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Book Excerpt: ‘Sweet Hell on Fire’

See the inside of prison from the viewpoint of officer Sara Lunsford

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Sweet Hell on Fire” is a memoir by Sara Lunsford, who writes of her time spent behind bars watching over ‘the worst of the worst,’ from serial killers to sex criminals.


It’s amazing how one person can have a certain rapport with someone and another person’s interactions can be completely the opposite.

For example, there was one inmate I didn’t particularly like, but he seemed to want to talk to me every second he could be near me. I didn’t have to look up his crime to know he was a sex offender. When I first came on shift, he would always try to stand too close and he would lick his lips incessantly when talking to me, making this sound like he was eye-f***ing some scrumptious bit of cake.

I told him I found it offensive, and if he wanted to speak to me, he would do it without sucking on his lips or making that sound. A couple of the other officers I had talked to about it told me not to say anything, to just let it go. That he’d do it more if he knew it bothered me. But I’m not one to keep my mouth shut if I find something unacceptable. I had done nothing but treat him with respect, and I expected the same.

He actually apologized and told me that it was meant as a compliment. Um, no. He was a misogynist who thought all women were whores who could be manipulated or cowed into submission. He did like that I was willing to speak with him, though, so he did it on my terms.

I even ended up talking to him about how he treated another officer, a friend of mine. He made her cry by saying all sorts of nasty things about her weight. He said even being without a woman as he had for ten years, he still wouldn’t f*** her, etc. and so on. First, I gave her shit that she let him see how upset he’d made her. He was a sex offender. With them, it’s all about the power they can have over you. I told him I was disappointed in him for treating her with such disrespect. He’d said she didn’t deserve respect because she didn’t stand up and take it.

She told me he gave her the “heebie jeebies” -- she’d looked up his crime and she didn’t even want him breathing the same air she did. She wouldn’t look him in the eye because she didn’t want to look at him at all. But being a predator, he took that as fear and zeroed in on her.

Same guy, two officers, completely different result.

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While that’s no surprise, because no two people will have the same experience with one another, inmates and officers assume they will get similar treatment from people they know are connected. Officers will expect inmates who are related to behave a certain way — good or bad depending on how their relation behaves since they come from the same circumstances. And inmates will expect officers who are related to behave similarly.

When the two officers were my husband and I, inmates always commented on the differences between us.

I knew I’d made it as an officer when my husband came to second shift for awhile when he promoted to Sergeant. When the inmates sent the porter to talk to him to see what kind of officer he was, what his expectations were, the inmate told him that the cellhouse didn’t have to be like seg.

My husband was confused and said he didn’t know what the inmate was talking about. The inmate responded that he’d heard something about a real hardass named Lunsford who had just come out of segregation and that it didn’t have to be like that, that they could all “just get along”. My husband laughed and said, “You’re talking about my wife.” The inmate didn’t quite know what to do with that.

But I did. I went out to celebrate that night. I wasn’t just a b*tch, or a wh*re, or a c****. I wasn’t female. I was an officer. I was a hardass. Consistently. Firmly. Hopefully fairly. I was simply authority. That meant something.

While we were on the same shift, (we never worked the same cellhouse or even the same security level) I was asked a hundred times if “the other Lunsford” was my husband. Most of the time, I just wanted to raise my eyebrow and scowl. Lunsford, like Sasek, wasn’t like Smith. It’s kind of unique. At least in parts of the country where my father-in-law didn’t live for very long.

When I would acknowledge the question, I’d never get a neutral response. It was either, “Wow, that guy is a bastard. How do you stand it?” “No wonder he’s such a d*ck being married to you.” Or even, “Poor guy. What did he do to deserve you?” But eventually, after dealing with us both on a long term basis, a few inmates decided, and loudly I might add, that we deserved each other.

I’d been gone for a year when my husband went into work one night with pot roast. An inmate asked him if I’d made it for him and my husband responded that I had. The inmate clicked his tongue and shook his head and told him he should employ a food taster because he wouldn’t trust anything I’d made. I was the most evil woman ever to walk the earth.

I still laugh when my husband tells that story. I don’t think I was ever evil. I may have had to whip my d*ck out a few times, but they had it coming. My dad always said to give them what they had coming.

Then there were other guys who I had absolutely no problem with who took major issue with my husband. One got out and threatened him on camera at a gas station. Said he was going to come to our house rape and kill me and our children. My husband filed a police report, so that way if he did come to the house and we riddled him with bullets, we’d have the paperwork to back us up. But the next we heard of him, he’d beaten his girlfriend’s four year old son to death.

And when he was in my cellhouse, I’d never heard a peep out of him.

This article, originally published on November 11, 2014, has been updated.