The prison exists to provide the illusion
that everyone outside the prison is innocent and free.
—Dr. Fred Ashe,
Birmingham-Southern College, 2006,
paraphrasing Jean Baudrillard
“I wanna study prisons.” My voice cracks as I say this, as it does whenever I have to speak in front of any group of people despite the fact that I’m now twenty years old. The other students just sit there, shifting in their desks as I watch the face of the woman in charge of the college’s Honors Program, a short woman with short hair who seems to have been born with a capacity for professionalism and authority. All of the students are presenting their first proposals for the Honors Program Independent Study Project, a requirement for the Honors Program. The project has to be outside of the student’s major, and it has to include both scholarly and firsthand research. That means, you can’t just write a paper about other people’s papers. You have to go out and do something, too.
I clear my throat and continue. “I want to visit a prison, take a tour, and study the prison subculture. I’ll interview the inmates, learn their stories. And I’ll do research on the prison system in general to compare to my personal findings.”
The head of the program scribbles notes on a legal pad in her lap. Finally, she stops and looks up at me. “And how do you plan on actually doing this?”
Little do I know that the process of gaining access to a prison is going to take more than a few phone calls and a letter of introduction. I begin researching the justice system, prisons in general, hoping to gain as much background info on the prison subculture as I can. I choose Baldwin State Prison in Milledgeville, Georgia as the focus of my study, to act as an example for the American prison system in general. I choose a Georgia prison because, when speaking with my project sponsor, a short balding sociology professor with a muscular build and a Brooklyn accent, he warns me how much harder it is to get access to an Alabama prison than a Georgia one. He doesn’t know why; the process is just more rigorous. He also directs me to look for a state prison rather than a private or a federal prison. Private prisons are practically nonexistent and don’t offer the best example for a study, and federal prisons are nearly impossible to get into.
As I study basic prison demographics, I learn that a staggering ninety-three percent of all US inmates are males, so I opt for a male prison. I also learn that the majority of all inmates are either minimum- or medium-security inmates and that medium-security prisons house both types of criminals. Eventually, I narrow down my search to a handful of medium-security male state prisons in Georgia, ultimately arriving at Baldwin State Prison. As I study the demographics of the prison, available online, I happily discover that its criminal population of 742 inmates roughly matches that of the demographics of the male inmate populace across the country, so the prison’s sample should be representative of the national male convict population.
We have nearly an entire academic year to complete the project before presenting our studies and turning in a paper eight months after this first meeting during which we propose our topics. Seven months after this meeting, after countless letters, faxes, phone calls, and emails, I finally get approved to visit. At this point, most of the other students are proofreading their drafts of their presentations. Meanwhile, I’m sitting atop several pages of scholarly research and sorely regretting my obsession with societal outcasts and public institutions to which most of the public never receives access.
We may see prisons in movies or through the jerky cameras of reality television, but movies are obvious fictions and “reality television” is a contradiction in terms. Nothing can substitute for actually stepping into a prison cell or speaking one-on-one with a convicted felon. Sadly, my own conversations are edited down by my project sponsor who distastefully advises me against open-ended interviews. “I know you’re an English major and you want these guys’ stories,” he says to me, “but this isn’t that kind of project. You need quantifiable data. Something reliable and objective. Give them a survey. Then, if you want, give them a few open-ended questions to answer when they’re done.” As I revise my questions into a survey, I realize that this project will not be the narrative I once hoped for. I must first complete an objective sociological study. It won’t be for another year until I get the chance to sit down and compose the story of my day in prison.
I arrive at the prison around 9:00 a.m. on a sunny April day after a seven-month journey through red tape and a three-hundred-mile drive this morning from Birmingham, Alabama, to Milledgeville, Georgia. It’s Monday, April 16, 2007, and I have exactly ten days until I have to give my final presentation of a study that began back in September when I first proposed this project. I flick my cigarette out the car window as I pull into the visitors’ parking lot, hoping this day will go well.
As I park, I’m already aware of the cameras and the eyes behind those cameras, watching every move I make in case I turn out to be more than an innocent college student. As I get out of the car, I make sure I look professional, studious. I empty my pockets, sticking their contents into the center console: one blue checkbook permanently curved to match the shape of my posterior, one black wallet overflowing with receipts and other scraps of paper, one black ink pen, one cheap plastic lighter, one slightly crushed pack of Marlboro Lights. I lock and shut my car door before walking across the hot asphalt parking lot toward the intimidating layers of chain link and chicken wire that surround Baldwin State Prison. I carry only the essentials: car keys and driver’s license.
