An Insider's Look at Mormon Culture

Posts tagged ‘Memoir’

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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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.

If You Think Things Are Bad Now

I like to read history when the news gets me down. After last week’s news about a Michigan militia group plotting to kill a cop then bomb his funeral procession in order to make a point, Alpine School District parents in Utah rallying the troops to protest the district referring to our country as a democracy rather than a republic, and Tea Partiers screaming that the Constitution is hanging by a thread, I find it somehow comforting to learn that human beings have always been irrational and confrontational.

Amazing Grace tells the story of William Wilberforce’s 30-year battle to abolish the British slave trade. The British Parliament in the 18th and 19th centuries was as strangled with special interests as our US Congress is today. But one man persevered and eventually prevailed. I wish the story had been told by a more objective, less pious author than Eric Metaxas, but Wilberforce’s eventual triumph is uplifting.

The Age of Louis XIV by Will and Ariel Durant relates the reign of France’s greatest king. Louis supported learning, science, and a degree of religious toleration. Unfortunately, his love of grandeur and wars of aggression bankrupted his country. Yet, France survived this ruler’s excesses just as our country survives presidents who lead with more charisma than common sense.

Founding Mothers by Cokie Roberts is an honest portrayal of the wives and mothers of the Founding Fathers. These strong women ran plantations, farms, and businesses while the men folk were off warring and politicking. These upper-class women had far more education than the average woman or man in the colonies. Many felt the laws suppressing women’s legal and political rights were unjust, but their priority was independence from England and the creation of a stable government.  Probably few would have claimed the Constitution, which was a compromise condoning slavery and ignoring women as citizens, was a document of perfection.

Historic memoir gives a personal touch to history. My all-time favorite is Nien Cheng’s Life and Death in Shanghai. Cheng survived Mao’s Cultural Revolution in the 1960s. Few Americans know much about this tragic era in China since foreigners were almost totally banned from the country at that time. Mao, in his declining years, decided the failure of his Communist policies to produce a prosperous country was caused by insufficiently harsh implementation. He unleashed a wave of repression and violence which resulted in the deaths of millions of Chinese.  Cheng, a widow in her 50s, was imprisoned for six years. The fact that she survived the brutal treatment and kept her integrity intact by not signing a spurious confession is the most inspiring story I’ve heard. Nothing bad that ever happens to me will match what this remarkable woman endured.

Dark Star Safari, a travel narrative by Paul Theroux, takes readers by land from Cairo, Egypt to Cape Town, South Africa in 2000. Theroux, who lived in Malawi as a Peace Corps volunteer and taught at the university in Uganda during the ‘60s, compares present-day African countries with their situation 40 years ago. His conclusion is not hopeful. Poverty, hopelessness, and tyranny have increased despite the efforts of NGOs, Western governments, and church missions. Okay, this book did not make me feel better about the present. But it did raise the question of how to help impoverished countries. Donations are not doing the job. Maybe how to help the poor is the answer for people looking for an issue to embrace. But it’s an issue that needs thoughtful research, not screaming and slogans.

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