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.
I 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.