As I pass between two parked cars, I casually check the zipper on my khakis, hoping no one behind the cameras will notice. The last thing I need is to enter a prison with my zipper halfway down. Then, I check to make sure my dress shoes are still tied. Buttons and buttonholes on my shirt matched up correctly? Check. Hair in place? Check. Dress shirt completely tucked in? Check. Scared shitless? Check. I leave the parking lot and follow a broad sidewalk to the tall chain link fence topped with chicken wire. I reach the gate and grab the handle, looking up into the camera at the top of the twelve-foot fence. After a minute or so of waiting, I wave my hand at it to get the attention of the person in “Control,” the anonymous security personnel behind the cameras, the movers and shakers of Baldwin State Prison. They control the access to almost every door and gate in the prison. As I wait to be buzzed in, I wonder if the individual watching my camera is on a smoke break since he or she is obviously not paying attention to the camera. I am filled with envy.
After a few more waves, I hear a loud buzz and clank, which means that the gate has been unlocked for my entrance. I step through quickly, and the gate shuts behind me. The loud groan of metal against metal makes me painfully aware that I am no longer part of the free world. About six feet in front of me stands a fence and gate identical to the one behind me. I step forward, remembering what I’ve read about these kinds of areas, “sallyports,” empty spaces in between various rooms or sections of the prison, each of these spaces enclosed by a locked door at both ends. For obvious security reasons, only one of these doors can ever be open at a time, so when you enter, you have to wait until the door behind you has shut. After a moment or so, the next can be unlocked and opened.
According to my research, the term “sallyport” comes from the Latin combination of sallir portus, the latter a term for a door or opening. Sallir refers to a military maneuver by forces defending a fort or castle and eventually came to refer to structures at entrances to these places designed to limit the number of attackers who could approach the wall or ram the gate. These areas work in a similar fashion today, existing to control the flow of people throughout the prison since no more than five individuals can be inside any sallyport at a time, which I’m sure makes leaving work at 5:00 p.m. quite the traffic jam.
In the few seconds I stand between the first and second fence, I spot my first inmates. Like a child at a zoo, I catch movement out of the corner of my eye and jerk my head around to see. Only I’m a bit more self-conscious than those children, and I just as quickly try to cover my actions, peripherally watching the inmates in the yard and silently condemning myself for thinking of this place as a zoo. Intellectually, I am well aware of the fact that these inmates are human beings, but I can’t lie and pretend that I’m not just as much a product of my culture as these inmates are. We’re all prone to our preconceptions.
Surprisingly enough, as I glance at the inmates in the yard, I see no dumbbells or bench presses, no bare gargantuan biceps scrawled and scarred with makeshift tattoos, no dice or cards, not even a basketball court. They’re just standing around, enjoying the sunny day, a few of them smoking cigarettes, talking and joking. If not for the white jumpsuits with thick blue lines down each side and the hazy black identification numbers stamped on their chests, these guys could just as easily be hanging out in front of the cafeteria at the campus I call home, except of course for the lack of females.
The buzzer goes off, interrupting my thoughts as I pass through the second gate and stand directly in front of the main entrance of the prison. I’m surprised to find that the door to this building is like the door to any common office building, a simple work of tinted glass. I don’t even have to be buzzed through this one. I just grab the handle and go inside.
Immediately inside the door, a guard stands behind a counter. She’s a lanky black woman with black pants, a white security shirt, and a sour expression on her face that rests far above my mere five-foot-six frame. Beside the counter is a metal detector, and beyond the detector, a door leading to what appears to be another sallyport. I approach the counter and give the guard my name. She doesn’t respond.
“I’m the college student here to do the survey. The warden was supposed to let you know I was coming.”
After a moment, she nods in remembrance and then demands to see my identification. She notices my keys and asks for those as well, along with anything else I have in my pockets. Fortunately, everything else is in my car. She gestures to the metal detector through which I safely pass. On the other side, she hands me what looks like a metallic poker chip with the number 3 stamped onto both sides.
“Don’t lose that,” she says to me as she turns and places my keys and license on the counter. “You have to turn that back in to me to get your things back when you leave.”
