Saturday, October 29, 2011

Slam City

If James Lipton should ever ask me “What profession would you not like to do?” I’ll have a ready answer: prison guard. And anyone who has spent as much time as I have in Colorado’s state penitentiary would no doubt answer the same.

OK, maybe some clarification is in order. From 1978 to 1981, I was teaching at the University of Southern Colorado (now renamed Colorado State University – Pueblo) and I decided to earn a little extra money teaching overload classes in the evenings. One of the most reliable populations for these classes comprised the inmates of the state pen in Canon City. You could say they were a kind of captive audience.


Anyway, my experiences with the inmates were generally rewarding, but those with the guards were sometimes chilling. I can’t fault the guards too much, since they were dealing with a population that included some rough characters, but I got the distinct feeling that a few of them didn’t regret having to occasionally come down hard on the inmates. They seemed to regard the opportunity to do so as one of the more rewarding perks of their occupation.

During my first visit to the maximum security facility, as I made my way through the great clanking initial gate, the guard who checked me in sneered, “They’re all animals.” I didn’t anticipate that they would all be animals, but I knew for sure that I would never ever want to hold a job like the one that guard had; a job that would require my intimidating and dominating an unpredictable, surly and recalcitrant mob - though I have known teachers who would describe their duties in exactly those words.

The prisoners' attitudes were mirror reflections of the guards' in some ways. One day I brought Ashley Montagu's book, On Being Human, to class, and, upon seeing the title, one of them said, "The guards need to read that."

The inmates turned out to be similar to the night school students I taught on campus. They were mainly in their twenties and thirties, they’d had some real life experiences (!) and they seemed genuinely interested in the material. One inmate confided to me that he thought the murderers were the easiest guys to get along with inside the walls. “You know, one day a guy blows up at his old lady and does her in, but otherwise he’s cool.” OK, not all of the dudes were particularly advanced on gender relations issues, even for ca. 1980.

I made it a point to treat the prison students the same as I did on-campus students, and generally, when classes were in session, I didn’t much think about where I was. I do recall one occasion where I would have been well advised to remember where I was. I had been trying to emphasize that human societies do not rise and fall due to the nature of the people who make them up. “After all,” I said, “Georgia was originally settled by prisoners!”

Oops. There was a ripple of chuckles and shuffling feet followed by a deep but quiet voice from the back that said, “Yeah” with an unmistakably ironic tone.

Had the NTB Award been in play that year, I could have been a winner. (For more on the NTB Award, see the January 26, 2010 post.)

I actually liked most of the guys, and a couple of them finished their sentences and wound up in my classes on campus. The only time I felt truly uncomfortable (outside of dealings with a few of the more unsavory guards) was when one student stood about two inches from my face and argued with me about a grade. Instinctively I felt an urge to step back, but I thought that if I did that he would step forward and maybe feel empowered to press his case harder, so I just stood there holding my ground hoping things wouldn’t get physical. They didn’t, and he eventually seemed to accept my counterargument. Whew.

I recall one short course that began at mid-semester, on April 1. On the very first day, I strode up to the front of the classroom and said, “Welcome to Nuclear Physics 401!”

A chorus erupted: “What!” “Physics???” “What the hell?!”

I smiled, “April Fools.” The guys seemed to get a kick out of that.

I believe there are an awful lot of people behind bars who just shouldn’t be, and an awful lot more who wouldn’t be if life hadn’t shafted them as children in one way or another. In fact, I would put incarceration rates and the treatment of prisoners in the U.S. as one more way in which we resemble North Korea or Zimbabwe more than we do Japan or Switzerland. Some of our other Third World symptoms include our lust for the death penalty, our love of guns, our lack of a public health care system and our outrageous disparities in wealth.

I know most of these crude features can be attributed to the influence of conservative politicians, and I realize that some of them have been deteriorating further as conservatism has taken hold of much of our culture. Where prisons are concerned, my experiences have given me a particular sense of regret about how badly our system works, and I get the impression that things are worse today than they were in 1980. The prisons-for-profit movement is one of the creepier aspects of this downward trend.

Prisons for Profit
by Tiresias Speaks

I do hope we move to a more enlightened perspective eventually. In the meantime, I’m thinking that maybe I’ll spend a little time after retirement volunteering as a tutor in a local facility, unless my longtime companions (laziness and cowardice) decide otherwise. In any case, just don’t ask me to be a guard.

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