The prison here in Santa Fe is much changed from the institution that existed before the terrible riot of 1980. Three new prisons have been built around the old one. In the old main building there are now individual cells; the infamous dormitories have been turned into weight rooms, educational classrooms, a hobby shop, and library. The old building, built in the early fifties, was the last of the “telephone pole” prisons. A long central corridor ran north and south, with the cellblocks, dormitories, cafeteria, and other sections coming off the corridor like the crossbars of a telephone pole. The design was convenient and relatively easy for staff to manage, but it had a fatal flaw. If the staff ever lost control of the central corridor, they lost the entire prison. The results of bad design and bad management can be seen at the extreme south end; it sits empty, condemned, soot still clinging to the ceiling and walls, an echo of the awesome anger unleashed more than a decade ago.
I teach college classes in the new South facility, so named because it is south of the new North facility. The roof leaks and the perimeter detection system never did work very well; the problems are fixed as money is made available. The food is good, if starchy. There is a decent law library and a large number of classes the inmates can take. A literacy program is required for every man who can’t read. Many end up getting their GED. In the South facility the men are “short,” with less than two years before they get out; they tend to be on their best behavior. One understands why the term “country club” is often used to describe modern detention facilities. Everything is clean and new looking. Work is progressing slowly on a running track around the inside perimeter of the fence. The new volleyball court is in constant use.
But appearances are deceiving. Nobody wants to be here. A cell made of gold would still be a cell. Freedom is what everyone craves. It is extremely rare that someone makes peace with the system.
I first saw the bald man walking slowly across the yard. He had the stooped, round-shouldered look often seen here, caused by massive muscles in the neck and shoulders from years of lifting weights. Power lifting is popular in prison. It passes the time, the results are obvious, and there is a lot of peer acceptance. It is also an advantage in a fight.
This man was different from the others. He seldom raised his voice. Every step he took was methodical, almost precise, but there was no sense of rigid control. His head was bald by choice and his body showed few tattoos. A thick gray mustache covered his lips.
The men here carry their personal space like body armor. They have been taught the gospel of toughness since they were young. They think it is necessary for survival to wear your strength on the outside. If you show weakness, someone will take advantage. The men here are good at taking advantage. It’s how they got here in the first place.
The bald man walks through the yard without taking any space, without raising any waves. He crosses from one side of the concrete to the other like the passing shadows of birds. Nobody pays him any mind. They feel no threat, yet perceive no weakness. It is as if he were invisible.
It wasn’t always like this. One of my students said that years ago the man had sat quietly on his bunk and carefully slit his throat with a single-edge razor blade. He missed the carotid arteries but he cut through the windpipe. After the work was finished he sat softly smiling on his bunk as the air bubbled in a froth through the blood coursing out of his neck. Then he asked that the guard be informed. He would have a vacation in the infirmary and some counseling, a nice diversion. It probably would have made no difference to him if he had hit the arteries and ended his life. When life weighs on you that heavily, one diversion is as good as another.
The scars are dim now and hard to see. Maybe the years of pumping iron have lifted the terrible burden of his own life to where it can be carried, with only a slight stoop to show for the effort.
His sense of personal quiet is harder to account for. So few people here have it. After watching him for several months it came to me. He is in no hurry to serve his time. All the others think of little else. They see their lives as derailed and there is nothing to do but wait and curse the delay. The bald man has accepted his circumstances, and is willing to wait for the changes that will come. He looks on his present and his past without malice.
I watched him sit in the corner of the yard by himself, having a smoke in the low January sun. Another inmate walking to the gym almost tripped over the bald man. Had it been someone else, there would have been strong words or worse, but not this time. The inmate going toward the gym seemed perplexed. He looked back twice. For a moment, the constant conflict and tension were gone simply because they had not been reinforced. Then he opened the door to the gym. The waves of frustration blasted out along with the raucous sound of a radio. Just as quickly, he was back in prison.
M ary received her B.A. in criminal justice and was immediately recruited to work as a caseworker in the prison five miles down the road. She stands five feet, two inches in low heels. Although trim, she worries about her weight. Her face has the classic look of an Andalusian flamenco dancer; it accurately recalls her ancestry.
Prison is a hard place for the women who work inside. They are automatically regarded as sexual objects. Young, old, and all body types are the object of lewd comments; they get whistled and stared at with a humid hunger that hangs heavy in the air. Of all the freedoms, intimacy with the opposite sex is the most missed.
One of the administrators, a woman in her forties, walks the long main corridor to her office every day, seething with resentment at the comments and whistles she has to endure. She tries to come up with the perfect retort, but never succeeds. Any comeback only escalates the exchange.
Mary receives fewer comments and whistles than others. Because of her beauty, this is surprising. Yet Mary simply refuses to be anyone’s sexual object. With other women, the men come into class and stare and fantasize for several minutes. Only then can real people begin to interact with each other. The fantasies fade.