I slip the chip into my pocket quickly, and I notice how light my pockets feel. I feel objectified, like I’ve lost some part of my humanity by giving up all the little objects that make me who I am. I’m about to immerse myself into a population of convicts, and for some reason, I can’t help thinking that I’d feel better if I was carrying my car keys and my license, as if those objects were somehow the signs that I was not part of the criminal populace. Instead, it turns out that the main object used to signal my innocence is a plastic tag to clip to my shirt, bearing the words “Official Visitor.” I try to imagine myself as Truman Capote, try to ignore the fact that I lack his confidence, reputation, and literary talent. My hand shakes slightly as I sign the visitors’ log.
After I sign in, the guard pages Carla Rothberger, the prison’s chief inmate counselor and my escort for the day. After about twenty minutes of waiting uncomfortably beside the metal detector, with the occasional staff member bustling past me to get to work, Miss Rothberger finally appears. She’s a brunette in her late 40s with a kind but tired face and a slightly disproportionate body. Her head seems too small for her midsection, which seems too small for her hips. Before she’s even completely through the door, she’s apologizing for the delay and asking me to please, call her Carla. All I can do is thank her for taking time out of her day to show me around.
We get buzzed into the sallyport and wait for the door behind us to shut. After we are buzzed through by the anonymous members of “Control,” we enter a lobby and the administrative offices of Baldwin State Prison. Carla leads me to her office with a purposeful step. “I got your email and I made about forty copies of each of your surveys and your pages with open-ended questions,” she says to me cheerily as she hands me the copies of my paperwork. Another security measure: I had to email my surveys to the prison rather than bring in any hard copies. “We’re scheduled to meet with your study group later today, so we’ve got some time to tour the prison if you’d like. I figured you’d want to get as much background info as possible.”
“That’d be great.” I pause. “Could I borrow a pen and a blank sheet of paper to take some notes on?” As a college student, it feels odd asking for something as simple as a pen and paper, and I continue to wonder at how a place like this strips down even innocent visitors to mere supplicants.
Carla loans me a pen and paper, and we tour the administrative offices for about an hour before we venture out a side door of the building after, of course, passing through another sallyport. We exit onto a lawn surrounded by several buildings of brick and concrete. It’s at this point that I realize that the prison is actually several buildings composing one campus. The entire area is enclosed by the two chain link fences I passed when first entering. Looking at the sidewalks lined with flowers and bushes and the small grassy areas separating these buildings, I am vaguely reminded of my own college campus. This scene is nowhere near as aesthetically pleasing, but it seems to be almost a miniature version of my home in Birmingham.
Carla pulls out a pack of cigarettes and starts muttering about the weather. I bum a smoke—Camels, but beggars can’t be choosers—and stifle laughter as I watch a convicted felon water flowers with a small green plastic watering can while another inmate stands over a large plant and frets about weeds, gesturing to them with mock violence and muttering under his breath about all his hard work nearly ruined. Carla notices the objects of my attention and nods her head. “Yeah, it’s a little weird, but some of these guys take a lot of pride in their work out here. After all, it’s pretty much all they got.”
I don’t respond but just continue smoking as convicted medium-security felons walk past me on the sidewalk. Just glancing around, I can see around thirty men, about half black and half white, scattered throughout the yard. Some of them look like they’ve just turned eighteen while others probably could’ve retired from their day jobs long ago. According to my research, at least ninety percent of all inmates will eventually walk the streets once more. The fact seems obvious, but it’s so easy to forget about these people and imagine that they will forever be separated from the rest of society, that their existences no longer matter once they’re locked safely away. The most recent study I could get my hands on is from 1999, and it states that the American prison population then was at 1.6 million, having tripled since 1984. As I smoke my Camel and watch the inmates around me, I wonder if the population is still on the rise. I wonder what it says about a society when we so easily write off the people who fail to live up to our standards. Despite these thoughts, whenever they pass by a little too close, I can’t help but cringe.
When we finish our smoke, I follow Carla across the yard to G-Building, one of the three buildings for housing inmates of the general population. We wait outside a gate to be buzzed in, and as we wait, we are joined by two black inmates, both in their mid-thirties with strong builds. They have apparently finished their outdoor duties, and as they line up behind us, I pretend to glance around at the sky, enjoying the sunny weather. Meanwhile, my eyes are searching the yard for guards. They’re scattered throughout the campus, usually on the move, escorting groups of inmates. I see a few milling about along the sidewalks. For the most part, they are towering men who seem to have not quite made it into professional wrestling.
