Memoirs of a Prison Intern Part 3 – Battling the Social Stigmas

*** In case you missed Part 1 or Part 2 check them out by clicking the links. 

He was thrashing and screaming, throwing himself at the bars.  It reminded me of a caged animal.  Watching it made a knot form deep in my gut.  I could barely choke the sight down.  All I could think was what did a human have to go through to end up here?  What had he lost?  What had he given up?  What had to be taken from him in order for his very humanness to slip through his fingers?

I spent a week working in the Segregated Housing Unit (SHU pronounced shoe) and that was more than enough for me.  The SHU is were those who have lost everything go.  It is where we put the inmates we want to forget.

The philosophy behind segregated housing is that you take everything from the inmates and then slowly reward those thing back as they behave.  Only you start taking things and pretty soon you take their dignity, then their humanity, and what are you left with?  A ghost of a human thrashing around in a cage like an animal.  Let me tell you – it isn’t pretty. 

There are some who think that prison is too soft.  There are also some who think that it is too harsh. To be honest I don’t know where I stand on the spectrum, but I do know what I saw.  Prison should help rehabilitate one’s humanness, not rob them of it.

In my last post, I talked about the day that I finally stood up for myself.  Ever since that day, the inmates started to take me more seriously, and dare I say even respect me.  A couple months later I would have a surgery to remove a cyst from my jaw.  I came back in pain, barely able to talk.  But I also came back to find lots of get well notes waiting for me in my box.  No matter what kind of trouble they got themselves into, I never once believed they were bad people.  These notes proved to me that I was right.

The hardest thing for me about working in the prison was actually not the inmates themselves, but rather the way that everyone on the outside talked about them to me (hold on let me climb onto my soap box).  I was told over and over again by so many well meaning people that the inmates I worked with deserved to be there.

The sociologist in me was screaming.  It is easy to judge and stigmatize inmates when they are a collective group.  It is a lot harder when you know them as individuals who come from backgrounds that would turn even the best person into a criminal.

Sometimes we have to fight like hell to combat the things that don’t sit well with our soul.  Sometimes we have to speak up for those that can’t talk.  

I want to shake those people and tell them to open their eyes to their life free of hardship and then ask them again if they want to point their judgmental finger.  Maybe I should, but I don’t.  Mostly because I use to have similar thinking, and I don’t know how to explain everything that I have experienced while working in a prison.

I don’t know how to explain to them that there is a difference between doing bad things and being bad people.  I am allowed to believe this – to be this naive, because I am not naive. I have seen the worst and still believe in the best.

If you have your health, if you have your family, if you have safety and have the luxury of enjoying a semblance of freedom, then you owe it to those that don’t to make sure that they know that there are people in the world that give a damn about them. Not a group or country that pretends to care about them simply to gain something for themselves, but by people who realize that beyond governments, religions, ideologies, and agendas, there is a commonality that cannot be exploited. Not by greed, nor tyranny, nor terror, nor the propaganda of powerful nations. That people simply give a damn about those that, were the world spinning differently the day they were born, might have been them.” – Matthew Good (Originally post on Of Whiskey and Words)

Inmate

Photo Credit: Sean Kernan

**** 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.  

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.

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.  

Prison

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.

Memoirs of a Prison Intern Part 1 – Jump In and Don’t Drown

When I was a sophomore in college, just barely 20 years old, I accepted a internship in a state penitentiary.  I had been a criminal justice major for all of three semesters.  Obviously I was ready for this (that is sarcasm in case you missed it).  Apparently my professor thought I was because he is the one who encouraged me to apply for the internship.

It all happened very quickly.  Within about a weeks time I applied, interviewed, and got the job.  I didn’t have a chance to stop and think about what it would be like to work in a prison.  I didn’t stop to wonder if this was something I could even handle.  I had absolutely no idea what I had just signed myself up for.  

Working in a prison was very hard.  One should expect that, but I didn’t.  I didn’t know what I expected, because like I said I didn’t have a lot of time to build expectations.  Still, I was naive enough to think that it would be easy.

That the job would be easy.

That working with inmates would be easy.

That it would be easy to walk away every day and just be fine.

How very wrong I was.  It was anything and everything but easy.  And yet working there was one of the best decisions I have made so far.

Walking through the prison gate is something that becomes normal very quickly, and yet is a feeling that you can never quite get use to.  The gate slams behind you as you walk into the prison, and the despair is palpable.  It hits you like a wave, and it is suffocating.  It is if the very oxygen you breathe has been replaced with every regretted decision and unheard cry for help.

And how can one naive girl walk into that feeling prepared?  The answer is, you can’t.  There is nothing that could have prepared me for something like that.  Just as there is nothing that could have prepared me for every hard decision I would have to face.

How to help those which you cannot help.

How to show mercy without showing weakness.

How to fake enough confidence that I don’t get eaten alive.

How to stop the whistling, the tears, the fights.

How to pick the black and white answer when everything around you seems to be a swirling mass of gray.

I walked up to the gate, and tried to very confidently hand them my ID badge to let me in.

They just gave me a look, “Who are you?”

I mean seriously, this happened about every day for my first month working there.  I know I don’t look very intimidating, but my badge says Unit Manager Intern.  So I would have to embarrassingly stand there (again) as they called around to confirm that yes, this girl is our intern.  Thanks for the confidence boost everyone.

Today was my first day actually working inside the prison walls. I had maybe been there an hour when a Code Red, Code 3  was called for our unit.  Which meant that somewhere two inmates had started fighting.

I headed towards the scene, only half running because lord knows I was not going to be the first one to arrive there.  Correctional officers were flying by me like lightening bolts, yelling at me to move out of the way.  Each time I tried, I would almost run into a different CO that was sprinting down the hallway.

When I arrived at the scene, I just saw a huge pile of men.  I am sure somewhere under that pile of COs were the two inmates that started fighting.  One by one they started to peel themselves off of the pile.  They handcuffed the two who started the fight, and started to walk them out.

And that is the moment when I realized, oh that man is not wearing any clothes.  He got into a fight naked, and now that very naked man is walking right towards me.  In that moment the only thing I could think was what the hell have I gotten myself into. 

I learned that life is 98% of having absolutely no clue what you are doing, but doing it anyways.  There are somethings  Most things in life are impossible to prepare for.  I learned to not be intimidated by those things, because those were the moments that I found out what I was truly made of.   Most of the time we don’t know what we are capable of surviving until we do.  However, this was only the first of what I would experience.  So until next time.

Wire

**** 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.  

Coming soon is part 2 of Memoirs of a Prison Intern. 

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.