Posts Tagged ‘Guards’

It seems to me that I am always criticizing our prison system. But yesterday I had a very positive experience in a local pre-trial center.

I had the privilege of taking a famous writer to this facility. As you probably know, pretrial facilities separate people, so that those who were in a crime together cannot work on their stories. As a result there are many separate sections in pretrial, and they can’t be mixed.

The famous writer did not object to speaking to only two of the six or so units. She was her usual engaging, personal self. Nothing was a problem for her, having her picture taken with the men, moving through all the heavy metal doors, and repeating her talk three times, twice to the men and once to the staff.

Everyone was in a good mood. Was it her charm? Was it the fact of having a NYTimes best seller visit them? Was it that I only saw a small segment of the staff and of the inmates?

Whatever, the morning was filled with laughter and good cheer. There are staff who are human beings and inmates who know how to get along with staff.

It was a lesson for a critical person like me.

Prison officials are experts at euphemism. Just a reminder as to what euphemism is:

The substitution of an inoffensive term for one considered offensively explicit, as in

Pre-owned for used or second-hand

Enhanced interrogation for torture

Wind for belch or fart

Convenience fee for surcharge

“Neutralize” for “kill”


Correctional Centers for prisons. Very few get ‘corrected.’

Convicted offenders are called ‘inmates,’ labeling them as institutionalized and powerless, instead of calling them ‘prisoners.’

‘Feeding Time” is for prisoners. ‘Meal Time’ is for staff.

Guards are just that, they keep prisoners from escaping.

They are not ‘correctional officers,’ living unit officers, classification officers etc.

For more on this, see the latest edition of Out of Bounds, from the prisoners at William Head Prison, page 23

I, for one, fail many times to avoid the euphemisms associated with prison. It’s something to work on.

Inmates should form a union.

Say that line and all manner of objections will arise. “Criminals should not say how they will live their punishment.” “This is a terrible idea – Guards and staff are in charge of the prison, not a bunch of illiterate scum bags.” On and on.

Stop a minute. Think of the idea. Recall the famous line: “Everything that rises, must converge.” It’s the title of the book Flannery O’Connor was working on when she died. But it has a philosophical meaning also – people or a group of people who rise up will converge or meet with the very people who opposed them. If a group of convicts struggle to change the rules they live under, they may or may not succeed. But they will learn what the staff, the guards, are like and they will come to respect them, even if they don’t agree with them.

Everything that rises, must converge.

Here’s an example. Inmates are now told what programs they need before they can move on to a lower security or even be paroled.

But it would be better if the inmates themselves had some say in what programs they were to take. A man might object to taking Anger Management because he’s had the program before and it didn’t help. Or he knows that his real problem is getting along with people who pretend to be better than him. Or – the most common reason – the inmates know that Anger Management is presented by a former mean guard who attended a three month training program on Anger Management, which didn’t do anything about his meanness.

Everything that rises, must converge.

Let’s say a group of prisoners gets together and forms a union around the idea that they should have some say in what programs they are to take. Nobody chooses Anger Management.

Staff gets very upset and cancels the idea that inmates should have a say. The inmates respond by not going to any programs. They stay in their cells.

Time goes on. Administration approaches an inmate who wants to get to minimum, another who wants a PFV (private family visit) with his girlfriend and so forth. If these inmates break the boycott, they’ll be granted their requests. But if management can spy on the union, the union can spy on management. The union finds out which inmates are going to become scabs.

By the next morning, the scabs are in no shape to want anything. No different than any other strike, scabs are dealt with severely.

Though I’m opposed to this violence, I know it will happen. But in the long run, everything that rises, must converge. Union and management slowly see the humanness of the other side. A compromise is reached – the inmates will be asked what programs they want and why before any assignments are made.

Everything that rises, must converge.

For years people said that miners should not have a union, that fast-food workers should not unionize, that teachers should not form a union. I look forward to the day people will talk about inmates having a union.

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.

A friend of mine applied for a job as a Social Program worker. She was anxious to work with inmates to help them adopt pro-social attitudes and she came to the job with considerable experience working with people.

“What do I do on my shift?’

“When the inmates go back to their cells, you collect the basketballs and so forth. You count everything and check for damage.”

“What do I do when the inmates are in free time? Can I help them form reading clubs and things like that?”

“No. No. No. You stay in the office during that time. Watch TV, read a book, sleep, whatever. You have no contact with inmates.”

“But…isn’t that the job, social program officer?”

“Not here.”

She stayed on the job only one day.

When I asked another official for something, he would talk and talk, especially about how busy he was. These discussions took ten to twenty minutes. I knew that in business less than a minute could resolve the question.

In my twenty years volunteering in prison, I saw two men doing the job of one, I saw groups of guards chit-chatting in the bubble, and vacation spots and computer games replacing work on their computers.