We are buzzed through and enter the sallyport, escorted by the two inmates who are on their way inside, I assume, to return to their cells. These sallyports are small, and I can smell sweat emanating from both of these men. I know I’m safe, that no one has a reason to do anything to me, especially not right under the supervision of “Control,” but I can’t help wondering what these two men have done to end up here. My moment of discomfort dissolves when we get buzzed through and leave the close quarters to enter into G-1, the first of the four sections of the building.
G-1 is a wide corridor with cells running along both sides. However, on one side, there is a second tier of cells accessible from a grated metal staircase and walkway. From a quick estimate, there seem to be about twenty-five cells total. As we enter, we pass a large glass room. The glass paneling, like all glass throughout the prison, appears to be reinforced with metal grating. Inside, I can see a robust black woman watching several monitors and working a series of panels and switches. Her hands and body move with surprising dexterity, an interesting contrast to the expression of utter boredom on her face. Finally, I get to see one of the many faces behind the cameras.
I turn my attention back to the area before me. To the left, there is a large open space, the focus of which is an aged television chained to a stand bolted high up on the cinderblock wall. On the concrete floor, I can see a few pieces of plastic furniture, taken right out of some 1970s airport terminal, and this furniture reminds me of the stained and broken furniture which decorates the basement of my fraternity house. A rusty ironing board hangs from the wall, although I can’t see how any inmate would be allowed to use an iron. Or why an inmate would even need to, for that matter.
Carla leads me away from this “recreation area” and down the corridor. About halfway, I meet another guard. Despite his thinning white hair and pale complexion, he seems to be in extremely good shape, although he’s already sweating this early in the morning. He wipes his forehead with a handkerchief, rubs it absently between his hands, puts it back into his pockets, and then extends one of those hands to me when we are introduced. I can feel his sweat rubbing off his palm and onto my own as we shake hands. He doesn’t have much time to talk, so Carla explains the breakdown of G-Building to me.
She leads me down the corridor. “The general population resides in Buildings G, H, and I while the mental health inmates stay in K-Building or ‘K-Side.’ All the cell blocks throughout Buildings G, H, and I are pretty much the same except that G-1 is ‘the hole,’ the place where inmates are put in solitary confinement.”
I’m looking around, observing the line of metal cell doors. No bars here, or anywhere in the prison I learn. Each metal door has a small glass window, and each door is raised a few inches off the ground, providing a second place for guards to look into the cells.
Carla pauses as I examine the cell. When I turn back to her, she continues. “As you can see, ‘the hole’ is not really a hole. It’s just another solitary cell except that there’s a shade we pull over the window on the outside of the building, and we put another over the window of the door to block out all the light. Also, the prisoners in the hole don’t leave the cell for the duration of their stay, and no one is allowed to have contact with the inmate, except for the guards when they absolutely have to.”
She leads me further down the corridor and up to an empty cell with its door propped open. “This one’s vacant for now,” she tells me. “You can have a look inside if you like.”
I pause for a moment. In the back of my head, I’m well aware of the unique opportunity of this entire visit. How many outsiders will ever have the chance to step into a prison cell, to smell the mildew on the walls, to taste the humidity and despair in the air, to experience the dim light and the immediate clench of the heart as you feel cinderblock and steel wrap around you in an intimidating embrace? It’s just a moment of hesitation, but it feels like a life sentence as I stand there, staring into the open cell door, trying to work up my nerve and wondering if there’s actually an enraged inmate hiding in the shadows of the farthest corners of that supposedly vacant cell. I’m a student, here to observe and study. Furthermore, I’m a writer. These are the kinds of moments great stories are made of. Still, though, I’m painfully aware of the increasing number of walls, gates, and fences that now stand between me and the outside world. How long will it take me to get out of this place if a riot suddenly starts up like in the movies? What if, for some reason, they just refuse to let me out? I’m powerless here, at the mercy of the administrative machine grinding its way incessantly all around me. I step inside the cell.
The cell is about six feet wide, maybe ten feet deep, and about seven feet tall. While not exactly a palace, it’s certainly bigger than Carla Rothberger’s office, or any of the other counseling offices, for that matter. On the far wall is a small window, barely letting in the sun. The dimness inside reminds me of being in a small room lit only by a dying fluorescent bulb. A metal cot runs along one wall with a plastic mattress that’s about two inches thick. A thin blanket rests folded at the foot of the bed. Along the other wall is a metal toilet and sink. As I jot down notes about the cell, my claustrophobia kicks in and I wonder what I’d do if someone suddenly slammed the cell door shut with a cackle.
