Spring and fall each came around twice while I taught inmates in maximum security, but winter defined the prison compound. Icy blasts swept down from the Point of the Mountain with the fury of unleashed demons. Unhindered by chain-link fences and razor wire, the wind sharpened the chill of gray concrete buildings before dashing unrestrained across open fields to the Oquirrh Mountains. Concrete walls, locked doors and barred, reinforced plexiglass windows protected staff from inmates and inmates from each other, but were defenseless against the relentless cold—a cold not just of weather, but the chill of abandoned hope—a chill which permeated the buildings and people in them.
Officers in blue/black uniforms perma- scowled from too many encounters with the refuse of humanity—the depraved, the manipulative, the abused, and the abusive. Arrogant captains and wardens, corrupted by total authority over powerless inmates, strutted like royalty . Medical personnel, who used their healing skills to force psychotic inmates to swallow enough Thorazine to render them harmless to themselves and others, exhibited the lifeless faces of their patients. Hardened eyes of caseworkers revealed their disillusionment from years of fruitless effort to rehabilitate inmates who enter the system, leave, and return, and return, and return. The corrupt atmosphere of a prison makes retaining common humanity, not impossible, but very difficult. Futility, not fear, is the prevailing emotion of prison staff.
I hadn’t wanted to teach first grade when I applied to Jordan District in 1985. I wanted to teach literature or history. To introduce young minds to the great world of ideas beyond the borders of Utah, but jobs were tight and I took the available opening. Three years later, I was burned out with elementary school, and teaching jobs were still tight. I applied for every secondary transfer opening in Jordan District and never even got an interview.
Finally in May, an English position was posted at South Park Academy. I’d never heard of that school, but the post said, “Must be willing to work in a lockdown facility.” That could only mean Utah State Prison. I submitted my application and the principal, called and made an appointment for an interview in a couple of weeks—after a background check clearing me to enter the prison. What was I getting myself into?
George was even more skeptical. “It’s the worst feeling in the world to hear the doors clang shut behind you,” he cautioned. Since he’d had some experience with jail as a young sailor, I didn’t disregard his warning. But I was desperate to get out of first grade. I know it’s unfeminine, especially in my culture, to express anything but love and tenderness for small children, but I had been teaching and loving little children, including my own five, for over twenty years and my love and tenderness had scabbed over. I needed to work with students nobody expected me to love—convicted felons certainly met that criterion.
I drove out to my interview visualizing scenes from prison movies—trying to banish words like “hostage” and “gang rape” from my mind. I heard myself singing the words from Tex Ritter’s song: “He made a vow while in state prison/ Vowed it would be my life or his’n.” As I drove into the parking lot at the Young Adult Correction Facility (YACF), a sign informed me that I was entering Utah State Prison property and had better not have any firearms or alcohol in my possession. Were armed guards going to search my car? My person? “I don’t have to work here,” I told myself. “I’ll just take the tour.”
Obviously the tour convinced me, because I stayed and taught at USP for five memorable years.