These are correctional institutions and the staff must be trained to do the ‘correcting.’ Right now the public is getting ripped off.Do Nothing

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When my daughter suggests I watch a TV show, I take her seriously.  A while back she suggested my wife and I watch House of Cards on Netflix. We’ve finished the first season, and we doubt if we’ll watch another.

But my daughter also mentioned a show called Orange is the New Black on Netflix. I had trouble getting my head around that title, but I gave it a try. My daughter said she liked it because the show was really about women, so unusual for TV.



The story revolves around Piper Chapman, a woman in her thirties who is sentenced to fifteen months in prison, after she is convicted of a decade old crime of transporting money for her drug dealing girlfriend.

It’s based on the 2010 memoir Orange Is the New Black: My Year in a Women’s Prison by Piper Kerman. She wrote the book about her thirteen months at a federal correctional facility in Danbury, Connecticut.

I worked for four years as a teacher in a remand center, where I taught female inmates as well as male. I was impressed by how the show portrayed a woman’s prison. Some things were overdone, but Darcy Bullock on the Internet characterizes the show this way: 8 Ways ‘Orange is the New Black’ is Breaking TV Barriers

  1. The main character doesn’t monopolize the show.
  2. There are characters of color …
  3. Ladies of all sexual preferences.
  4. Female friendship, portrayed as it is.
  5. Portrayal of class divides.
  6. They can say the word abortion.
  7. They reference the Kinsey scale.
  8. A structure so, so suitable for binge watching

Take a look at her whole article,

Men and women in prison forget that there is a world outside. The only reality for them is what goes on inside the bars. Piper forgets an important call about her start-up business on the outside, because the inmates are chasing an almost mystical chicken inside the

If you have Netflix, don’t miss it.

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classroomYears ago I taught creative writing in a maximum security prison in the States. One day I found out what was really important in prison. On this particular Friday, the director told me I had to shorten my class by half an hour. “There’s a group from the state government in Madison coming to inspect the school and it has to be cleared of all inmates. (I wondered why a school should be cleared of its students for an inspection, but I kept my mouth shut.) Instead of two hours, I would only have an hour and a half.

I accepted this change without complaint. At least I had a class that day. Sometimes I drove up to the prison only to find that the place was locked down. The men were confined to their cells and there would be no class. I got the class started quickly and launched into our plan for the day.  After forty-five minutes a young security guard opened the door of the classroom, walked in and, without even a nod to me, interrupted what I was saying and told the men to get out.

I have spent a lot of my life in school.  From the nuns at St. Ann’s to the professors at the University of Wisconsin, everyone held the classroom as inviolate. No one could barge in on a class as this guard had just done. Besides – we had forty-five minutes left.

“There must be some misunderstanding,” I said

The guard looked at me for a second and then faced the men. His face tightened and his voice rose. “I said OUT.”

“We have another forty-five minutes,” Walter said. powerless

“The State Inspection Team is due at 10:30,” Brian added.

Jim looked worried and began to fidget.

“The director of education…” I began.

The guard cut me off. His whole body tensed. “You men get out of this classroom or you go on repor

Nobody moved. “You got no right,” Walter muttered.

“Listen,” I said, trying to find a reasonable answer, “why don’t you check with the director. He’s in his office.”

The young guard’s face flamed red with anger.  “This is your last warning, you men. Get out.”

I saw from Walter’s face that a confrontation was coming. A prison riot could start in the school.   I tried to calm things down.  “Men, I’m going to take this thing right to the top.  Not only is this against what the director said, but it’s an invasion of the classroom.  In my opinion the classroom is sacred.  I’m as angry as you, but for now I suggest you comply.”

Amid angry mutterings, everyone left. I went to the director immediately. When I explained what had happened, he shrugged.  “That’s one of the things about teaching in prison.  You have to learn that security is top.  Just forget it.”

But I didn’t.  On the way out of prison, I stopped at the office and asked to see the head of security.  Surprisingly, he admitted me.  After I explained the situation again, he said, “That’s young Burns, the guy who came into your classroom.”


“His dad worked here until last year.  Had a heart attack.”

“Do you think it’s right to just barge into a classroom?”

“You come up here all the way from Milwaukee?”


“The director of education tells me you volunteer.  Is that right?”

“Yes.  Can I get clear the rules for the classroom?”

“You have to understand this is a prison.  But what we need are more volunteers like you.”

The man was dodging me, not very artfully. “I’m very upset about what happened.”

“Yes, I’m sure you are.  The Department of  Corrections needs good people like you.”

“What about the classroom? Can a guard just barge in like that?”

“This is a prison.”

What could I say?  I had no threat to deliver.  If I said I was walking out and would never teach again, his response would have been indifference.  After fifteen minutes of listening to him give me public relations, I left, defeated.  Security was king.

powerlessI was powerless. Funny. That’s the word convicts use to describe their situation – powerless.

Are convicts powerless? Why do many of then think they are? Why do so many staff think this?

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