Instead, Carla just walks up to the doorway and leans on the threshold. I glance at the toilet. The bowl is completely empty. “How do they flush?” I ask, noticing the absence of any handle.
“People don’t just go to the hole for disciplinary referrals,” she says to me, leading me out of the cell and back toward the glass room at the end of the corridor. “They can also go to the hole if they’ve threatened to hurt someone or hurt themselves. Also, some inmates sign themselves into G-1 for protective custody if there’s potential for them to be attacked by other inmates.” She chuckles as we walk. “The problem is that you can sign yourself in here, but only the guards can sign you out.”
We get to the glass control room, and she points inside. “Many people in this section are on suicide watch. Most of the guys in this block can’t be trusted with any amount of water. The bowls stay empty except to flush.”
She notices my confusion.
“G-1 has got the worst of the troublemakers and the guys who are most likely to hurt themselves, so we have to take even more precautions than usual. Some inmates will stuff their sheets into the toilet just to clog it up and flood their cells, just to break up the routine of the day or to get a little attention. Or, if they’re on suicide watch, they’ll try to drown themselves. So we limit the amount of water coming through their sink and toilet. We call it ‘setting it to a trickle.’ That means only a tiny bit of water comes out of the sink. And to flush, the inmate has to ask the guard to ask “Control” to push a button to flush their toilet. That way, we can monitor the flushing process—”
It’s at this point that I finally interrupt her with a laugh. I try to imagine a determined murderer shoving his own face into the toilet and flushing it incessantly in some pathetic attempt at suicide. As I laugh at the thought, I realize how tragically desperate these men must feel to go to such lengths to end their own lives. I shy away from the thought, though, and continue my chuckle.
Carla joins in for a moment before continuing. “I know. It’s ridiculous, but we have to make sure they don’t harm themselves under our custody.”
I try to imagine a world devoid of privacy. Even within the few hours of my visit so far, I feel painfully aware of the cameras watching my every movement, but at least I can use the restroom by the main administrative offices without a guard staring me down. I think back to my college campus where the cameras are just as present but not quite as obvious. I remember angry late-night arguments with my girlfriend and the frustration of living in a fraternity house where no conversation is ever really private. In college, you’re never alone. That’s a blessing and a curse. But at least I can flush my own toilet in solitude. I shake my head as we work our way through the corridor with Carla stopping to offer me various other explanations. After about forty-five minutes, we head for a door at the end of the corridor.
Nearby, a thirty-something white man a bit shorter than me hunches over in his stained white uniform, slowly mopping the same six inches of concrete ceaselessly. As we approach the door, I watch the hefty woman behind the glass press a button, unlocking the door before us. Carla reaches for the handle of the door to move from G-1 to G-2, but the inmate with the mop quickly steps forward. “Let me get that for ya, Miss Carla.”
She nods in acknowledgment as he holds the door open for us. I follow her through the doors, thanking the inmate. He doesn’t respond as I pass through, but just as the door is about to shut behind me, he catches it and leans across the threshold. “Hey, man. I gotta tell you something.”
I turn, unsure of the protocol for this kind of a situation, worried that some prison official is going to step forward and tell me not to encourage the inmates. My curiosity overrides my paranoia of the giant penal machine surrounding me. “What’s up?”
“I dig your beard, man.” With his free hand, he rubs his own cheeks slowly. “I never could get mine to really grow in full, and here, they don’t let us even try.” He moves his hand from his cheek to the air, lifting it for a high-five.
I’ve never been high-fived for my beard before, but I’ve also never been to a prison before, so I offer him an awkward smile. “Thanks, man.” We high-five, and I watch the inmate step back, the door shutting between him and me. After a moment, Carla and I move through the sallyport and into G-2.
Carla continues her explanation as we pass this block’s common area, another TV, assorted furniture, and a dusty bookshelf. “You probably noticed that G-1 has only individual cells. One man to a room. The rest of the general population lives in double cells, two men to a room.”
I take a peek inside an empty cell. It’s a bit wider than those in G-1, although not by much. The only other difference is that a metal bunk bed stands in place of an individual cot, and a pair of metal lockers takes up part of the opposite wall. And these toilets have handles.
“You run into all sorts of problems with inmates living together,” Carla tells me. “The lockers are so they can lock up their personal possessions so their cellmate can’t steal or break anything.”
Nearby, an inmate is on his hands and knees, scrubbing the floor determinedly with a rag. The skinny black man’s obsession with the floor’s cleanliness quickly switches to excitement when he sees us approach. He seems to recognize the fact that I am not any kind of penal official and feels comfortable enough to approach us. “Miss Carla! Miss Carla, who’s your pal?”
