Wednesday, November 16, 2005

Worst Jobs - # 3

The phone rang at 2:45 am. With the remnants of a dream still littering the landscape of my mind, I picked up the phone and grunted something unintelligible into it. “This is the Control Center Officer at the penitentiary. The E-Squad Commander needs all E-Squad members to report to the Command Center by 4:00 am.” I started to wake up a little. “What’s up,” I asked. “I’m just calling everyone. You’ll find out when you get here. 4:00 at the command center.” As I jumped in the shower, the possibilities ran through my head. It’s probably not a riot or a hostage situation. There are no inmates out of their cells at this time in the morning. It could be an escape. It could be a fire. I got out of the shower, toweled off and began donning my E-Squad uniform: Black BDU’s and army surplus jump boots. On the way out of the door, I grabbed my riot helmet, riot baton, gas mask and radio. On the way, I stopped at a 24-hour convenience store for a large cup of coffee and a couple of extra packs of smokes. If it is an escape, I could be there for days. I got to the Command Center about the same time as everyone else. Someone had had the foresight to make a big pot of coffee so I helped myself to a refill and took a seat. Nervous energy filled the room as possible scenarios ran through our heads. Nearly everyone was wondering aloud and making guesses on why we had been called. In a few minutes, the E-Squad Commander and the Warden came in and began their briefing. The Warden began by telling us that his office had received several “reports from confidential informants” that a large supply of marijuana had been smuggled into the institution. “Reports from confidential informants” is prisonspeak for what officers call “rat notes.” The Warden’s plan was to keep the prison locked down. The midnight shift would be required to remain on their posts. The day shift, when they arrived, would be organized and sent out to do a cell-by-cell, building-by-building search. The E-Squad would be divided up and perform a drug test on every inmate in the institution. Everyone’s enthusiasm and adrenaline rush evaporated immediately. Drug testing the entire institution meant that a urine sample had to be collected from each inmate. The E-Squad was divided up into groups of four and assigned part of a cell house. My group was assigned the second floor of Echo Block: ninety-one cells, ninety-one unhappy inmates, and ninety-one bottles of piss. A Chain of Custody form is required for each sample. A Chain of Custody form has to be filled out correctly and precisely for the analysis to be valid. Many inmates have had drug charges thrown out of court because of mistakes on the Chain of Custody. Because of this, the E-Squad Commander had picked one in each group of four to be the designated witness. Those officers had to personally and visibly watch every inmate provide a sample. The witness was the only one allowed to touch the sample bottle after the sample was provided. I drew the short straw.I spent the next 10 hours watching ninety-one inmates, with their pants dropped to their knees, pee in a bottle one at a time. Then I had to number and catalog each bottle and sign each Chain of Custody form. I saw more penises that day than your average hooker in Times Square sees during Fleet Week. I could probably still pick a few out of a line-up if I had to.

Monday, November 07, 2005


[The other Uncle Wally Story]

As I’ve stated elsewhere, a correctional officer’s shift, on most days and on most posts, is thankfully, completely uneventful. Hours of boredom are matched only by the seemingly endless tedium of routine tasks done at the same time, in the same place, and in the same way every day. Inmates and staff both grow accustomed to the routine, becoming “institutionalized.” That is why Morgan Freeman’s character in The Shawshank Redemption, when released on parole, couldn’t even pee without asking permission. Of course there are not many stories worth telling about the boring days on boring posts. Just as the ninety percent or more of inmates who mostly follow the rules, doing their time the best they can under trying circumstances don’t make good characters.

As you can tell if you’ve read any of my other stories, the segregation unit is seldom one of those boring posts. That is especially true to the officer assigned to work what is affectionately known as the “nut walk.” A list of the “eccentricities” of inmates who have been housed on the “nut walk” would be to long to mention, but here are some highlights: an inmate who jammed a ball-point pen down his penis, another who cut his scrotum open with a razor blade and took his testicles out and played with them, many who finger-paint on the wall with shit, and one rather industrious fellow who made a complete chess set out of turds and toilet paper.

I was working the “nut walk” one night on midnight shift. It was one of those rarely encountered, uneventful nights. Evidently, the “patients” had wreaked enough havoc on the previous shifts to warrant a much needed rest. Never look a gift horse in the mouth I always say. I was reflecting on my good fortune when Sgt. Landers walked up to me. “Call the other walk officers. We’re going to do some training.” Sgt. Landers is one of those people who never get excited about anything. He talks in a slow drawl that leads some to believe he’s not too bright. That is not the case at all. Sgt. Landers is one of the few people I would want to be standing next to when the defecation hits the electric oscillator. On this particular day however, I would come to wish he had had the day off.

I called my fellow seg unit officers and we all congregated in front of the “nut walk.” Sgt. Landers began by pulling his canister of mace out of its holster. Seg unit officers at that time were allowed to carry mace and this required a periodic review of our mace training. Sgt. Landers began, “When it becomes necessary to use the mace, you aim for the convict’s chest, not his face. You spray in two-second bursts, with five seconds rest in between bursts, until the convict’s behavior is modified.” He spouted the party line while demonstrating with exaggerated motions the proper way to mace someone. “I think we need an example,” Landers said.

