Missing Prison

Sometimes I really miss prison.  I know most people who spend any time in prison hate it, but for the most part, I really loved it.  I don’t know what it was.  Maybe I’m addicted to adrenaline.

I need to make clear the fact that I was never an inmate.  I’m too much of a chicken to do much of anything wrong.  In fact, after working in a prison for four years, I’d do anything I could to stay out of that side of the prison business.  Working there was enough excitement for me.  I’ll pass on getting raped with one of those dildos made out of melted Jolly Ranchers, thank you very much.  I worked at the men’s prison, but I did hear about that particular issue over on the female side of the corrections business and decided then and there to never commit any prison-level crimes.    

Before I went to work in prison, I worked at a small university.  It was a quiet, cozy little job.  I had just moved into a bigger office that I had been allowed to furnish and decorate myself.  I loved that office.  It was significantly nicer than any room in my home.  I had a set of leather chairs with a side table near the front of the room.  The table had a little panic button underneath so I could call security if a student went all apeshit in my office.  A nice rug set the boundary for the seating area – a simple Asian design on a burgundy background, if I remember correctly.  I had one of those air purifiers between the seating area and my desk that was supposed to filter bacteria and viruses out of the air.  Who knows whether those really do anything, but it was nice to think that no one would be inhaling any germs on my watch. 

I had this little mini desk behind my big desk and on it I had all types of video equipment to transfer videotape to DVD along with software to splice hunks of video and sound.  I didn’t really do any of that for my job, which is a good thing because I never figured out how to use the equipment.  My boss bought that stuff for me during one of those ‘end-of-the-fiscal-year money spending frenzies’.  If you’ve never been on the spending end of one of those, I highly recommend it. 

Anyway, the university was a good gig.  I was able to leave on time every day.  The campus was beautiful.  I could do stuff like ride to meetings on the handlebars of my boss’s bicycle and go to art shows during my lunch break where they served free shrimp cocktails and those little strawberries that were dipped in chocolate and decorated to look like tiny mice.

I applied for the prison job on a whim.  My coworkers and my boss couldn’t figure out what the hell I was thinking.  But when I sent an inquiry to the division head at the prison, he came to my university office to meet with me.  And I thought, well why not check it out?  I’d never been to a prison, and it would at the very least make a good story at the next art show/mini strawberry mice luncheon.

My first red flag was that there was no job interview.  There was an assumption from the beginning that if I wanted the job I could have it.  Even though it paid 20k more than the university job.  Leaving the university seemed like such a stupid thing to do that I went out to the prison three times to visit before I took the position.  Prison was like the polar opposite of the university.  It was dangerous and ugly.  Because no one wanted to work there, they were often forced to hire people who wouldn’t make it through a Wal-Mart interview.  They hired professionals that had never been licensed and a few that had their licenses revoked or suspended for ethical violations.  People screamed at each other during staff meetings. 

It’s taken me a long time to figure out why I loved prison so much.  I mean it was weird.  I was screamed at, threatened, lied to, and lied about. And that was just some of the staff. 

The inmates were an entirely different challenge.  They all wanted something.  They wanted to be moved or they wanted someone else to be moved or they wanted to get into some class that would get them out a few weeks early.  They made liquor in their toilets and swallowed razor blades and attempted to use bread bags as condoms and shampoo as sexual lubricants (which by report is extremely painful).  I saw way more naked men than anyone ever wants to see – and don’t forget – those toilets are right out in the middle of everything.   There was one guy who pretty much masturbated constantly.  The guy would masturbate while he was eating his lunch without so much as a pause when he went to the beanhole to get his food tray.

The thing about seeing and experiencing the highly abnormal is that you get close to your colleagues.  You develop a weird sense of humor that no one else could possibly get.  It sinks in somewhere around the second year.  You learn you have to filter before you talk when you’re around non-prison folk. 

There was this guy in a lock down unit who refused to come out of his cell.  Wouldn’t come out to exercise and wouldn’t come out to shower.  Ever.  He didn’t ask for anything either.  Just ate his food, returned the tray when it was asked for, and sat on his cot.  A veteran staff member described him to me one morning because I was going to cover for her the following day.  “He’s like a plant,” she concluded.  “You just have to make sure he has water and food.”  Which is incredibly sad but for some reason I found it hysterically funny.  Diet Coke shot out of my nose and then I stopped laughing because it hurts considerably when Diet Coke squirts out of your nose.  Which made her laugh hysterically.  Which made me start laughing hysterically all over again. 

This kind of thing happened almost every day.

My boss told me once about being at a party and telling the story of helping a mentally challenged inmate select and write a Mother’s Day card.  Which wouldn’t be funny except she found out later that he had killed his mother, which is why he was in prison in the first place. 

know!  I’m not supposed to think that’s funny.  The people at the party certainly didn’t think it was funny.  My boss said there was dead silence and uncomfortable stares.  But then my boss and I decided that was funny because those people just didn’t get it and then the two of us laughed hysterically about the lame people at that party.   