She gives him a patient smile as I wonder how much information she should share with this convicted felon despite his friendly appearance. “Hi, Trey. This is Paul Blom. He’s here to do a study for school.”
“Oh, you’re the guy doing that survey thing, right?” He stuffs his scrubbing rag into a pocket and quickly wipes his hands against the front of his uniform. “Okay, okay, check it out. I got something to put into your paper, man.” Before we can protest, he’s tapping a beat with his boots on the concrete floor and rapping for us. I can’t help but think of the homeless men who orbit the gas stations right outside of campus, although they’ve never rapped for me before. I wince mentally, wondering why my mind went in that direction. I grab my pen and struggle to catch Trey’s words as he raps for us right there in the middle of cell block G-2, an improvised rap that mostly consists of my name and words that rhyme with it. My pen is unable to keep up.
Once he’s done, we give him some polite applause, and he nods and grins at us with satisfaction as I wonder what got him in prison in the first place. It wasn’t exactly the best rapping I’d ever heard, but I can’t help but feel bad for the guy. My pity increases as we walk toward the door that will lead us to G-3 and he calls back to me: “Save that, man. I’m gonna be famous someday and that’ll be worth something. I mean big time.”
We move on to G-3 and G-4, both of which are repeats of G-2, although I still spend quite a bit of time examining each cell block. As I look around, trying to take everything in, I notice for the first time that the guard working the G-4 block is not armed. In fact, now that I think about it, the guard working each block carries a belt that holds only a set of keys, a flashlight, a walkie-talkie, and a pair of scissors. I understand the first three items, but the last one intrigues me. “What’s with the scissors?”
Carla smiles at me. “You were expecting them to carry guns?”
“Well, I understand that it’s probably too dangerous to carry real weapons around the inmates.”
“Yeah, it’s the same reason the staff has to lock up their personal possessions in desks or lockers. The same reason visitors like you can’t bring anything inside. We just can’t risk letting them get ahold of anything. Not even a business card or a key chain.” After a moment of silence, she realizes that she still hasn’t answered my question. “The scissors are another kind of suicide prevention. We call them ‘safety scissors.’ Every officer carries a pair so that, in case an inmate tries to hang himself, they can cut them down immediately.”
“So this happens often?”
“Well, more often than you’d think, even though we do our best to prevent it. You see, anyone on suicide watch doesn’t get a normal blanket. We give them ‘safety blankets,’ not much more than heavy paper. You can’t hang yourself with paper.”
All totaled, we spend at least two hours touring G-Building, but we still have some time to kill before I meet the inmates who are supposed to complete my surveys: thirty-five inmates hand-picked by Carla Rothberger herself. Starting with the five hundred or so members of the general population, she had to limit the group to only those inmates with no recent disciplinary referrals. Out of that population, thirty-five “volunteered” to complete a one-page objective questionnaire and a page of six open-ended questions.
We make our way across the lawn and visit the prison classroom, which also serves as the prison library. The room is about as big as two or three of the prison cells, lined with slightly slanted shelves. To complement the book shelves, there is also an aged wooden desk at the front of the room, about eight small desks scattered throughout, and a few computers that I remember seeing as a kid in elementary school back in the early 90s. Carla introduces me to the only teacher working at Baldwin State Prison, Leonard Powlaski, a man in his early 50s whose tired jokes and poor attempts at being quirky for mere entertainment value remind me of my father. He explains to me that many of the inmates are working to get their GEDs while others are working toward various certifications for future employment.
When he has to step aside to help one of the inmates with his work, I wander around the room, studying the laminated motivational posters—from the standard kitten hanging from a tree branch and saying, “Hang in There!” to a poster warning against unsafe sex—and browsing the titles of the books along the shelves. There is a wide array of reading material ranging from Moby Dick to Mickey’s Christmas Carol to an issue of Vogue magazine dated about six months prior. I happen to approach an inmate in the corner, a man with silvery gray hair and a heavily wrinkled face. He looks up at me. “I’m learning about fractions,” he says to me sleepily.
I feel that I need to respond, but I can’t think of anything to say that wouldn’t be insulting. Instead, I nod my head and say, “Great!” I even pat him on the back as I pass by. He’s erasing something determinedly, and I notice with a touch of sadness that his eraser is nearly worn out of existence.
