Archive for December, 2013

In twenty years of walking into the principal entrance of prisons to teach my class, I’ve met a few good guards, a few obnoxious guards and a lot in between.

I’ll never forget the first guard I met on my first day in the prison.

As the man looked me over, I checked him out. He was heavy, maybe two hundred seventy-five pounds with a Santa Claus belly and a round face to match. This was the enemy. I knew enough about prison to know the men hated the guards. I decided I was going to be on the side of the men. As the big guy motioned to a clipboard, his belly hit the counter and a wave rolled up his blue uniform shirt. “Sign in here,” he said.

I signed my name, the time and the purpose of my visit. “Oh, yes, the school people said you’d be coming. Your name’s Griffin, right? Mine’s Wes.” He pointed to his name tag.  “See, Wesworth.”

He looked me over again. “So you came all the way up here from the big city, huh?”

“Yes, officer.”

“Seventy-five miles?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Wes. You can call me Wes. I hope you’re not a Democrat.”

The man’s charm disarmed me. “Of course I’m a Democrat,” I responded. “Aren’t you?”

The banter began. In between jokes about how dumb Democrats were, he told me to empty my pockets and put everything in a locker. He gave me a token for the locker. Next he asked for my briefcase. “We don’t want you passing out Democratic propaganda in here.” After he searched my briefcase, he told me to take off my belt, my shoes, anything with metal. “Okay, now walk through the surveillance machine. It’s far more sensitive than the ones in the airport.”

It beeped.

“Must be the rivets on your jeans. Stand up there.” He directed me to a little platform and he went over my whole body with a hand held detector. “You pass, Griffin. Hold out your left hand.”

He pressed a special stamp onto the back of my hand. The ink was invisible, only to be seen with ultra violet light. “You need this stamp to get out of here,” he told me.  Then he gave me back my shoes and belt.

A man came in to fill the pop and candy machines in the visitors’ room. Wes’s attention shifted to him. A woman still sat on the bench in the corner, waiting, I supposed, for visiting hours to begin.

“That bench doesn’t look very comfortable,” I said to her.

“You bet it’s not. Dumb asses, I take the bus up to their little shit town and stay overnight so I can see Richard and then they tell me I have to wait. They ever hear of working people? I got to be back in Milwaukee at three this afternoon.”

The woman’s anger scared me off. I turned and put on my belt. As I did, I looked up. On the other side of a thick glass wall were three convicts in chains, their hands shackled to their sides, their feet chained together, allowing them to take only small steps. All of them had gray hair as I did.

Guards preceded them and followed them. The three shuffled toward the staff door and a waiting prison van. I was horrified – and fascinated. I stared at them as if they were deformed. Why? Did I enjoy seeing people suffer? If this were the Middle Ages, would I be out in the town square watching someone get hanged?

I tried to repress these thoughts. Teaching in prison was supposed to make me feel like a better human being. Instead I felt evil. I was part of the murderous human species this place was built for. I had just been searched up and down, and now chains had been dragged across some suppressed evil in me.

This place was dehumanizing me and I wasn’t even through the first door.

Wes turned back to me. I pointed at the departing convicts. “Where are those guys going?”

“Court appearances in Madison,” he replied. “And one guy is going to the doctor. He’s got cancer.”

Wes picked up the phone. “I’ve got to call for an escort for you. You have to have somebody walk you to the school building. Don’t want any loose Democrats in here.”

I waited behind the counter with Wes. He talked on the phone, arranged for my escort and then called for the woman’s husband to be brought to the visiting area.

While I waited, I looked around. Several cardboard boxes were stacked under the counter. The top box had a small TV, some letters, a few books, some clothes inside. A man’s life in a cardboard box. A transfer paper on the outside indicated the owner’s name and his location, a medium security prison, also in rural Wisconsin.

A paper on another box stated that the enclosed items (radio, extra socks) were contraband and were to be returned to the sender.

What if I were to be suddenly straight-forward and tell Wes what I thought. “This is terrible, man, calling extra socks ‘contraband.’ This whole place is inhuman.”

But I said nothing and, luckily, the escort appeared on the other side of the thick glass.

