but you could never restrict what they thought — and what they thought about practically all the time was doing bad. Instead of dreams about the higher power, most people inside — COs and inmates alike — spent their mental energy calculating the power at hand, mixing it with thoughts about survival, making money, or getting some kind of sexual gratification or substance abuse in before the day was done. The rest was filler, the measly stuff of thwarted lives.

I avoided Keeper's Hall, where night shift COs might be doing paperwork, and we crossed the second yard outside. The cold air bit our skin. The ground was barren and snow free, but it crunched, the kind of early December morning that makes you long like a pagan for the summer sun to rise. Inside the front gate, Keeper Wallace stood behind the admittance counter all alone, waiting for us. He was flipping paper when we arrived, checking through old admittance reports, never a wasted moment for those thick, short-fingered hands. When he looked up, a tweak of guilt hit me, despite the righteousness that stiffened my spine.

I had admired him once, and that was the problem. There were four other keepers on staff — that's what we called our supervising COs — and all were of equal rank and similar seniority, but it was clear by the flow of decisions and the command he imposed that Wallace had the most authority at the field level. From the beginning I was drawn to his detailed knowledge and his understated character and above all his severe and never-wavering competence, a professional code surprisingly rare in an institution of vigilant discipline. In my way, without being obvious about it, I'd modeled my own conduct as a CO on his, disdaining the slackness and the easy corruption I saw around me on a routine basis. I'd assumed that a supervisor like Wallace would notice such adherence. But my first two years on the job warranted no special attention or approval apparently, and the respect I felt for him drained away when my application for URF duty got turned down with his signature.

The Urgent Response Force was a kind of SWAT team of elite COs called to task during prolonged or particularly dangerous emergency situations. I had wanted in for a number of reasons. The money appealed — an extra fifteen to twenty thousand a year. The toughness appealed — even the name sounded hard, the exhale made when baton met belly. And the bullet point on the résumé was the kicker. Maybe, just maybe, I could impress some federal law enforcement agency with a few years doing serious tactical work as a corrections officer. This late bloomer wanted to go places.

Despite my solid test scores, Wallace denied my application without any adequate explanation. Maybe I hadn't paid my dues. Maybe I wasn't connected to the right people. But I'd followed the rules and been turned down, so I filed a successful grievance, using gender to force my way into a club that didn't want me. To my paranoid eye, the assignment with Josh smacked of revenge, a trick to catch me out. Wallace had asked me to do it as a favor. He'd told me that because I'd lost my own father a few months before, I'd be suitable for the role, more sensitive in my handling of a social situation. But I did not believe him. We did not think of inmates in such terms. When an incident of violence occurred somewhere inside the walls, one of the first questions we asked was, "Any humans involved?" — meaning any COs, even any civilians. The emotional well-being of an inmate was not our first, second, or third priority, and Wallace was no different in that regard from anyone else.

We exchanged good-mornings. Wallace didn't thank me or indicate through any shared glance or hurried movement that what we were doing was out of the ordinary. I'd been curious about who would be on shift at the gate, because I figured that would allow me to meet one of his cronies, someone else who did his bidding when the work was off-the-record. I wanted to see whether my fellow CO was sheepish or brazen about it and to get a little more insight into the way Wallace operated and what it cost and what it provided. Seeing the Keeper alone made my stomach twist a little bit more. Either this outing was so wrong he didn't want to involve anyone else, or no one else had been willing to attach themselves to the deed.

Instead, ever efficient and grim, Wallace told Josh to shackle up, and Josh held out his hands for his three-piece suit — the metal bracelets and taut chain looping his ankles, waist, and wrists.

When Wallace stood straight again, he grimaced, as though the bending over had bothered an already tight back. Then he spoke.

"You've got a day pass," he told Josh. "You've got a medical condition requiring a CT scan. You're getting the scan done at the veterans hospital. Officer Williams is your escort. There was another CO along for the ride, but you don't remember his name. I hope you'll remember that story without embellishments. It's for your own well-being as much as anything else."

I was rattled to hear the lie so openly blueprinted. Josh gave an inarticulate teenager nod, the kind you never quite trust, and Wallace turned to me and said thank you. This time I detected a flimsy gratitude in the sagging lines of his face. I gave my own inarticulate nod in return.


Josh was my property now, so I checked his bracelets and gave his chain a couple of quick jerks to make sure they were fastened, even though the Keeper had done the snapping himself. Then I directed Josh to the door with a little more force and spite than necessary. He almost tripped at the first few steps; then he remembered how to do it. You cup your hands near your groin, crouch so that your back is hunched and the vertical chain is slackened, and take high-speed baby steps to keep the ankle chain from striking taut. They call it the shackle shuffle, and it makes you move like a bitch.

A brown sedan was waiting at the curb edge. Wallace had lent me his car so I wouldn't have to pay for the miles. Josh sat in back on the right so I could keep an eye on him, like a child in a car seat, but he was so meek and glum I had to remind myself to keep a steady awareness. He turned rather suddenly as we pulled onto the old post road, and I realized he was looking back at Ditmarsh. The high walls were spotlighted but otherwise dim and hard to make out, but the dome was glowing like an orb. I bet he was thinking it should have been a lot longer before he saw the outside of that house, and I bet he was hoping without hope it would be a lot longer before he saw it again. Then it was all silence along the highway, my directions spread out beside me.


Excerpted from The Four Stages of Cruelty by Keith Hollihan. Copyright © 2010 Keith Hollihan. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

KEITH HOLLIHAN worked as a business analyst and ghostwriter before publishing his first novel. Born in Canada, he has traveled widely and lived in Japan and the Czech Republic. He now lives with his wife and sons in St. Paul, Minnesota.

Keith Hollihan worked as a business analyst and ghostwriter before publishing his first novel. Born in Canada, he has traveled widely and lived in Japan and the Czech Republic. His books include The Four Stages of Cruelty. He now lives with his wife and sons in St. Paul, Minnesota.

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