Friday, September 20, 2013

Doing Time in Hell Memoir ~ J. Bodie ~ Edited by Toni V. Sweeney

Doing Time in Hell
By J Bodie
Edited by Toni V Sweeney

As you stop and look at the new front entrance to the Nebraska State Penitentiary, it appears harmless but if you look a bit closer, you realize you’re actually seeing three fences…the surrounding fence with razor-blade wire rolled on top, the monitoring wire fence, and the inside retaining fence…
 Train tracks run past Tower 1. There was always something spooky about those tracks. Often the cons listening to the trains as they came through would wish they were on one as it sped away.
 To your left, you can see Tower 8, still on the remaining wall, along with Towers 7, 6, 5, 4, 3, and 2. It’s really strange to see half the wall gone. The Trustee Dormitory, a wooden un-air conditioned affair, is across from Tower 10. The back door to the Pen has a Guard Shack at the west gate. This is the place where the garbage truck would come through Wall Tower 9’s double sally port gate.
 Behind the Wall is the soap factory and on the other side is the old Death Row House which was also used as the Adjustment Center. For some, that was the end of the road…
That’s the first page of Bodie McIlvane’s memoir Doing Time in Hell.

Encouraged by his father-in-law, a Nebraska State Penitentiary employee, a young wildcat oilrigger straight from the Louisiana bayous applied for and received an appointment as a guard at the Lincoln Nebraska State Prison. To hear him tell it, Bodie didn’t want to be a prison guard, he got conned into it. It wasn’t long before he realized that there were two kinds of men in the prison doing their time…the inmates, and the guards, only the guards were doing their time on the Installment Plan.

Bodie worked for NSP for twelve years. After he retired, he wrote his memoir.  In its pages, are stories that are by turns unbelievable, laughable, pitiful, and gory.  The reader is warned from ordering salad in a prison cafeteria; he’s told how a lollipop calmed down a prisoner spoiling for a fight; of the day an inmate got his twin brother to take his place so he could escape…and many more incidents.  Truth can be stranger than fiction, yes indeed, and these stories prove that.

I got into the act when Bodie’s widow asked me to look over her husband’s manuscript and see what I thought of it. I admit I wasn’t too enthusiastic.  I was bogged down in my own work but I told her I’d take a look.  I set about separating the 179 photocopies pages of photographs, poetry, and narration, working on and off between proofing, writing, and getting my own work published.  I procrastinated, I confess…giving Mrs. McIlvane progress reports amounting to “I’m working on it” or “I’m about halfway through.” True enough, but I wasn’t in any hurry.

Then I got the devastating news. Mrs. McIlvane had passed away, and overwhelming guilt set in.  Then and there I dropped everything and got to work.  I got the manuscript into a readable order, story first, poems afterward.  It ended up being 113 pages, with a short history of the Nebraska Prison System and a small blurb about the most famous and newsworthy criminal the prison had held.

I submitted the story to Class Act Books which had come under new ownership and wanted to publish non-fiction as well as fiction.  It was accepted.

I was pleased to let Mrs. McIlvane’s children know their father’s story will be published.  I just wish I could’ve told her that, too.


In 1976, my father-in-law, who was working at the Nebraska State Penitentiary in Lincoln, Nebraska, asked me to come work with him. I refused, telling him he was a crazy SOB to want to work in such a place!
Soon after, my wife and I moved to New Iberia, Louisiana where I went to rough-necking off-shore. It took an hour to get there if we went by twin-rotor helicopter, or nine hours a day, by crew boat, to reach the drilling rig platform. A work-week was called a hitch, and a work day was twelve hours on and twelve hours off.
After three years of doing everything from being a derrick man atop a 200-foot drilling rig, to laying pipeline in the Louisiana swamps, I decided to take my wife and son and move back to Lincoln.
Immediately, my father-in-law starting talking to me about working at the Pen. My mind kept saying “No”, but the more he filled my glass with booze and my mind with wild stories of things he’d gone through, the more my mind was saying “Yes.” I’d never really imagined working in a prison but as Dad, as I called him, explained it, it was 90 percent safer than working off-shore, so…
The next morning, hangover and all, I found myself being walked around the Big Yard and introduced to what he called the Gang. There I was, shaking hands with cons like they were everyday people. Then, Dad took me to the warden’s office and introduced me to Max Merritt. Mr. Merritt appeared impressed, especially after learning I had worked the oil field all my life. Then, I was filling out an application and being told they’d be in touch. Since I didn’t really didn’t want to work there, I wasn’t expecting anything, but the next morning, the phone rang, and a lady told me I’d been chosen for the job.
She told me I’d be going into training for two weeks. As my old lieutenant used to say, I only took the job for the winter. I never really expected to be working in a prison, but now…here I was.

Doing Time in Hell was released by Class Act Books on August 15.

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  1. This sounds like it would be a very interesting read. Full of lots of details one might to know and others we would probably really not want to think about. I'm so glad you were able to bring his story to life.

  2. It's definitely interesting, Berniece. I discovered some fascinating information.

  3. I have to say I agree this sounds like it was be some very fascinating reading. I'm sure he had quite a story to tell. That is so great that you were able to get it printed. I'm sure their children are very pleased you were able to get this accomplished.