Wednesday, March 15, 2006

The Off-White is a Little Off

Many of the comments to the last post questioned why an inmate would swallow a pen and stick a spork where the sun don't shine. (By the way, after the inmate told me his "secret," I informed the officer and the x-ray tech. The inmate wasn't lying. Medical staff removed the spork by hand but the pen had to be removed surgically at an outside hospital. He returned to our institution, sans pen, over the weekend.) From my experience, some inmates act out like this for attention. The others are just nuts. Not being a psychologist, that's not a medical opinion, but why else? As I've said before, there has been an inmate who cut open his sack and took out his balls and played with them, another jammed an ink pen down his penis, others fingerpaint their walls with shit, and others make fecal chess sets. We end up with them because they are dangerous, but they really belong in a mental institution.

I can't think of a new story to share, but the fingerpainting reminded me of the following post from the old blog. For my newer readers, it's just like a brand new post. For the long-time faithful readers, just reminisce...

This institution always has money in the budget for paint. There is no money for salary increases, edible food for the inmates, or rehabilitation programs that work; but paint, yes, we have to have lots of paint. The theory is that if you slap enough wax on the floors and throw enough paint on the walls and bars, the place at least looks good. In a never-ending process, the whole place gets a new paint face-lift every year, always with the same colors though: Battleship gray and off-white.

About seven years ago, F-Block was being re-painted. The janitors were kept busy painting and setting up and tearing down scaffolding. The tyrant in charge of this operation was the cell house walk officer we call Quick-Draw. Quick-Draw got his nickname one day at the firing range. He was pulling his .38 out of his holster and spinning it on his finger, wild-west style. Another officer asked him if he had a pistol at home. He replied, “No, but my wife does. She lets me practice.” Quick-Draw’s inmate supervisory style was simple. He was a practitioner of the “you will do it because I say so and if you don’t, I will write you up” technique. Several janitors quit and others were fired before the cell house painting neared completion. All that remained to be painted was Quick-Draw’s office.

The disgruntled inmate janitor given the job of painting the office decided that a slight color change in the paint scheme was needed. While Quick-Draw was off harassing some other hapless worker, the janitor closed the door to Q-D’s office and promptly took a dump in the paint bucket. He stirred until the paint was thoroughly mixed. (I don’t know what he did about the lumps. Perhaps the previous night’s meal was bean burritos, rendering his “evacuation” lump-less.) The janitor then painted Quick-Draw’s office with the newly mixed paint. The office was locked up until the next day for the paint to dry.

The next day, Quick-Draw entered his office. He thought the new paint smelled rather peculiar. He decided that some inmate must have left something in his office. He searched through his filing cabinets and his desk for the offensive odor. For the next week, anyone who made rounds in F-Block and stopped by Quick-Draw’s office immediately wrinkled their noses and remarked about the malodorous smell. Finally, either the janitor fessed up (unlikely) or another janitor ratted him out (very likely.) The office was re-painted with several coats of sealer, before new paint was applied. The office has had at least seven more coats of paint since then, but if you have very strong fingernails, I bet you could still get some “Scratch-N-Sniff” action.

Friday, March 10, 2006

The Pen is Tastier than the Sword, or Have You Seen My Spork?

This one is hot off the presses, folks. This incident just happened yesterday.

I was escorting some outside contractors to various parts of the institution. One of the places they needed to go was the hospital. Technically, it’s the infirmary now, but we old-timers still call it the hospital. We were let in through the outer door into a caged area, called a “sallyport,” then through the inner door. To our right, the waiting room area contained only one segregation inmate and his officer escort. I took the contractors where they needed to go and left them to their work while I returned to the waiting area.

Segregation inmates wear only yellow, from their outer clothes, which are similar to a set of hospital scrubs, down to their state issued boxers and tee-shirts. Even their canvas slip-on shoes are dyed yellow. By policy, whenever a seg inmate is escorted out of the unit, like to the hospital for instance, he must have his hands cuffed behind the back and his legs shackled. The inmate in the hospital waiting room yesterday was thusly attired, but he was wearing a new accessory which I had never before seen. He had a black leather and canvas mask strapped to his face. So you can get a visual in your mind’s eye of what it looked like, I would describe it as a cross between the mask worn by Hannibal Lector in Silence of the Lambs, and the one worn by Darth Vader in Star Wars.

I sat next to the officer escort, a fairly new officer that I didn’t know except by name, and asked, “What’s with the mask?”

“Oh, he’s a spitter. That’s the new spit shield.”

I replied, “We used to use those mesh bags on spitters.”