He instructed the cage officer, who controls the doors, to open the “nut walk” gate. He walked up to cell one, which just happened to be occupied by Uncle Wally. (See previous post for more information on this colorful character.) The cells in the seg unit have solid steel fronts with only a small window for viewing into the cell and a locked tray slot through which the inmate receives his food. All that meanness has to rest sometime and as Landers peered through the window, Uncle Wally was sound asleep. Sgt. Landers turned to us and reviewed, “Two second bursts with five seconds in between bursts.” Then he took the lock from Uncle Wally’s tray slot, opened the slot, and began beating on the door with the lock and hollering “Wally! Wally! Get up!”

From inside the cell, we heard Uncle Wally’s tirade begin. “What the f#$%? You son of %&%&. Get the %$&* away from my %^&*%$* door!” Uncle Wally then leaned his head sideways and stuck his face right in the tray slot opening. Sgt. Landers let him have it right between the eyes from about six inches away. Uncle Wally fell away from the door and started coughing as the mace began to work. In between coughs the cussing started in earnest. The whole walk woke up and joined in.

For the remainder of my shift the door rattling, yelling and screaming never quit. As Sgt. Landers left the walk, he just smiled contentedly and said, “That sounds more like it.” Then he turned to the assembled officers standing with their mouths agape and said, “You’re training for tonight is complete. You may return to your walks.” So much for a quiet night.

Tuesday, November 01, 2005

Uncle Wally

[One of my friend, WordWhiz's favorites, slightly edited.]

As the only maximum-security correctional facility in this state, my institution is home to death row, inmates with extremely long sentences, the most violent offenders, escape risks, and is the last stop for any inmate too wild or uncontrollable for the other institutions to handle. Perched on one of the choicest pieces of waterfront real estate in the area, this institution has been in business since the 1890’s. Inmates call it “the castle.” It truly is something to see from the water at night, all lit up, looking like an impregnable fortress. The institution has been featured a couple of times on The Discovery Channel. Also, most of the location shots for the movie, “The Last Dance,” starring Sharon Stone, Rob Morrow, and Randy Quaid were filmed here. Rob and Randy were here. Sadly, Sharon was not, but her stand-in was.

Uncle Wally was one of those wild and uncontrollable inmates that made his way through all the other institutions before he was shipped to us at the end of the line. Uncle Wally was originally sentenced to 5 years for manslaughter II and could have been home in 3 years, but by the time he made his way here, he had picked up an additional 20 years for various assault charges. He was the most cantankerous, mean-spirited old man I’ve ever met. Raised in the hills and “hollers,” I’m sure his mother and father were pretty close kin, siblings or at least first cousins. One of Uncle Wally’s favorites from his bag o’ tricks was filling a toothpaste tube with a mixture of excrement and urine and squirting it at staff as they walked by. He flooded the walk so many times that finally his water was left off and only turned on once a day so he could flush. He liked to scream and yell, cuss anybody and everybody, bang on his cell bars all night long, spit at you, piss at you and he talked like Mr. Haney from “Green Acres.”

One time, Sgt. Whitsend and I had the unenviable task of transporting Uncle Wally back to his home county for a court appearance. Spending six hours in the same vehicle with this nasty, smelly old codger was not on anybody’s to do list. In addition to being cuffed and shackled, we were authorized to bring a pillow case along to place over his head if he started spitting on us, such was Uncle Wally's charm. Uncle Wally was unusually subdued for a couple of hours until he decided he wanted a smoke. We told him we weren’t stopping for him to smoke, and that’s when it started. He began cussing us like cussing was an Olympic event and he was going for the gold. He began by questioning are parentage and said many things that I’m pretty sure are anatomically impossible. He was banging against the door, knocking his head against the window, and kicking the seat. I made a mistake and told him he could have a smoke when we stopped for a bathroom break. Then he started saying how bad he had to go. He threatened to piss on himself, the car, and us if we didn’t stop.

Finally, Sgt. Whitsend had enough. He took the next exit and drove until he found an uninhabited road. He turned on the road and drove till we were out of sight of anything or anybody. Then he pulled over to the side of the road. Uncle Wally said, “What are you doing, you &^#$@(*^& ?”

Whitsend got out of the car and pulled out his revolver. He went to the back door, opened it and pointed the pistol right at Uncle Wally’s head. Then he said, “Wally, do you know what road this is?”

Wally said, “You’re a #^%#$ idiot. What are you, lost?”

Sgt. Whitsend smiled and said, “No. This is the road that you tried to escape on.” Then he pulled back the hammer on the .38. Uncle Wally, to his credit, got the meaning right away. He was a model prisoner for us the rest of the trip. I’m still not sure if Sgt. Whitsend was bluffing or not. Neither was Uncle Wally.