The Scariest Part of Working in a Prison Isn’t the Prisoners

“I’m a substance abuse counselor in a prison.”

It’s always interesting to see how people react when they hear what I do for work. It’s one of the go-to small talk questions, and so most people ask it just to be polite, answer going in one ear and out the other, forgotten by conversation’s end. But when I respond with my job description, people’s ears tend to perk up. After the “wow”s and “so cool”s and “I didn’t expect you to say that”s, the follow up questions come. People have lots of questions about my line of work, but the one that always gets asked without fail is:

“Is it scary?!”

And hidden in those words, the real, underlying comment:

“Those people scare me.”

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I have been working in Massachusetts Correctional Institutions for about 4 months now. Every morning I am greeted by brick extending into sky, decorated in barbed wire and punctuated by watch towers. I enter the front door and approach the trap, waiting on an officer to open the large concrete slab door and unveil the metal detector. I hand over my ID and either walk to the next giant locked concrete slab, or get pulled aside into the search room for random, routine body checks. All in all, there are 16 doors I pass through from my car to my office- 7 of which I have control over, and 9 of which must be electronically opened for me through the control of security staff. (It took me a good week to figure out which was which, leading to lots of pulling at locked handles or standing idly in front of open doors). Cell phones are considered contraband and thus remain in the car. I am armed with either a walkie talkie or a body alarm as a means of communication in case of emergency.

And then there is the etiquette. Prison etiquette is not just for the incarcerated- it is for the employees, too. There are certain unwritten rules that you must follow, quirks you must learn if you want to succeed. Make sure that the officers are always happy. (If they want to, they can make your job a living hell. Their support or lack thereof determines how successful your program can be.) DOC rules trump all else. Don’t call anyone a “punk”, it means something different in prison. Don’t throw out fruit in any trash cans the inmates have access to, it can be used to make homebrew. Don’t walk in between bunks when you’re in the unit. Don’t go out on the unit during count or during shift change, that creates a headache for the officers, and remember, you wanna keep them happy. Be careful when discussing any personal matters- the walls have hundreds of ears, hungry for information. Don’t tell your class that they did a “killer job” today, because they will snicker at your adjective choice and make you feel dumb. Always dress in layers, because each unit, phase, office, building, has a different temperature. And the fans are always broken, so if it’s hot, you’re out of luck. Make sure you check the weekly menu for the best lunches- it’s only $1.44 for your salad, soup, main meal and dessert, and prison desserts are outrageously delicious. Especially the chocolate chip cookies and brownies.

It may seem like a lot to remember, but it really doesn’t take that long to acclimate. After a few weeks of trainings and observing, I had the basics down and was ready to embark on the true adventure- working with the inmates. (Sidenote- I don’t particularly like the word “inmate”. I find it dehumanizing, limiting the whole person to their experiences with the criminal justice system. I prefer to call them “incarcerated men.” They may be incarcerated, but it is a temporary adjective describing their current situation. They are still, and most importantly, human beings, men. For the sake of this piece, however, I will refer to them as inmates, because it is what we are asked to refer to them while in the facility.)

My duties are many, but can be boiled down to three central responsibilities: facilitating groups, conducting individual counseling sessions, and working to enforce, maintain, and model a therapeutic community setting. (And, coming in a close fourth, the extensive, meticulous documentation and paperwork attached to these roles). I’m part counselor, part teacher, and part case manager. And despite never really intentionally pursuing substance abuse work, or wanting at all to be any sort of teacher, I find myself really, thoroughly enjoy my job. I have yet to dread going in- in fact, every day there has been something that excites me that I’ve found myself looking forward to. I feel accomplished, useful, and helpful most days while driving home. I’ve only been there 4 months, so I may still be in the honeymoon phase, but I still get excited to walk in through those 16 doors every morning.

Like I said, I really like my job. I do not, however, love it. When I got this job, I told everyone I got my dream job, and I truly thought I had. I’ve wanted to work with incarcerated men for as long as I can remember. But after just two weeks, as I was driving away from the brick and towers and barbed wires, I realized that I was so, so far from my dream. I want to love it, but I just can’t. I don’t think I’ll ever be able to fully, wholeheartedly love it.

As much as I like my job, there is an ever-present tension in my mind and in my heart. You see, I entered this field because I have this overwhelming passion for prison system reform. I think the system is incredibly broken and in need of a major overhaul. I took a job working behind bars because the best way to learn about something is to experience it. I have been reading prison lit for years, doing research on the formation of the prison industrial complex, dissecting mass incarceration along lines of color, poverty, power, and privilege, studying policy and procedure. And yet, books and articles and numbers can only get you so far- I wanted to see it up close, live and breathe it so that I could better understand it and better define what exactly it is that I want reformed. I took this job for experience, for research, to gather intel. I wanted to work for change from the inside out.

And so I am torn, because even though I am on the rehabilitation side of the road, I am working for the system, and the system is inherently broken. And so I have to constantly remind myself to be careful that I am not perpetuating the broken parts. I’m in this precarious situation where in order to succeed and advance to a point where my voice and my influence has a wider reach, I must perform according to DOC standards, follow all the institution’s rules and regulations. And yet how do I do that when I know that many of those rules are flawed?

Let me get back to the question that I am continually asked when I share what I do: Is it scary?

