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Archive for the ‘Prison Stories’ Category

I Liked Teaching Prison Inmates, but ….

Wally, a husky Ute student, blossomed when I worked with him individually in a lockdown building. He mourned when I was assigned to the regular school in minimum security. Two years later, he was moved to minimum security and placed in my U.S. History class.

I didn’t realize that Wally might feel overwhelmed in a classroom with 15 or 16 other students. On his first test day, I didn’t see him leave class without turning in his test. He offered it to me the next day after class. Since our students were all criminals, the school had strict policies about cheating. The secretary informed all students of school policies when they enrolled, and they signed an agreement to abide. I repeated the rule that no tests could be taken from the classroom and showed Wally the bold type on top of the page: “Do Not Take This Test Outside The Classroom: NO CREDIT.”

“I can’t accept a test which you took home.”

“Can I get credit for this chapter?”         

“No, but we’re starting on the next chapter. You can do that work, take the test, and get credit for it.” 

Wally’s eyes narrowed and his voice rose. “Then I did all the work on this chapter for nothing?”

“I’m sorry. I can’t accept your test. That’s school policy.”

Wally pleaded. “I read slow. I needed more time to finish, so I took it to my house.”

“You didn’t tell me you needed more time to finish. I could have given you a few extra minutes.”

“Just take my test this time.”

“I’m sorry, I can’t.”

By now everyone else had exited the school for lunch.  Wally took a step toward me. His jaw tightened. His voice rasped as if he were fighting to hold back tears. “You’re saying I cheated!”

 “I didn’t say you cheated. Taking a test out of the school is against the rules. I can’t accept it.”

Wally’s black eyes sent me a look of pure hatred as he wadded up his test, threw it in my face, and stomped from the room. I was shocked. He had been such an amiable lockdown student. I didn’t intend to drop him from school over the issue and dismissed it from my mind. The next day Martin, the school psychologist, came into my room. Wally had asked Martin to keep him from being dropped from school. Wally said I’d called him a liar and a cheater.  He told Martin he’d been so mad, it was all he could do to keep from picking up a desk and hitting me on the head.

My knees quivered as I heard of Wally’s rage. Martin put his arm around my shoulder. “Are you okay?” Martin reassured me until I quit trembling, but I was left knowing I had let my guard down. I had gotten too comfortable. I should not have stayed alone in the school with a student, angry or not. Wally could have killed me.

Why had I been unaware of Wally’s rage? I think now it was because I expected him to react as I would have. I had not accused him of cheating. I could understand disappointment, but not fury at having a rule enforced. I had briefly forgotten I was dealing with a person who sees the world entirely differently from the way I do.

 Did Wally take the test with the intent to find the answers in the book or from a friend outside of class? Probably. Wally was dropped from school—possibly he was sent to another facility. I never saw him again.

This event caused me to qualify the statement, “I like my students” by adding “in prison” to the phrase. Inmates can be agreeable, even fun, within the confines of prison walls, but that doesn’t mean they can function outside a strictly controlled environment.

Safe Sex, Inmates, and Me

I was teaching high school completion classes at Utah State Prison when the AIDS epidemic struck. Several inmates were HIV positive and all were concerned about transmission of the disease. Aaron, a student, was locked down for several days because he severely beat a new cellmate who claimed to be HIV positive. The logic of beating and bloodying a possibly HIV infected man probably explains the kind of thinking that brought Aaron to prison. Possibly the cellmate only said he was HIV positive to prevent Aaron from raping him. I didn’t know everything that went on back in the cells.

Inmates were full of information about AIDS, most of it wrong. After lunch one day, information flew that an HIV positive culinary worker had cut his finger while making the salad and his blood had contaminated the food. I called the state health department and learned the HIV virus doesn’t live long outside the human body except in laboratory conditions. We were not likely at risk.

My principal decided to make a one-quarter credit class in AIDS information mandatory for South Park Academy graduates. She dumped the job on me although my expertise was limited to a health education class at BYU 25 years earlier. During my four years at the prison I had learned more about deviant sex practices than I ever wanted to know, but I was hardly qualified to teach safe sex to inmates.  My own teenagers still razzed me about teaching them the facts of life with pictures of a cat’s reproductive system.

I needed to keep my job, so I contacted the state health department for information and put together a curriculum. I found the information about how a virus attacks body cells quite fascinating. I had no problem explaining how the virus enters the bloodstream via dirty needles, but I wasn’t keen on giving detailed instruction on how anal intercourse facilitates the spread of the virus. Fortunately, I found a film designed to teach prison populations about the risks of AIDS. I turned on the TV, switched off the lights, and sat in merciful darkness while the film gave my students the straight pitch—no scientific terms for body parts to muddy the waters.

More Prison Stories–Memorable Staff

Teaching at the prison would have been far less interesting without my colleague, Lark. She was intrigued by the abnormal.  Her quest for the bizarre elicited juicy tidbits about staff as well as inmates. We wondered why one woman was promoted to captain. She was unprofessional enough to get into shouting matches with inmates, yelling things like, “Don’t think you’re so damned hot! I can go home at night and you can’t!” Lark’s questioning of staff elicited the answer:  The new captain was sleeping with one of the wardens. Lark also ferreted out the gossip behind another female officer’s promotion over men with more experience.  A boob job.

