The First Guard You Meet

Posted: December 29, 2013 by Ed Griffin in Prison, Reform
Tags: , , , , , , , ,

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.

  1. Joanne says:

    I think your last line says it all. Many correctional officers simply do as they are told, often without question. If they were trained to treat visitors with respect instead of as the potential enemy to be stopped from bringing in contraband, things might be a bit different.

    • Ed Griffin says:

      Thanks, Joanne. As I understand it, federal officers are paid well. What if the job were portrayed as a ‘good’ job, benefits, a good salary etc. If it isn’t this way, then what would happen if the pay was good, if respect came from the top down? It seems that all it would take is for management to say, “This is important. These people pay our salary. These people help us accomplish our goals.”
      Maybe I’m oversimplifying things, but it seems so possible to change habits.

  2. I am that visitor waiting to see my loved one. Many hours have been spent waiting on hard benches or chairs, listening to COs joke while we anxiously wait our turn. I’ve often thought what they must think of me, obviously middle class and educated, yet visiting twice a week without fail. Your thoughts made me remember… thank you for your thoughtfulness and insight.

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