“We quit using them awhile back after uncle Wally chewed through one.”

I laughed, “Leave it to Uncle Wally.” Motioning toward the inmate, I asked, “What’s he down here for?”

“He’s got to get x-rayed. He’s supposed to have swallowed an ink pen. It’s something everyday with this idiot.”

“Some things never change. Seg always has been more of a nuthouse than anything else.”

Neither of us said anything for a minute, and then the officer asked, “Are you going to be here for a few minutes?”

“Yeah, I guess so.”

“Would you stay with him,” he nodded at the inmate, “while I use the bathroom and grab a cup of coffee?”

“No problem.”

“Thanks. I’ll be right back.” He left to use the facilities. I moved into his seat next to the inmate.

So far, the inmate had said nothing. I asked him, “Did you really swallow an ink pen?”

The mask made it hard for him to talk. All his words came out muffled and slurred but I think he said, “Huh-huh. Yep. Huh-huh.” The “Huh-huh,” I was soon to learn, was a chuckle with which he started and ended every statement.

“Why did you do that?”

“Huh-huh. I don’t know. Huh-huh.” After a few seconds he said, “Huh-huh. You want to know a secret? Huh-huh.”

“Probably not, but go ahead and tell me.”

“Huh-huh. I stuck a spork up my ass, too. Shhhh. Huh-huh.”

Tuesday, March 07, 2006

Clean Sweep

The original cell houses and buildings of Probity State Penitentiary were built in the 1890’s. Echo block was added in the 1930’s during the height of the great depression. It was built under the auspices of the W.P.A., one of the many agencies instituted by Roosevelt’s New Deal programs. Having worked in and around Echo block as an officer, a supervisor, and a maintenance person, I can say that during the 30’s the W.P.A. was more interested in putting people to work than in the quality of the workmanship achieved. Echo block was constructed from inferior materials and designed poorly. An important design flaw was building the cell house on top of the dining room and kitchen. Every time a toilet floods or a water pipe leaks it inevitably leaks down until it drips from the kitchen ceiling; unappetizing at best, unsanitary at worst.

Echo block consists of four floors of 91 cells. Each floor is shaped like an "E." The main hallway has a gate that leads to the exit stairs and also contains the walk officer’s office. Coming off of the main hallway are the three arms of the "E" where the inmates’ cells are located. Two of these "arms" are double walks; a hallway in the middle with cells on either side. Officers dislike this arrangement because the hallway is not wide enough for a patrolling officer to be out of reach of both walks at the same time. Inmates hate these double walks because there is even less privacy than in other cell houses, with another inmate living directly across the hall.

In deference to this lack of privacy, there is a long-standing, unwritten rule allowing inmates to put up a privacy screen, consisting of a sheet or towel hung up on the cell bars. In practice, the privacy screen should be hung low enough that an officer can still see over it if needed and are only to remain up long enough for an inmate to take care of the essentials; namely, sitting on the crapper or running off a batch by hand. To use Seinfeldian terminology, few here, if any, are "masters of their domain." I, as an officer, have no desire to witness either bodily function so I welcome the privacy screen. I never find it necessary to peer over it, either. If I need to verify that an inmate is in his cell, I just speak to them.

Several years ago, I was the midnight shift walk officer on first floor, echo block. On midnight shift, the only duty of a walk officer for the first six hours is to make the scheduled counts and call them in, and make "random" rounds at least every thirty minutes. (I always wondered how random a round could be when you have to make one every thirty minutes, but I digress.) At 5am, the officer has to wake the kitchen workers if there are any on his post and let them out to go to work. At 6am, the officer has to wake everyone up for breakfast.

It was a little after 6am when the Senior Captain showed up at my post to make rounds. This was a little out of the ordinary. He normally didn't come to work until 7. Maybe he thought he could catch somebody sleeping, but he would have had to show up a couple of hours earlier for that. I walked with him as he made rounds. After we came off of the first walk, he started chewing on my ass a little about all the people that had privacy screens up. I tried to explain that I just woke them up for breakfast and they were just taking care of their morning business. Well, the captain wasn't hearing any excuses. He began lecturing me about the old days, more or less implying that I was a weak officer for letting them get away with putting up a privacy screen. He asked me how I could ever really know they were in their cell. I told him I could look over the top of the screen if I felt the need, but I usually just talked to them. I admit I said this in a kind of superior tone, which kind of pissed him off. When we started down the next walk he was mad and decided to show me how a good officer took charge.

We were four or five cells down the walk when we encountered another cell sporting a privacy screen. Captain said, "You, in cell 5, take down this sheet."