Lark and I worked from the school area in the Old Max building. Three male teachers taught classes limited to 15 students each at Old Max. Mike, the officer in charge of the school, referred to us as “those women,” but warmed up when we didn’t cause him any grief with the inmates. Hailing from out of state, Mike frequently pronounced Mormons without the second M.

Winken, Blinken, and Nod, the male teachers, accepted us with less joy. I’d been hired to replace their friend who had been forced out by the principal. My predecessor took clandestine days off believing the principal couldn’t check lockdown buildings and find he hadn’t shown up. His friends suspected Lark and me of being spies and resented sharing their space with women. It took a while for Winken to remember to shut the bathroom door when we might return to the office.

The male teachers despised inmates. They spent their teaching time behind their desks reading LDS theology while inmate tutors helped their students with lesson packets. During prep time, they discussed their reading material. Winken favored material on the far fringes of Mormon thought. One day he told me about a new book that explained that the Lost Ten Tribes are on another planet.

“How did they get on another planet?”

“The Bible says they were carried away to the North. This book explains how they could have traveled to the North Pole and another planet could have touched down there for them to climb on. It’s possible.”

“Winken, do you know what would happen to the earth’s gravitational field if another planet approached that close?”

“God can do anything.” Fortunately, Winken was not the science teacher.

Mostly, the men stayed in their classrooms, and Lark and I stayed in our office when we weren’t teaching. Nod hung around the office more than Winken and Blinken because he liked to discuss Church History with me—I thought. Nod was well read on controversial issues, especially polygamy. He believed this doctrine was only temporarily abandoned by the church and he held out hope for its reinstitution—if not in this life, definitely in the next. Our inmate clerk deflated my ego by informing me that Nod hung around, not for my intellectually stimulating conversation, but for Lark’s good looks.

Big Ed–More Prison Stories

Teachers at USP were allowed to read the case histories of our students and other inmates with whom we dealt. Case histories were pretty depressing, but in most cases less colorful than the stories the officers and inmates concocted. The most bizarre story I heard was about Big Ed, a burly inmate who had supposedly killed his girl friend and kept her body in a freezer—taking her out for a drive in his car occasionally.  In the official version, he met a woman in a bar, went home with her, had sex, killed her, and kept the body in the trunk of his car. 

Big Ed was trying to get himself declared insane and moved to the State Mental Hospital in Provo by the disgusting technique of throwing urine and feces on officers approaching his cell. He applied for a job as a tutor for my students, but I hired a more stable inmate. The prison grapevine informed me that Big Ed had it in for me. I noticed he kept asking to come out into the visitors’ area to use the phone when I was teaching in his building. One day while he was out, the officer on the floor disappeared. Big Ed walked behind me and stood whispering hoarsely, “F__k! F__k! F__k!” while I collected homework from my students.

Was he trying to scare me? Would he attack? Big Ed was half a foot taller and 100 pounds heavier than I was. Officers could see the visiting area from the control station, but I could be dead before they arrived to pull Big Ed from my battered body. Three students were working with me, but the first rule for prison staff is, “Never expect an inmate to defend you.” No, I couldn’t expect help from my students if Big Ed struck. They probably feared him as much as I did, and they had to live with him. I fought back hysteria that welled up in my stomach, advanced to my chest, and gripped my shoulders and neck. School was the only bright point of my students’ lives. If I broke and ran, they would have no class until the following week.

I stayed, hoping God would protect me since I couldn’t count on anyone else. I launched into my writing lesson, hoping my voice sounded close to normal. “Vincent, will you read this newspaper clipping?” Vincent read with great expression the news account of a man who was showing his young son how to handle rattlesnakes. The snake bit him and the enraged man put the snake’s head in his mouth and bit it off, but not before receiving multiple bites on his tongue and mouth. “Jeez! That guy was either drunk or crazy, “ Marco said. I agreed and wondered about the crazy behind me. Where were the damned officers?

I proceeded mechanically through the lesson. “Who besides the man might have seen this event?”

“The kids.”

 “The snake.”

“Maybe his wife.”

 “The ambulance driver.”

My students suggested several possibilities. Fortunately, this activity held their attention without much direction from me. Should I look over my shoulder at Big Ed or might that set him off? Should I move my students to another table? Would Big Ed follow?

 I forced my attention back to my students. “Choose a person or animal that could have been there and pretend you are that person and you’re telling somebody else what happened.

“But snakes can’t talk.”

“Well, be the kind of snake that can talk. This is a freewrite, so don’t worry about your spelling or punctuation. We’ll write for five minutes.” And I hope I live that long.