Yes and no. No, “they” are not scary. For the most part, the inmates are incredibly respectful and polite. Particularly the guys I work with, because to be in the program, (which offers incentives like “goodtime”, aka time off of your sentence) you must meet certain expectations. They greet me with hellos and how are yous, hold open doors, give me space when I walk through the facility, apologize if they swear in my presence, do their best to be attentive during class. Every once in awhile someone in the yard catcalls you or gives you a compliment (they’re not allowed to compliment us at all, or ask anything personal, even down to what my favorite color is), but when you call them out on it, they stop. All this to say- they are human beings. Furthermore, they are human beings under strict supervision and regulations, and subsequently are probably even MORE respectful and appropriate than your typical congregation of men. Sometimes people like to remind me that I’m surrounded by “rapists and killers and felons!” and while it is entirely true that there are men in there who are rapists, who have committed murder and felonies, the fact of the matter is that on the “outside,” in my day to day life, I am constantly surrounded by the threat of violence and sexual advances, but without constant surveillance and security personnel. (I’m sorta being tongue in cheek, but not really).

I don’t mean to trivialize the safety issue- obviously there is a reason I have to pass through a bunch of locked doors to get to my office. Safety is always a factor when working with a high-risk population. Sure I can build rapport with inmates, but I should never get comfortable. These men are facing extreme internal and external pressures, have succumbed to them in the past, and very well may do so again. I have one guy on my caseload in particular who I honestly was a bit nervous to meet with one on one for the first time. He came to me with a pretty ugly attempted murder charge, a history of violence towards women, and multiple warnings from other staff members. I was just a little bit on edge when I walked into our first one on one counseling session.

And yet 10 minutes into our meeting, I began to see his character separate into two entities: the human desperately seeking joy and love, and the human who had administered everything but to his victim. He was not too far gone, not some sociopath or inherently evil man- there was still goodness left in him, it just was retreating and in the shade. He needed to get back in touch with it, give it water and light, grow the good. And yet he was consumed by so much darkness that doing so would be a monumentally challenging task.

It was in my individual counseling sessions, with men like the one just mentioned, that I began to notice a pattern, one universally shared trait that almost each and every one of these men had, the common factor that seemed to have acted as catalyst to their criminal behaviors. What is that secret, delinquent trait, you ask?

Trauma.

Want to know the scariest, most terrifying part of prison?

These people are not the sociopaths or psychos or bad seeds that we label them as. (Because it would be easier if they were, right? More justifiable to put them behind bars, lock them in cages like animals?) I have yet to encounter even one inmate who seems intentionally malicious, inherently evil. Instead, I have come face to face with hundreds of men steeped in decades of pain and trauma, men who have lived and breathed violence, abuse, neglect, and addiction since before they were conscious that these things were bad or wrong or not just normal parts of growing up.

We are warehousing mental illness, criminalizing trauma, and punishing poverty.

Prison isn’t full of criminals, it’s full of individuals suffering from PTSD. Children, born addicted themselves, holding their father down while they convulse in withdrawal. Children watching their mother bloodied and bruised in front of their eyes. Children neglected, left for days without authority or safety, without food or a place to sleep. Children touched in violence and in molestation. Children carrying guns because they have felt bullets whiz by their heads, watched their friends bleed out on the pavement, seen the dark brownish stain that blood leaves.

To survive, they make their own rules, put themselves first, and take advantage of any minuscule opportunity to feed or clothe or further themselves they may see. And so their “norm” is off kilter of cookie-cutter societal standards. They are forced to find maladaptive ways to get by. Their crimes are often not willful or malicious, but in reality trauma-reactive and survival seeking.

If they do survive into adulthood, they have done so by breaking the rules. Because the rules weren’t made for them, anyway, the laws weren’t written with their protection and safety in mind. And so as adults, they continue to follow their own codes of survival, and end up exposing new generations of children into the same danger and threats that malnourished and traumatized them. But many of them know no other way to survive.

And furthermore, it’s not just that they know no other way- it’s that they are given no other options. They are no masochists, they don’t create these self-destructive systems. We do.

We streamline people from birth towards imprisonment or death. We create these systems in which certain demographics are set up for failure, and then we punish them for doing exactly what we masterfully planned- failing. We strip schools of funding and resources, we limit access to healthcare, clean water, healthy food, we use the guise of public safety to target and harass, and then we spread poisonous propaganda that it is all their fault. We create legions of people who are forced to navigate this world in survival mode, and in doing so, end up breaking laws. And then we throw them in prison and punish them not just with the time of their sentence, but with the quality of life during that sentence. Trust me, some of the living situations stimulate relapse into addictive behaviors and criminal thought, exacerbate mental health issues, retraumatize these men. And finally, if they make it back into society, we stamp them with stigma for the rest of their lives.

These factors do not justify or excuse crime. These men still need to be held accountable for their actions, for the way they have forever altered the lives around them. These factors do, however, provide insight and demand empathy. If we ask these men to hold themselves accountable, then we must hold ourselves accountable as well, accountable for the flawed and futile system that we have created, perpetuated, and enabled, and the way it has forever altered the lives touched by it.

These men are in desperate need of treatment, of attention, of support, of connection, of rehabilitation, of one human, two ears, that will actually listen to their story and provide them the resources, teach them the skills, to rebuild and move forward. And yet there is just not room for that in the system- social workers, health care professionals, counselors- are either overworked and underpaid, or not even provided enough funding for their jobs to exist. These men need intensive therapy, a licensed clinician who can see them for at least an hour a week. Instead they’re given me, a passionately invested yet inexperienced and unlicensed counselor who is available for two forty minute sessions a month, if that.

It is not that it’s impossible to prevail and succeed- remember, these men are resourceful and resilient beyond your wildest imagination, their souls unrelenting, hearts elastic, somehow always able to bounce back. But we are setting them up for failure, and then chiding them, convincing them that it’s all their fault.

And that is the scariest, most criminal part of working in a prison.

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