One particular incident stands out in my head as the day when I realized I was no longer the same person I had been the day I left the university.  I was watching surveillance video of an inmate who had hung himself.  It was a pretty long video because a lot of people have to get called when someone hangs himself.  I was watching the video to ensure that everyone had done their duties properly.  There this guy hung from the ceiling, naked.  His face with a grotesque expression most likely never displayed in life.  The staff members on the video were walking around his handing body as casually as if it were a plant or a hammock chair hanging there in the middle of the cell.  Taking inventory of the cell and recording every detail.  And I was sitting at my desk, my office chair in full recline with my feet on the desk.  Taking notes while I ate trail mix, absentmindedly picking through it to get to the M&Ms and the yogurt chips. 

I don’t know what drew my attention to the absurdity of the situation. But I remember kind of ‘waking up’ and realizing how callous and disrespectful it was to sit picking the M&Ms out of trail mix while watching the corpse of a miserable human being hang from the ceiling of a prison cell. I can still put myself, mentally, in that chair and remember how it felt to be that callous.  To be honest, I’m grateful to have developed the ability to laugh at the guy who was like a plant or the kid who bought the Mother’s Day card for the mother he had killed.  I couldn’t have done my job if I hadn’t.  But it still scares me just a little bit.

When I remember my days in prison, I think of my colleagues who lived through the unthinkable with me and how they always understood my responses, regardless of whether my reaction of the day was to laugh hysterically or to go to my office, close the door, and cry.  You get close to people when you catch a glimpse of Hell with them.  

Sometimes I think I was lucky to leave the setting before I lost my ability to feel compassion or empathy.  But right or wrong, I still miss prison.  


Today when I was cleaning Joey’s bathroom, I cleaned the toilet, flushed it, then went to rinse off the brush thing when I noticed the toilet was overflowing. So I turned off the water, used the plunger to correct the problem, and then finished cleaning the bathroom.

“So what?” you might say. “That happens to people all the time.”

Well, it has only happened to me a few times.

You see, for the first . . . well . . . 46 years of my life, it went something like this: I discovered the toilet was overflowing, then ran out of the bathroom, closed the door behind me, and used another bathroom until an Individual Who Could Handle Toilet Issues (my mom for the first 18 years, then my husband for the next 28) came home. Then I would report the problem to the Individual and promptly leave the area so I couldn’t be asked to touch anything that had touched water that had actually been in the toilet.

In my defense, I don’t remember this ever happening during the first 18 years of my life and am just assuming it must have based on my behavior the following 28 years.

I do know that I didn’t ever clean a toilet during the first 18 years of my life. And I know this because of an incident that happened about two weeks after high school graduation.

I graduated from high school on a Friday. The following Sunday I used a one way ticket I had bought with my own money to fly halfway across the country to live with my then-boyfriend (who was indeed an Individual Who Could Handle Toilets but was not yet an Individual Who Cleaned Anything).

Anyway, Zach and I got an itty bitty one bedroom apartment. He got a job doing landscaping and I got a job waiting tables (note: I suck as a waitress). Things were generally good.

One evening, however, I came home from work and when I went in the bathroom, I made a mental note, “Ew. The toilet looks a little nasty.” Then a few days later, I was like, “What the Hell? The toilet is nasty.” Then it was probably the next day when I realized the toilet had reached an Unacceptable level of nastiness.

And all of a sudden, it hit me. Like a full front kick to the solar plexus.

There was no one who was going to clean the toilet. I was going to have to do it.

It was a sad, sad day. Seriously. I sat on the bathroom floor (which was also nasty, by the way) and I cried. I cried and cried and cried. All this time I had assumed I was Somebody Special but I was really nothing but a regular person who was going to have to go to a store and buy a toilet bowl brush and whatever one used to clean toilets and probably some floor cleaning stuff too and I was going to have to clean the bathroom.

All that to explain that I’ve been really far removed from having to deal with the toilet most of my life. Though I am kind of a neat freak and did become accustomed to cleaning my own toilet eventually.

I was still married and in graduate school when I went with my class to Mexico to study Multicultural Counseling. For purposes of this story, you only have to know that our entire class filled a “hotel” in a small village. I was lucky. I had a real roof. One of my friends had a thatched roof and had 42 ticks stuck on her person the first morning.

But I was unlucky because after like a day, the toilet in our room wouldn’t flush. Ever assertive, I went to the front desk to report the issue. The woman at the front desk actually attempted to hand me a plunger! I was like, “Uh, no. I don’t plunge.” She wouldn’t budge, though, and was really a bitch about it.

I was in my late 30’s at the time but my classmates/roommates were all mid to late 20’s. So we sealed off the bathroom in our room and spent the next few days using the bathroom in the room next door. By the time our class checked out at the end of the week, there was only one toilet working in the whole hotel. We just kept all moving down the line using the ones that still worked.

I know there’s a whole lesson there about spoiled Americans, but this is a toilet story so I won’t go into it now.

It was probably about ten years after the Mexico incident when Zach and I were separated and I had filed for divorce. I had been living in my rat hole apartment for about a month, when my Worst Toilet Nightmare was realized.

