Sometime in the late aughts, I worked for a short spell as a case manager in a prisoner re-entry program at a non-profit in Massachusetts. My job was to help those released from prisons and jails to cobble together their wits and scant resources in order to find gainful employment in the midst of the Great Recession. Each week, I donned rumpled business casual and pleaded with employers to hire my clients. I documented this process scrupulously through hand-written charts, Microsoft Access database forms, and an online system, designed by consultants to the Department of Labor, that measured conversations, subway passes, Craigslist job leads, interview practice, and revamped resumes, all in terms of “units of service.”
During the weeklong training I received through the Massachusetts Department of Corrections, I scribbled a few orphan thoughts on a lined pad of white paper under the pretense of scrupulous note-taking; I found this to be an expedient pretext for managing my horror. My notes were written in the Bridgewater penal complex, which includes a prison for sexual offenders (“the really bad guys,” according to a social worker leading the training), a medium-security prison, a minimum-security one, and a prison hospital.
Lovely Bridgewater is a leafy anywhere forty miles south of Boston. Sloppy, verdant overgrowth bestrews the roadsides. The local commercial scene is distinguished by a pestilential cuteness: Scrappy’s, Binky’s Place, etc. Maybe this relates in some way to the infantilization inherent in the criminal justice system, to which, I learned, both staff and inmates are subject.
The training began. Attire took three or four run-throughs, with safety and sexuality intricately bound together. Open-shoes, for example, impede escape from sudden violence. Civilian clothing abets fantasies. The concerns were not entirely misplaced; the narrowness of their construction was. God help her, or him, who wears heels more than 3.5 inches high.
We “nice people,” we learned, might take some time to understand the population we would be working with. As folks who did not grow up with these institutions in our lives, we might bristle against the norms or constraints we would see “inside.”
The correctional program officer covering the ethics and professional component of the forty-hour week-long training was a small woman in her early forties, freckly and voluble. She recalled the idealistic days when she’d begun working in corrections, twenty years ago, with evident regret. For three years she’d been the only woman on a sixty-member special tactical unit. “Men [urinate] in bottles, if they have to, on a two-hour bus ride,” she said. Now she knows all the notorious criminals in her units, the “sick minds,” those rearrested for heinous crimes in libraries with boys.
“Are you all familiar with the story of the nurse at Walpole?”
Apparently the nurse in question had attempted to contraband a gun to Chase Blakely, a “super narcissist,” “very dangerous” man. As a result of this episode, water bottles could no longer be brought inside.
“Your behavior affects everyone directly, not just indirectly.”
The “ethics of corrections” was obvious: Do not impersonate, do not use “a symbol of employment fraudulently,” no bribes or loans, no pay other than salary, no disclosing private information of inmates. Professional standards spoke most clearly to the narcissism and paranoia of the institution. Line staff were prohibited from speaking to journalists. Preferential treatment of specific inmates was banned, giving rise to a regime of silence and nonchalance.
The bottom line is security, but one wonders. Creating expectations in a resource-strapped system might break open a Pandora’s box of empathy, identification, and, perhaps worst of all, the idea that officers and inmates coexist in the same moral universe. Stories about making it “on the outside” were rare, maybe because they were not so lurid, or because they were unknowable to officers; official policy bans communication with released inmates.
Contraband, by and large, arrived inside by way of visitors. Balloons of drugs passed undetected from mouth to mouth. An inmate was once noticed swallowing a packet containing a narcotic. He was placed under “eyeball watch” in the hospital unit. Sixteen days later a bowel movement produced the jewels. Sometimes the journey began in reverse. Mules plied their trade as the wheeler-dealers leveraged power inside and out to arrange “setups.” Of buttholes and baby bottles, one might say.
Borrowing and lending property between inmates was forbidden as well. Eleven to twelve thousand “conniving, sneaky” people live within walls and gates owned and operated by the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. Commitment numbers engraved on objects must correspond to the bearer’s own number.
On 9/11 C.O.’s sat in inmates’ cells watching events unfold. Inmates offered their meager savings to relief organizations.
“Mental illness is no laughing matter,” the burly C.O. training us said, with the gloss of one who has undergone sensitivity training many times. Framingham, the exclusively female facility in the state system, had been more than he could handle. Women there were “crazy” and “needier.” “I’d take a man one-on-one any day over a woman, no offense to the ladies,” he informed the class, too many times to count.
On conjugal visits: “It’s supposed to be a closed-mouth kiss, but let’s be realistic.”
The sergeant brought a big display of items to the front, arrayed on a large piece of particleboard. Soup ladles, toothbrushes with razor blades attached by heat to the ends, axes made of scrap metal and mop squeezes, shards of document-holding acrylic glass, toy guns, serving spoons, TV antennae, pieces of broken footlocker and hairbrushes, a Wunderkammer of improvised prison weaponry.
A nurse exclaimed, “These guys are like MacGyver!”
The flow of drugs and weapons, perhaps even metal-slicing dental floss, was the next logical step to the breakdown of boundaries between staff and inmates, the sergeant explained.
“Ladies, they don’t want your make-up, they want the glass,” he said, apropos of compact mirrors.
A moment later: “Whether it’s good people or bad people, it’s a people business.”
The students gathered around the particleboard display during the ten-minute break. The doctor from New Hampshire offered hopefully, “Some of these guys are quite bright.” Nods all around. The welding classes, all agreed, presented a host of risky situations. Every staff person was involved in the supervision of inmates, both counselor and disciplinarian. The machine warps the cog and the cog warps the machine.
On solitary: “Is the silence a form of communication?” Nods.
“Have you ever given anyone the cold shoulder? Has anyone given you the cold shoulder?” Nods.
I was exhausted and couldn’t stand much more. The officer mentioned a bunch of values the correctional system awkwardly embraced. I forget what they were.
“The last thing is fairness,” he said. “We’ve been talking about that all day. Moving on.”
A client showed up to the job application workshop we held in our nineties-era computer lab looking oddly inflated, like a marshmallow. He had five layers of clothing on.
“I’ve got a feeling they’re sending me back today, man. And the clothes they give you inside are dirty.”
I’d thought he was on the verge of getting hired, and called his probation officer, whose voicemail did not accept messages. The client was in fact sent back to prison, on a “technical violation.”
Another client asked me, “Where am I going to live?” His term in the halfway house was up. Schizophrenia, incontinence, hepatitis, and a heroin addiction were just a few of his ailments. He’d stolen handbags from department stores to ride out the Boston winters. I had never met someone with a gentler, more tender temperament than his. No one wanted him. When the halfway house kicked him out, he disappeared.
My only preparation for all this was an undergraduate degree in anthropology and a youth of activism. To fling oneself into the crossroads of bureaucracy and world-historical idealism required something more than that. But what struck me most was how ordinary the prison was, outside of the watchtowers and weapons. Parts of it were reminiscent of the architecture of newer public universities.
The poverty of what I found in the prison did not convert me to their cause. I was already a convert to the plight of the criminal class, which, depending on how you slice it, includes us all.