Mary forces the transformation in seconds instead of minutes. When the comments, whistles, or egg-sucking noises come, she looks the man in the eye and recognizes him as a person, not a threat. She usually doesn’t have to say anything. Once this recognition takes place, the sexual fantasy he has built starts to crumble. The person in front of him is no longer a “babe” but a woman, a sister, a cousin, a friend. Here is someone who could, perhaps, help.
Mary knows men; she knows their minds and exactly what to expect. Almost nothing surprises her. She was raised with many brothers and watched them mature with a keen eye. She feels a responsibility to everyone with whom she works. When a new electrician joined the staff, she introduced herself and asked where he came from and who his family was. Thereafter she always called him by name when they met and asked about his wife and children. She does this with the wardens, the guards, the secretaries. She includes the inmates in this wide umbrella of concern.
Some do this as a steppingstone to success, paying attention only to those they think can help them, and ignoring the rest. It is an obvious pretense. They ask about job and family but their eyes start to wander with the reply.
Mary is fascinated by people. She has no enemies because there are no enemies: we are all in this together. Just seeing her is a reminder of this simple truth.
Her husband never quite understood this loving involvement with the world, thinking there had to be something going on for so many people to want to be around his wife. One evening she returned home to find him gone and the house stripped, a note left on the living-room floor with the phone number of his lawyer.
The librarian for the law library was over forty. She had difficulty getting around because of a leg wilted by a childhood disease. She had never been pretty nor had she ever married. She liked working in the prison because she got a lot of attention; she also felt she did a good job guiding the inmates through the legal maze. They liked her in return and didn’t give her any trouble.
Tom, who was serving a life term with no possibility of parole, was especially kind to her. He helped her carry books and magazines and rearranged the library to make it easier for her to get around with her cane. When her bad foot ached, Tom would massage it. This was against the rules. No inmate is supposed to touch a staff member, but the rule didn’t bother Tom. What could they do to him? Put him in prison? When the foot massages were noticed — along with the fact that the librarian didn’t stop them — it became a security issue. Whenever an inmate and a staff member become friendly, especially if the employee is a woman, it is a cause for concern. Many prisoners spend a lot of time trying to compromise the corrections staff. If they succeed, they can get drugs brought in from the outside; if the employee is a woman, they try for illicit sex. The plan to corrupt is called a “game” and can involve as many as a dozen inmates over a year’s time. First, they tell the employee that she is special and unlike the other workers; this is to separate her from her co-workers, so she begins to trust the inmates more than the staff. Then the employee is asked to do some small but illegal favor for her new “friend” — perhaps take a letter home and mail it, or bring in a pack of cigarettes of a brand not sold in the canteen. It is a small thing, but once the employee complies, it gives the inmates leverage. More favors are asked. If the staff member balks, she is reminded of past transgressions and told that the warden will be informed. When the hook is firmly set, the inmates can order the employee around at will until they get caught. At that point the employee is fired and can be charged with a crime. As bad as that sounds, this is the happy ending. Staff members who refuse to go along have been badly beaten and even killed.
Often the employee will initiate a relationship with an inmate, even though the staff member has nothing to gain and everything to lose. The inmate, on the other hand, has almost nothing to lose and can look forward to an interesting and exciting diversion from the sameness of prison life. Surprisingly, it happens all the time. In the three years I have worked here, six women and three men were fired for falling into the trap. But it isn’t always a callous act of a conniving or bored inmate that causes someone to be fired. Often, real feelings grow on both sides. New employees in a prison are often surprised to find how polite, intelligent, and sensitive many of the inmates are. Some of them, because of the weight room, look like Adonis. Whenever people are put together, shared human experience overcomes artificial barriers — even when the barrier is a prison wall.
At the end of the year the librarian’s contract was not renewed.
After she left the institution, Tom asked that she be put on his visiting list. Six months after she was let go, she was allowed to see him. She came as often as she could. Six months later, they asked to be married. It wasn’t all that difficult. Tom notified his caseworker and was given the requisite forms to fill out. They made their way through the prison administration, ending on the warden’s desk. He gave his approval. The woman found a minister and made all the preparations. Tom got and paid for his blood test in the prison infirmary. On the day of the wedding she was allowed to bring in her friends, a wedding dress, and a cake.
They were married in the prison chapel and after the ceremony, she went home alone as on any other visiting day.
“Why did you do it, Tom?” one of the staff members asked him. “You’ll never get out of here. That’s not fair to her, is it?”
Tom thought for a moment, then replied, “She was very lonely, you know. Now she can say she has a husband. We read and discuss a lot of books, and we write, and she comes here when she can. She is a good woman and I’m not much of a catch, but there are worse relationships on the outside. And you know, I’m lonely too.”