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.  

The Least Favorite Thing I Ever Learned in Kindergarten

I was in my late 20’s when my oldest son was in kindergarten.  I worked as a receptionist in a medical library, but I was able to go in three hours late every Wednesday so I could volunteer in Michael’s classroom.  I never was a fan of being around little kids, but I’m crazy about my own kids, so it was alright.  Back then if you volunteered at school they let you work in your own kid’s classroom.  Nowadays, most schools won’t let you volunteer in your own kid’s classroom.  And really, what would be the point?

That whole volunteer experience stands out for me because of one particular Wednesday morning.  I guess I learned something about the world I hadn’t known up to that point.  Something I really wish wasn’t true, though I can’t say I wish I didn’t know it.  I never was one to stick my head in the sand.

I can’t remember the task I had been given that particular morning.  A lot of the volunteers just spent their time making copies or some crap, but Mrs. Walsh was cool because she always let me work with the kids.  That morning I was supposed to get a small group of kids together and do some kind of lesson with them.  Typical kindergarten work.  I grabbed the first four kids that had finished the previous task and got them seated at the little table.  I didn’t notice anything unusual.  Mostly I was focusing on the fact that I was trying to sit in one of those itty bitty wooden chairs that make you feel as though you are Alice in Wonderland and you’ve just had a bite of the cake that makes you grow too big for the room you are in. 

Four kindergarteners, fitting perfectly into their own itty bitty chairs, sat across the table from me.  Three were looking at me expectantly, waiting for whatever task I was going to set upon them.  The other kid briefly glanced at her classmates, and then spoke.

She was a kid I’d noticed before.  I’d been volunteering just long enough that I knew some of the kids and didn’t know the other ones.  Looking back, I’m not sure why she’d caught my eye but she had.  That day she caught me so completely off guard that I will never, ever forget her. 

“Why do I have to be in this group?  I don’t want to be in this group.  My daddy says I shouldn’t have to be in this school with these black kids and I shouldn’t have to be in this group with them!”

Only she used the ‘N’ word.

If this were to happen now, over 20 years later, it wouldn’t have such an impact on me.  Which is actually quite sad.  But I’ve run this five minute segment of my life over and over in my head, trying to figure out why her words hurt me so badly.  I’ve come to the conclusion that right up to that morning, I was living on the unspoken, and even unrealized assumption that as I got older, as my son got older, all of the old, mean, hateful people would die off and we’d be left with a world of open minded, kind people who tried to understand each other’s differences rather than instantly judging anyone who is in any way different from themselves.

It’s hard to believe I was ever that naïve.   

Maybe my response was due to the shock of seeing such intense and innocent hatred in such a little girl.  Or the instant realization that ignorance could be passed on from generation to generation without question or examination.  But I think it was the fact that the three boys I had chosen for the group, the three black boys, I realized now, all had their heads down.  As if they had heard it all before, expected it even, and somehow felt shame.  It would have been oh, so much easier for me if they had been angry. 

Whatever the reason, I felt the back of my throat constrict and my face grew hot and my heart beat faster, and I knew there was absolutely nothing I could do to prevent myself from crying. 

I’ve always prided myself in being a take-charge kind of person.  Life throws things at me and I automatically prioritize and respond.  In the years since that day I’ve done everything from teaching anger management in a men’s prison to earning a second degree black belt in mixed martial arts.  I do not cry when faced with difficult situations.   At least not until I’m at home.    

But the 28 year old me hadn’t yet encountered anything quite that ugly, I guess.  All I could think at the time was that I could not cry.  And all I knew for sure was that I was going to. 

I didn’t want to cry there in front of the kids.  I didn’t want to cry at all.  I couldn’t stay where I was.  I couldn’t leave the room because I could hear teachers marching their little rows of children past the door.  I ended up making a last ditch effort to maintain some thread of dignity by crossing the room to where Michael’s teacher sat at her desk.  She looked up at me, such a look of concern on her face that despite my desperate attempt to keep it from happening, my eyes instantly and completely filled and one tear fell onto my bright blue blouse, a dark wet spot leaving indisputable evidence of my failure as a kindergarten classroom volunteer. 

I knew that if I were to open my mouth, I would start sobbing and if I were to blink, my eyelids would act like little squeegees and tears would fall freely.  I did not want to make more of a distraction in the classroom than I felt I already had.  And I desperately did not want my son to witness this horrible display of ugliness and incompetence. 

That poor teacher had to have been completely confused.  There had been no screams.  No child was lying injured on the floor.  I’m sure it was completely unprecedented to have an adult volunteer standing in front of her desk, close to bawling as though she were one of the kids who had been uninvited to her best friend’s birthday party.  But Mrs. Walsh only showed concern.  “What’s wrong?”  She waited a minute, patiently.  “Mrs. Elliot?”

And I said, almost whispered, “Melissa,” and I pointed to the table where I’d left the kids.  All four of them were completely still, staring over at the scene I was trying so hard to avoid but nonetheless had created with my very uncharacteristic lack of control over my emotions in the presence of my own, and other, children. 

In retrospect, I realize that Michael’s teacher must have been dealing with this child’s racist attitudes all year because her sudden anger seemed so out of character.  In an instant, she was across the room, grabbing that little girl by the arm and dragging her out the classroom before I was able to grab a tissue off the desk and try to do some damage control with what was surely a mascara nightmare. 

And the last thing I heard before the door shut behind them was, “. . .and now you’ve upset Mrs. Elliot!”

I felt like a moron.

I don’t remember anything else about that day.  I don’t remember finishing my work with the kids.  I don’t know what I said to the boys when I went back to the table.  I don’t know whether I said anything to the class about the teacher leaving.  I don’t remember talking to anyone at work about what happened and I don’t remember talking with Michael about the incident when I picked him up that afternoon.  Surely I did. 

Usually the kind of knowledge that has changed my whole way of thinking about the world comes gradually; a vast collection of very minute bits of information building up over a period of years until a certainty is unavoidable.  But every once in awhile, it comes almost instantly, like it did that day in Mrs. Walsh’s kindergarten class.      

Mrs. Walsh, a young woman herself, died of cancer the following year, when Michael was in first grade.  I wonder sometimes if she knew she was sick or even dying that Wednesday morning.  I wonder what kind of relationship developed between her and Melissa during that year.  Whether she was able to reach Melissa on some level.  Or whether Melissa is somewhere now teaching her own child the same things she surely learned from her parents.  Teaching her daughter the least favorite thing I ever learned in kindergarten.