I scribbled away wondering whether Big Ed’s venting was relieving his frustration or building it up to a fatal (for me) climax. After five minutes my students shared their writing. Big Ed continued to whisper, but did nothing more. Maybe the point of view stories entertained him. Maybe his blood sugar was down just before lunch and he didn’t have the energy to launch a physical assault. Maybe God does watch over fools and prison teachers. “Finish the packets at home and I’ll see you next week,” I said as I scooped books, packets, and papers into my bag. I moved to the outside door, and my students headed back to their cells. Big Ed followed them. Their door clicked open and they re-entered their section. When they were locked back in, the outside door clicked open and I escaped.

Once I returned to my office and collected my wits, I phoned the lead officer and told him I refused to teach in that building if they let Big Ed out while I was there. “Don’t worry,” he said. “Big Ed’s getting moved to Uinta 2.”  In order to convince the staff he was insane, Big Ed had cut a vein and thrown blood all over his cell that morning. He was moved to Uinta 2, the most secure building, that week and I never saw him again.

Initiation–More Prison Memoir

Adjusting to a new job is a challenge for most people. But learning the prison routine as well as new teaching duties sometimes felt like navigating the rolling barrels through an amusement park fun house. Prison officers must manage criminals, some of them mentally ill. They not only have to keep the inmates locked away from society, they must protect prison staff from inmates and inmates from each other. Inmates must receive humane treatment and legal resources. All the rights and privileges inmates receive must be delivered by the officers: Meals, medical services, visits from family, friends, and lawyers, church services, and telephone calls. Prison officers facilitate all these needs for inmates who generally express about as much gratitude for services rendered as a typical pet goldfish. Prison officers do not relish new programs that increase their work load.

Drugs and alcohol are a perpetual problem. Drugs come in with staff and visitors. Bags and purses, even jackets are subject to search before entering prison buildings, but neither staff nor visitors are strip searched. Alcohol is concocted by inmates in their cells. They ferment fruit juice with a piece of bread, hoping the aroma of the frothing mess will not be noticed by officers. Teaching at the prison put me in contact with the kinds of people and situations my parents had warned me against while I was growing up.

“You will have to do PR with the officers in the lockdown units. They don’t like teachers,” our principal had warned Lark, the other lockdown teacher, and me. So, we spent our first morning visiting the lockdown buildings and introducing ourselves to the officers in charge. We started with the two Oquirrh buildings, the lowest level of lockdown security. They were reached by exiting the back door of Old Max and walking a path between fences to the Oquirrh compound where we buzzed a gate for the officer in the control tower to let us through. Twelve-foot fences topped with rolled razor wire separated the two  identical Oquirrh buildings  from the minimum security yard. A small area for outdoor exercise was fenced off to one side of each building. Inmates in this compound wore red jumpsuits.

The buildings were entered through a locked outer door leading to a small entry where we identified ourselves through the intercom and waited for the second door to unlock. The door clicked and we walked into a large room furnished with concrete tables and benches. This was the day room where inmates met with visitors. A floor to ceiling window separated the day room from the inmates’ recreation area where they watched TV, did body building exercises—and stared at visitors—especially women visitors.

An officer sat at a desk about fifteen feet from the door. We walked past two 5-foot high screens,  introduced ourselves, gave him a list of our students, and asked what times would be best for us to work in his building. “Just sit down a minutes, ladies,” he grunted. We sat on a bench near the door and waited several minutes while he ignored us. The door buzzed and we saw a group of about ten inmates escorted by an officer waiting for admittance. The officer at the desk told us to move across the room, and we retreated hastily from the door. We parked ourselves on a bench as far from the door as possible, not realizing that sitting in front of the window dividing this room from the inmates’ area would create a rush of attention behind us. Fortunately, the window was soundproof. We couldn’t  hear the comments, but we had a pretty good idea the excited inmates were not discussing the weather. I turned back to the door and saw officers pulling on latex gloves and escorting two of the returning inmates at a time behind the screens. Inmates waiting their turn to go behind the screen ogled us from across the room. Inmates ogled us from behind what I fervently hoped was a shatterproof window. Heads bobbed from behind the screen; socks were flung over the top, followed by red jumpsuits, then jockey shorts. I turned to Lark. “What is going on?” “Must be a strip-search,” she whispered. Being trapped in a room with apparently naked inmates between us and the door, hyper inmates behind us, and hostile officers ignoring us was more than either of Lark or I had bargained for when we signed our teaching contracts.

Eventually, the incoming inmates were re-clothed and escorted back to their cells. The officer at the desk, evidently grateful we had neither screamed nor fainted, came over and set up a schedule for us to teach in his building. “What was going on with the strip search?” Lark asked. “The inmates were out in the yard for recreation. Anytime they re-enter the building, we have to search them for drugs, cigarettes, or shanks.” “Why the gloves?” Lark persevered. “We don’t want to touch where we have to look.”

Our visits to the other lockdown buildings were less exciting. In those buildings only I was ignored by the staff. Lark was in her early thirties and unconsciously oozed sexuality. I was in my late forties and consciously oozed dowdiness. The officers kept their gaze on Lark when I spoke. If I asked a question, they answered Lark. She became de fact negotiator with most of the officers.

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