After about half an hour, Carla notices the time and realizes that my study group should be on their way to the empty room in which we’ll meet. Carla and I hurry across the yard again, making our way back to G-Building. Once inside, we go down the G-1 corridor, through a sallyport, and down a hall to an empty multipurpose room used for random occasions such as this visit. Some helpful soul has managed to squeeze about forty desks into the room, with one large desk at the front. Carla ushers me to the desk at the front where I begin to arrange my surveys. She brings in a box of golf pencils for the prisoners to use, and soon, a guard is escorting thirty-five inmates inside. I’m pleased to see that the group matches the prison’s demographics, about half black, half white, with a few Hispanics as well, and the group has a wide variation of age, from eighteen to sixty. Among the group, I recognize my high-fiving beard-lover, and he gives me a grin and a thumbs-up.
The inmates take their seats quietly, and Carla Rothberger steps forward to introduce me. “Okay everybody, this is Paul Blom. He’s here to do a study for a school project.” I cringe inwardly at her terminology, which makes me sound like I’m in middle school. “I expect y’all to be on your best behavior.” She gestures to me, giving me the floor.
I stand up slowly, trying to maintain some air of authority or professionalism. For a moment, I try to imagine myself as Truman Capote again, but then I realize that the last thing I need to do is adopt a lisp for this group. Finally, I speak. “Okay, thanks. Well, I want to thank you guys for volunteering for this today.” The word “volunteering” is received with a few snickers, but I continue, explaining the logistics of the study. Then, Carla assists me with passing out my surveys and pencils, and I shudder slightly as I hand the first few inmates a newly sharpened wooden stick, thinking back on Carla’s earlier comments. Not even a business card or a key chain. I can’t help but wonder what these guys could do with a wooden dagger if they don’t like the questions I’ve got brought for them to answer.
I sit back down, thankful that the hardest part is over. I wait in silence as the room fills with the scribbling of lead on paper. Occasionally, an inmate glances up at me and I try not to make eye contact as I study the room. By now, I have the contents of my surveys memorized, and I am well aware of how personal some of the questions get. Besides the basic questions for demographic purposes—age, race, socioeconomic status—I’m asking them to list their current and past convictions and sentences. Then, the survey requests their opinions on drug use in the prison and drug use leading to criminal lifestyles. My hypothesis is partially that the main cause of most crimes all stems back to drug use, either directly or indirectly.
Finally, the questions become more generalized concerning prison life and their own attitudes toward this life. Please rate your agreements with the statements below: In general, I feel safe at this institution. Prisoners value attention from or interaction with prison staff members. Prisoners tend to feel morally guilty or remorseful about their crimes. Prisoners tend to improve themselves during their incarceration. The routines of this prison are designed to rehabilitate inmates. My own moral standards/values match with those of the outside world. The list continues.
About fifteen minutes pass by. When a guard enters and whispers something into Carla’s ear, she turns to me and says, “I need to speak with Officer Fullingham for a moment, but I’ll be right outside this door.”
I nod to her, smiling, playing the role of the confident professional. “Okay, sure. I think I’ve got this covered.” But my eyes follow her as she walks out of the room with the officer, shutting the door behind her and leaving me alone in a classroom with thirty-five convicted criminals.
A few more minutes go by, and a few of the inmates begin to raise their papers in the air, signaling that they’re done. One of them rises and steps forward to place the papers on my desk. “Uh, that’s okay,” I say quickly, as he approaches. “Hold onto them. I’ll pick them up when everyone’s through.”
But the wave has already begun. He stands in front of the desk, sets his papers down and then steps to the side to place his pencil back in the box. A few more are finishing and follow the first guy’s lead. A minute or two later, I’m sitting there at the desk, surrounded by about twenty inmates as they stand over me and wait to place their papers on the growing pile and turn their pencils back in. I try to remind myself that they’re all on good behavior, that they’re human beings and not animals, but I can’t help but feel freaked out. I can’t even see the door anymore as they mill about, like students in line to turn in an exam or like people in line at the cafeteria waiting to pay their food.
As the surveys pile up, I glance at the answers to my first question: What is the crime for which you are currently in prison? One inmate has scribbled “arson” while the next says “aggravated assault.” The next convict in line is guilty of sexual assault. The various crimes pile up before me with the surveys: battery, breaking and entering, fraud, armed robbery, rape, murder. I pray that one of them won’t get edgy and push another, starting a riot with nothing between me and them but a rickety wooden desk. I wonder if they can see how frightened I am, if they’re considering what they could do to me, what they could get away with before guards heard commotion and rushed into the room. But no one throws a punch or jumps across the desk to grab me. It’s just a shuffle of feet, paper sliding across other paper, and a clatter of golf pencils as they get tossed back into their box.