For every Wes guarding a prison, there’s his opposite. In one case, it’s a female officer, who treats every visitor as if they pure evil. Her words are insulting and her attitude is such that if someone were here to see an inmate, they must be a criminal themselves.

I have no objection to searches on entering prison, but they can be done with humanity. Guards are trained to look for hidden drugs, but not trained to look at their own attitudes.

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When our ancestors came to North America, they brought with them their legal system with its judges and punishment and prisons. As they learned more about the people whose land they took, they discovered that many of these people had a different system, which we call restorative restorativejustice. The native peoples tried to restore the victim of crime, the offender who committed the crime, and the community that suffered the harm.

  • Restore the victim – Make up for their loss wherever possible.
  • Restore the offender – don’t just punish them, work with them to restore the person to become a good member of society.
  • Restore the community – a little harder to understand, but when a crime is committed on my street, I feel a lot less safe.

For us, this is a whole new way of thinking. Pick up your local paper:

  • Does it tell of victims being given psychological help?
  • Does it show that a judge put real thought into how to teach a criminal a new way?
  • What does the government do to make people feel safer?

While the Canadian and American prison systems say the community is an important part of corrections, they have pulled the welcome mat in.

A friend of mine wrote his experiences in prison. He spent two years in a Mexican prison and eight years in a Canadian prison. Which did he like better?

In Mexico:

  • The guys did not hate the guards. The attitude was that the guards had a job to do.
  • When families came to visit, the whole family came. They brought big meals and went right up to the cell, where they spread out a feast for the inmate and his cellmates. Children from different families played together in the hall.
  • Local sports teams came into the prison to play football (soccer). My friend boxed his way to a regional title in that area of Mexico.
  • Yes, my friend admitted that Mexican prisons were poor, but they were humane. Canadian prisons had better facilities, but a poor attitude.

A community writer in my creative writing class attended a class in prison right before Christmas. The year before, this volunteer had financed a collection of the inmates’ writing and had it printed at a cost of $3200. When she got home from this Christmas class, she wrote a card to two of the guys. She liked their work and encouraged them to continue. A week later she was dismissed as a volunteer, no warning, no discussion. She was told that she shouldn’t have written to these two guys.

I suggested she appeal, but she was a shy, gentle person who did not like conflict.

A year and a half later I added my name to the list of kicked-out volunteers, as I have written about.

This is not the way to treat volunteers.

Study European prisons – they know that inmates are eventually headed back to the community, so they invite the community in. Inmates need to see that there are other kinds of life, other kinds of people, than those they have met in the crime world.

visit1What can you do? First establish a correspondence with an inmate. Then apply to visit the person. First the inmate has to say that he or she wants to have you as a visitor. Next the prison system approves you as a visitor (in most cases), after they have informed you of all the rules, It’s difficult to do, but it can mean the world to an inmate.

One of my former students from prison sent me this:

A true story – a lifer in one of the Kingston area camps feeds the squirrels.  He was called into the IPSO’s office (prison police) and an explanation was demanded.  He was accused of, “Training the squirrels to run under the fence and bring back packages of drugs.”squirrel
This is now a part of his official record.  So, the next time he goes for a Parole hearing, he may be interrogated about his new “Organized Crime Syndicate.”

These paranoid prison staffers have grave psychological issues.

That story needs no comment from me.

“We will decide what programs you need. Take the programs, work at them, and you will get out sooner.”  (Case Worker).

“Don’t become friends with these inmates. Don’t talk about your personal life. Besides they will use that information to threaten you or hurt you. If they reach out to you, tell them to see the shrink. (Supervisor of programs)

“Theatre, no, we can’t do that here. It’s not therapeutic. Music, painting, and writing, the same. We’re here to do some serious rehab work on you.” (Program facilitator.)

“Your day will be regulated here. Everything is on the clock. We’re preparing you for life on the outside.” (Top director of guards.)

“Do what you’re told. Respect the staff. They’re trying to help you. Don’t talk back, you will just be reported.” (Assistant warden)

  •  Is this an atmosphere for rehabilitation?