An Insider's Look at Mormon Culture

Posts tagged ‘Corrections Education’

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.

How a Nice Girl Like Me Ended Up at Utah State Prison–A Memoir

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.

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