Talking to Killers

I recently attended a one-day seminar on serial killers given by Linda Sage, who was a prison psychiatrist. And it was utterly fascinating.

For the purposes of writing, I learned about the types of killers: Thrill seekers, mission oriented, visionary, and power/control seekers (that last being the most common). 

I also learned about the reasons for killing: Anger, concealment, jealousy, revenge, love, and gain. I might relabel the second as fear (of getting caught) for my purposes, but that list is pure gold for a fiction writer making up crimes!

But what I found the most riveting were the details about killers and their prison environment. Ms. Sage talked about how prisoners will each casually gather little bits of information from guards and other staff (‘I loved my old Toyota. Did you ever own one? No, you probably prefer luxury cars, dont’ you? What kind do you like best?’) and then together create a picture of the person to find their weak points, where they can get leverage for blackmail or bribery. (For instance, if you say you have an old beater car, they know you need money.)

They also work together to get contraband into the prison, mostly through the prison exercise yard. When prisons started putting nets over the yards to prevent outsiders from throwing things over the wall, they started using drones to drop a flaming tennis ball to burn a hole in the net, followed by another carrying the contraband. The other prisoners would create a diversion while this was happening in exchange for goods or services.

Then there are the statistics. Less than one percent of murders are serial killings (no matter what you hear on Criminal Minds). Only two prisons house female violent criminals, and women prisoners tend to be more volatile because they are often worried about families left behind. (In contrast, nine times out of ten the male prisoner is not the one keeping the family together.) Serial killers also tend to be small and to select small victims (although there are exceptions such as Joanna Dennehy). And there are very few criminally insane killers.

Then there was just the weird stuff. When making a weapon, it’s better to melt a toothbrush down and secure two razor blades in it, it makes it harder to stitch up the wound. Oh, and a combination of boiled milk and sugar sticks to skin better, creating worse burns. There was the police officer who discovered evidence because he thought to check where the prison had peed against a wall, and the ‘Twilight Crew’, who watched the films before going out to kill. (I heard the films were somewhat uninspiring, but evidently not!)

All this left me with a couple of thoughts:
1. None of my jobs were, in fact, the worst jobs in the world.
2. How am I going to set up a scene in a prison so I can use this fabulous info?

To finish, I just want to salute Ms. Sage and those like her who agree to work with and help these people many of us would rather just forget about. It was a glimpse of a world I hope I never find myself in, on either side, and it made me glad I write cozy mysteries instead of crime thrillers. All the excitement of murder, but wrapped up in a picture-perfect village inhabited by pretty people. Oh, and cats.

3 thoughts on “Talking to Killers”

  1. Joanie Underwood

    Very interesting! Great insight and thanks for sharing. Criminal minds (the tv show) always scared me!

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