The inmate replied in a strained voice, "In a minute." I swear I thought he must be taking a dump.

The Captain said, "I said take this sheet down and I mean now!" But he didn't wait for the inmate to comply. He reached up and jerked one corner of the sheet down himself. Neither of us was prepared for what we saw. The inmate was lying on his bed, legs stuck in the air. In one hand he had a broom about two feet long that inmates are issued to clean their cells. He was riding that broom handle in a frenzy, and I don't mean like the wicked witch of the east would ride a broom. To complete the picture, in his other hand, he had a small mirror positioned so he could watch the process, up close and personal. I turned my head quickly, not quickly enough, but quickly. The Captain stood their dumbfounded for a few seconds, then he turned and exited the walk. He never finished making rounds.

I came off the walk and locked the walk door. We both stood there in silence for a minute then I said, "Sometimes those privacy screens are good things." The Captain never said another word to me, in fact he didn't speak to me for several weeks. He just motioned toward the the crash gate by the exit stairs and I let him out. I think he lost his appetite for breakfast.

Wednesday, March 01, 2006

Time Capsule

I have some additional thoughts on our friend Carl Ray, mentioned in the post below. If you haven’t read about his little misadventure yet, read it first.

It’s funny to think that anyone could be fooled into believing that a fancy thermometer is some sort of new-fangled lie detector. I found it humorous and thought that you would, too. Obviously, inmate Carl Ray is not the brightest crayon in the box, the sharpest tool in the shed, the crispiest cracker in the box, or whatever metaphor you choose. In Carl’s defense though, he had been locked up for twenty years or so when the incident happened. Think how much new technology has been introduced in the last twenty to twenty-five years. In his way of thinking it was entirely possible that there was a hand-held polygraph.

In some ways, Probity State Penitentiary is like a time capsule stuck in…I’d guess about the 70’s. We are making headway. When I started working here I’d say we were still stuck in the 50’s. When I worked the legal office, about 10 years ago, was the first time that inmates were allowed to use electric typewriters. The administration only allowed me to make that update because we could no longer find anyone to repair the old manuals. The legal office still has those same electric typewriters today. Now they’re having trouble getting those repaired, so sometime in the next couple of years I expect them to update to computer terminals. We’ll see. Change comes hard and slow around here.

Inmates only have a limited number of TV stations available, although that is better than it used to be, too. So unless an inmate actively tries to remain abreast of technological advances in the real world by reading the right magazines and watching the right programs, they are left behind while the world marches on. Most old time inmates I know spend more time watching sports and reading (?) porn than checking out the latest technological innovations. And really, why should they care that one can surf the net on a cell phone now. They’ll never have a cell phone and most have never experienced the internet.

There own small world also changes without them while they are locked up. Now I’m not talking about technology, but personal things. And no, I don’t feel sorry for them. They did what they did and now they have to pay the piper. I’m just recognizing that there are some difficult adjustments to be made for those inmates who get released, and the majority of them do.

In the position I now hold, I have two inmates who work directly for me. Both are serving out there sentences shortly. Brian goes home March 31. He’s been locked up on this stint about 4 years. Many things have happened in his family during those 4 years. His oldest daughter was molested by a family acquaintance. His mother was diagnosed with inoperable lung cancer. His older brother, long the most stable and successful of his siblings, out of nowhere started experiencing severe mental problems. The brother lost his job, his house and is in and out of mental institutions, putting more of an emotional drain on his already sick mother. Then about four months ago, Brian’s wife decided she was leaving him. Then she changed her mind. Then she changed it back. Then back again. He’ll have a lot of adjustments to make and relationships to renew when he re-enters the real world. Brian is a hard worker and determined to work things out. I have a reasonable amount of faith that he’ll make it, if he can stay away from the alcohol.

My other worker, Mike, I’ve written about before. Look down a few posts to find it. Mike’s family is a screwed up mess. That is why when he was on the streets he lived with his grandmother. A few months back she had some health problems and now resides in a nursing home. Then back in November, a tornado tore threw his hometown and demolished both his grandmother’s and his father’s houses. So literally, when he leaves the friendly confines of Probity on May 1, he has no place to go. He is working through the V.A. to find a job and a place to live. Mike has a strange outlook on life. I hope he makes it, but if I were a betting man I’d give him no better than a 50-50 chance.

It does sound like I feel a little sorry for them. I’d love to see them both make it. I’d like every inmate who gets to walk out of here make good on their second (or third, or fourth…) chance. I guess I’m really wishing that I’d be out of a job.