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.