Memoirs of a Prison Intern Part 2 – the Good, the Bad, and the Crazy

A weird thing happens to me in life.  People either don’t take me seriously at all (I blame the blonde hair), or they hand me the keys to an entire unit of inmates.  I wish that was just a metaphor, but no they literally handed me the keys.  Because why not put a 20 year old white girl in charge of a unit of inmates?  What could possibly go wrong?

One of the COs came to me to tell me that they were short kitchen staff.  It was apparently my job to walk into the commons filled with hungry inmates and tell four of them that they needed to serve in the kitchen line.  Don’t worry we will pay you a whole $0.25 an hour.  I don’t understand who wouldn’t love to do that.  I am of course oozing with sarcasm as kitchen duty is hated by all.

“I have to do that?”

“Well you are the big boss.”

Yes that is me, the big boss.  Watch out, big boss is on the move.  Don’t mess with me.  I mustered as much confidence as I could, and then walked into the commons.  I told the first four guys I saw that they were on kitchen duty and then left before anyone had the chance to argue with me.  I thought I had made it out alive, when the room erupted into whistling.  I was not in the mood for this today.  Well any day really, but especially not today.

One of my gifts is the ability to give someone a look that shuts them up faster than any words could.  I don’t really do it on purpose, nor do I have any idea what it looks like.  But my siblings have told me it exists, so I believe them.  This look came out in full force the moment I turned around.

For the first time since I started working there, I think I saw slight traces of fear in their eyes.  I had my finger up pointing it like a disapproving mother. I put on my big girl pants and yelled, “The whistling stops here!” and then turned around and walked out.  One inmate had the audacity to bark at me, but never again did they whistle.

Luckily for me, there were no more naked inmate fights.  However one day I would arrive at the scene of a fight to find that someone had already loosed their entire can of pepper spray.  Oh that burns, that literally burns everywhere.  My eyes, my lungs, everywhere.  I turned around and ran straight outside.  It didn’t help.  I was coughing up pepper spray for the rest of the day.  So were the rest of my co-workers.  Weirdly enough those were that type of mutual suffering were the things that bonded us together.

Needless to say, there was never a dull moment. Here is an example of a “normal” conversation:

Let’s call him Fred.  Fred was a nice guy in his 50s.  He came to my office first thing in the morning before my brain had enough coffee to wake itself up.

Fred looked like he was going to ask me about something, but then got distracted and said, “You look like you should be barefoot and pregnant somewhere.”

“Excuse me?”  My under-caffeinated brain was trying to process if I heard what I think I heard.

“I just mean that you look like the type of girl who shouldn’t be working in a job like this.  You should have a husband who goes to work for you as you sit at home barefoot and pregnant.”

It takes quite a bit to leave me speechless.  This was one of those moments.  I could tell Fred was not trying to malicious, he was just making an observation.  Fred was also old enough that he probably came from an era when that was normal for a woman to do.  I just stared at him for a while.  Once my brain caught up to what had just happened, I muttered something about female rights and how I wanted to be working.

Fred just said, “Well anyways have a good day miss Lori.”

Did Fred come into my office just to tell me that?  Yes, yes he did.

I survived all of it – the good, the bad, the crazy – all of it.  I am not sure how, but I know that I did.  During my first month there, one of the veterans told me that this place would change me.  I will never forget that conversation.  He was right, but it didn’t change me in the way that either of us expected it to.  It forced me to look at the world with eyes wide open, and I have always been grateful for that.  


Photo Credit: Francois Delbar

**** I was talking to a good friend who I asked to give me feedback on my blog.  He told me, “Its good but I am left feeling like I want to know more about you.”  Huh I guess I didn’t realize people would care about that stuff.  So I decided to write a series of memoirs about my life experiences, because I some how find myself doing things like catching chickens in Africa or running to stop a fight among inmates.  

Up next is Memoirs of a Prison Intern Part 3.  I was only planning on doing two parts, but part 1 brought up some very good discussion on social stigmas of criminals.  This is something that I am very passionate about, and I simply could not fit it into this blog.  So Part 3 will be more serious, but something I believe is important for everyone to understand.  

Thank you for reading,  and please feel free to comment below.  If there are any stories you have that you would like to share, or any stories from my life you would like to read about please let me know.

Catching the Disease

The amount of germs and diseases at the pen is rampant enough to cause germaphobes everywhere to have nightmares.  I use hand sanitizer like it is my job.  But the worst diseases at the pen cannot be prevented with any hand sanitizer, nor can it be cured with any medications.  Alarming right?  I think so, and what is just as alarming is how quickly the inmates catch this disease, and even more so how long this disease stays with them.  Institutionalization is like a slow poison that seeps into their blood, changing the way inmate’s think.

There are inmates that do not want to get out, because they have nothing to get out for.  They don’t have a job, they don’t have a home, some don’t have an education, most don’t have a family that would care for them, and their friends are normally the reason they ended up in prison in the first place.  So why would they want to leave?  The pen has become their home.  Here they have people who care for them, a warm place to sleep, food, medical care, and the friends that they have made.  If you have seen Shawshank Redemption, think of the old man Brooks after he got released. Many inmates find themselves in Brook’s shoes.

Today I had the chance to listen to an inmate talk about his view of prison.  He has been in prison since he was 18, and he often takes it upon himself to take the younger inmates under his wing and mentor them.  He started telling me about some of the things he had learned about the pen after mentoring younger inmates.  Here is what he had to say, “People think when they come in, that institutionalization happens a long period like 20 years.  The truth is that it happens much faster than that, it can happen in a year.  Before you know it, you become use to the idea of prison, you start thinking that it isn’t so bad.  Then once you get out, you start thinking that what does it matter if you get caught again.  You have survived prison once, you can survive it again.  It is like a diseases you catch that keeps you coming back inside the walls to do more time.  Sometimes the disease runs in the family.  Young men will see their fathers, older brothers, and uncles spend time behind the walls and think they have to do the same.  The family thinking then becomes that you are not a man until you have served your time.”

To me, this seems like a very big problem without a cure.  To be honest I do not really know what can be done about this.  Once again I am not expert on this, I am just going off of my experience so far, but I think the problem with rehabilitating criminals, is the notion that every inmates will respond to the rehabilitation the same.  One inmate is as different from another inmate in the same way that one person is different from another person.  There is a very diverse array of personalities and ambitions among inmates.  Some of them are dead set against change, some of them have plain given up all hope for change, and some of them so desperately want a fresh start but never get the chance for one.  So if the inmate’s are so diverse, then why do we give them a one size fits all rehabilitation plan.  Is it in the name of “fairness” so that each inmate gets an equal chance?  But is it fair that the inmates who will try to change do not always get the opportunity to do so?    The national recidivism rate is 43%.  This means that almost half of the inmates released from prison will end up back in prison.  Like I said, this diseases is running rampant in our prisons.

I do not want you to get the impression that nothing is being done about this.  There are people far more experienced than I who are trying to find a solution to our nation’s recidivism rate.  However, this people have never been in prison, and they have never had to be rehabilitated.  I think that if we truly want to help inmates get to where they need to be to, then we first have to understand where they are and where they have come from.   We cannot help someone if we first do not understand them.  But where does that leave us?  How do we come to understand what they have been through?  I by no means have the answer for this, but if institutionalization happens not long after an inmate steps behind the walls, then maybe it is time we find a cure.