The toilet in my apartment backed up. It was Friday night. I called the Emergency Maintenance number. The guy said he would come but he didn’t.


So I called Zach. “Zach! The toilet’s is clogged!”

Bless his heart. He understood that this was a real emergency for me. “You can do this. I know you can. You’ve done much harder things than this.”

I know what you’re thinking. Sometimes I think it too. But that’s another essay.

So my soon to be ex-husband stayed on the phone with me and talked me through my first toilet plunging. The next time was a little easier. And now I don’t even run and get Joey to stay with me while I’m plunging. I just do it.

Growing up Joey

Twice this week, Joey has taken out the garbage without being asked.  I realize this has happened a few times before this week.  Like, I mean, maybe two or three times over the past six years or so.  But in the past, it’s always been a strategic move for him.  A poorly veiled attempt to prove that he’s responsible enough to have sex with his girlfriend or buy a gun.  (God, how I wish I was kidding.)  This week it appeared that he may have taken out the garbage because he noticed it was full.  He didn’t put in a new bag or anything, but still.

Before I go any further, I must say that if you’re one of those people who post on Facebook pictures of you with your teenagers laughing together while you clean the garage as a family, or if your teenager doesn’t mind being seen with you in public, you will not understand what I’m writing.  In fact, I don’t even want you to continue reading.  Really.  Click on something else or go sing Kumbaya with your neighbors or something.  You sicken me. 

But for you Real People out there, I think you will agree that this may be some kind of beginning of a Turning Point.  I’ve seen it before with my older son.  It was different with Michael, but then again my two boys are completely different people with little in common.

Further evidence of this Turning Point is that Joey’s room is no longer as gross as it once was.  OK.  I admit that I think sometimes his girlfriend cleans it.  And I also admit I removed a glass from his room earlier today that did contain about an inch of solid mass that was once milk.  And the sheets on the bed have not been changed since that last time I changed them myself (despite his protest), which was at least two months ago.  However, I have noticed that clean clothes and dirty clothes are now kept in separate piles and there are several areas on the floor where the carpet has been visible for well over a week.

I realize that Joey and I are in some sort of dysfunctional vortex of ambiguity with respect to the quest toward his maturity.  I desperately want Joey to begin taking responsibility for himself.  Get and keep a job.  Manage his money.  Quit asking ME for money.  Read a book, for God’s sake.  But, despite my constant requests that he take responsibility for himself, I realize that there is a big part of me that wants him to stay right where he is.  When he did have a job (for six days about six weeks ago), I missed him terribly.  I made sure I was home during that 15 minute period between school and work so I could make him a sandwich and hand him his freshly laundered uniform I’d made sure to retrieve from his bedroom floor at 4:00 a.m. before I went to work.

I KNOW!  I know my job is to get him to a point where he no longer needs me.  I know that my taking responsibility for washing his uniform is ultimately not in his best interest.  I know.  I know.  I KNOW!  But I keep remembering when he was little and I rocked him for hours singing song after song after song because I never did get tired of feeling his little body pressed up to mine so close that I could feel each breath.  And he never tired of me singing to him.  Or when he was two and we were camping and he used to sit up in his bunk and look at me from across the camper as I lay in my bunk.  And when I smiled at him he would wave to me.  And I would wave back.  And we would both smile at each other before we went to sleep. 

And poor Joey!  It’s hard to imagine what he’s going through right now.  His desire to be seen as an adult is obvious.  He goes to doctor’s appointments without me.  When I called our family doctor to consult about a prescription after Joey had seen him for bronchitis, Joey was furious that our doctor had discussed this with me.  Joey will drive anywhere in the city and will manage just about any business without asking his ‘mommy’ to speak for him.

But something in him is fighting this whole move toward adulthood.  When I catch him in one of his rare vulnerable moments, he’ll admit that he doesn’t want to grow up.  “I want to live with you ‘till I’m 30,” he’ll admit.  He procrastinates on any task that will set him on the road to adulthood.  He’s one of the smartest people I know but he’s failed three classes in his two years of high school.  He continually gives me barely feasible reasons not to apply for jobs.

Sometimes I wonder if he worries about leaving me, as I seem to be perpetually single.  Last night I asked him if he was going to be home for dinner.  “No.  I’m sorry,” he said.   Joey doesn’t like to be alone and doesn’t really understand that I actually love being alone.  Although I’ve told him a gazillion times that I’m responsible for my happiness and he’s responsible for his, he still somehow slipped that ‘I’m sorry,’ in there.  Why would he be sorry?  Another little chunk of data in the cog that is Joey’s growing up.

As for me.  I’ll keep doing my best at doing my job.  I’ll push him out of the nest.  I won’t keep him from taking responsibility for his actions, though it will forever and always be the most difficult aspect of my life.  I will fight against my own selfish desires and I will somehow find the strength to make his supply of money so scarce that it will drive him to employment, even though a big part of me would like to continue to slip him twenty dollar bills and Chili’s gift cards.  And in a few years, regardless of his level of readiness, I will push him out of this nest that is our home.

And he will fly.