Slowly but surely, every inmate turns in his pencil and paper and sits back down. As soon as they’ve all sat back down, Carla returns and notices the stack of paper. “Are we all done then?”
Officer Fullingham follows Carla into the room and begins to escort the inmates back to their cells. I thank them as they leave, and a few wish me good luck. One of the inmates actually refuses to leave until speaking to me. “Man, it’s pretty cool that you’re doing this. You better send me a copy of this paper. I mean, I wanna see how you tell our story.”
Still a bit nervous from the earlier minutes alone with the inmates, I just nod my head. “You got it. I’ll send a few copies to Miss Rothberger here, and I’m sure she’ll make sure you get one.”
He nods his head in satisfaction before sticking out his hand to shake on it. Without thinking, I reciprocate, and we shake, his eyes boring into my own, probably trying to see if I’m full of shit. Right now, I just want to get out of this room. Finally, he leaves with the rest, and I collect my things and follow Carla back to her office in C-Building.
I give her my thanks once more, and she walks me back to the sallyport leading to the guard station at the front entrance. We shake hands, and she wishes me good luck with my “little project.” I trade in my metal chip for my keys and license and head for the door, hoping to sneak out my visitors’ pass as a souvenir. The guard notices and demands it back, condemning me “a little thief.” I acquiesce before leaving, quickly making my way through the gates and sallyports and out to my car.
I light up a smoke, turn on the radio, and drive off toward the interstate. A few hours later, though, my bladder gets the best of me. I’m about halfway back to Birmingham, and I stop at an exit and find the nearest gas station. After running inside to take care of business, I return to my car and start the engine. Before driving off, though, I listen to the radio for a moment, and then my curiosity finally triumphs over my impatience to get back to campus. I grab the inmate surveys off the passenger seat and begin skimming the pages. Suddenly, the shallow pop song to which I was only half-listening is interrupted by a breaking news bulletin. I sit in the parking lot, prisoner surveys in my hands, as I listen to the radio newscaster talk about a lone gunman on the campus of Virginia Tech.
I’m stunned by the event, but to be honest, my sadness is mostly an intellectual one, an obligatory grief. The loss of human life is tragic and wasteful and needless, but I have a hard time being truly touched when I don’t know anyone involved. More than anything else, I feel the irony of my situation. I spent a day in a prison, unnerved that I’d make a fool of myself while conducting this study by walking in with my zipper down or tripping in front of a group of convicts or being unprofessional and have the prison staff feel like I was wasting their time. All day long, I felt uncomfortable being surrounded by chain link and chicken wire, painfully aware of the barriers between me and the free world. In the back of my mind, I felt stressed that I only had ten days to compile my data and prepare my presentation. More than anything else, though, I was frightened at being surrounded by convicted felons.
More than grief or shock over the Virginia Tech slayings, I feel this irony that I spent a day in prison, surrounded by violent criminals, worried for my own safety, wishing I was back safe and sound at my home on campus. And meanwhile, on another college campus that seemed just as safe as my own, a single gunman—a fellow student at the university—slaughtered thirty-two people before taking his own life.
I skim the surveys for a few minutes and then turn to the open-ended questions. The final question is just a request for the inmates to jot down any other thoughts or opinions that might be useful toward my study. I flip through the pages, looking over these random thoughts: Prison is institutionalized slavery. Another says, They treat us like we did wrong even when we do right. And another: I dig your beard, man. Then, I get to a page which is entirely blank except for a single sentence. It catches my eye, and I stop skimming. I read the sentence. Then I read it again. And again. Finally, I sigh, pack up my papers, light a cigarette, and get back on the interstate toward campus.
Everyone’s a criminal, but we’re just the ones who got caught.
Paul Blom is a PhD student and Teaching Fellow at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in the Department of English and Comparative Literature, where he teaches courses in literature and in first-year writing. His scholarly research focuses on twentieth-century American literature and its intersections with health humanities, with a special concentration on literary trauma studies, especially the ethical and political implications of representations of psychological trauma in literature, film, and other media. He is currently the co-director for UNC’s Literature, Medicine, and Culture Colloquium. He also writes scripts for promotional videos for non-profit organizations and scripts for short narrative or documentary films.