Humanities & Social Sciences

THE SLAMMER: A Critique of Prison Overpopulation, a menacing flaw in American culture

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A critical exposition of America's decaying prison system and a wake-up call for urgent reform.

Synopsis

ABOUT THE BOOK
The American prison system has gone off the rails. Originally started in
the country by King George III, the pre-American Revolutionary prisons
were inhuman and savage petri houses of filth and diseases. The first
post-Revolutionary prisons were not much better. It was not until
Reconstruction when the stark realities of American prisons were viewed as shameful and repugnant.
However, throughout the near century and a half, the politicians in charge
of legislation have done little to change the culture of prison warehousing.
This story will concentrate on the facts that keep the unfortunate in miserable sardine cans without any provable consideration for change.
A country is only as good as its least fortunate. Providing an atmosphere
to allow for self-actualization rather than big government handouts starts
with health, the family unit, and especially education. Recidivism is the
default issue. Finding a “second chance” vocational opportunity or an avenue
back to school for youth is an absolute must. Prisons provide training in some
areas, but nowhere meeting the needs of the large prison populations. This
a generational issue which has never been fully remediated. The book takes
on the central issues underpinning the ever continuum of prison expansion.

The Slammer by Robert Goldman is a long and serious book that focuses on the grievous state of the prison system in the USA, which has long been due for reform. Although it’s mostly comprised of commentary/critiques, I loved it because I found the author has set his sights on the noble cause of overhauling America’s “sick” prison system and also because it represents his serious diligence, patient hard work, and devotedness to the goal of reform.


The book begins by tracing the origins of the over-200 year old American prison system and the purpose for which prisons exist viz; serving as correctional institutions that transform prisoners into obedient citizens, thus paving the way for their return/reintegration with society. According to the author, blighted by some nettlesome flaws that have grown over the years, America’s prison system, sadly, doesn’t serve that purpose any longer! While appearing healthy outwardly, it’s rotting inside. What’s crying out for attention today is overcrowding in prisons and the issues that accompany mass incarceration.


The author’s maturity and knowledge of the USA’s Carceral State become clear when you read this book. I found it so finely analyzed and critiqued that there remained no doubt to me how knowledgeable and thorough he is about the subject. And little wonder, once you browse the book’s vast and impressive “Endnotes” and “Bibliography” chapters (that take up around 75 pages, or roughly 15% of this long book) that are testimony to the painstaking study/research done. Add to this the fact that he served in some “maximum-security” prisons as a dentist and he draws from his personal observations/experiences of prison life, and you cannot but concede that this book is not merely theoretical but a painfully real eye-opener. Then, his commitment to prison reform is underscored by the fact that he purposely worked in dangerous prisons, risking his own life, to gain real-life experiences and insights into knotty areas. These, taken together, attest to the book’s authority and the author’s commitment to prison reform.


On account of the foregoing, his brave stand, and particularly his dedication to a noble cause, I admire the author and regard him as a hero. I hope he’s successful in his endeavors.


The right audience for this book is anyone with an interest in the USA’s prison system i.e., the incarcerated, the victims and their families, and the collaborative workforce involved in running the prison system—prison staff and administration, psychologists, psychiatrists, and healthcare staff, Federal, State and Local Govs involved in prison policy-making/management, etc. (to mention only the most important few). It’s also recommended to all that are caring. Finally, it isn’t recommended for casual reading as it's long and serious.

Reviewed by

An engineer and part-time IT Consultant based in Bangalore, India. Part-time copy editor/reviewer. An IEEE Senior Member. Deep thinker and innovator. Highly analytical, clear, accurate, and thorough. Nearly 40 book reviews published to date-20 on Reedsy and 20 on Online BookClub.

Synopsis

ABOUT THE BOOK
The American prison system has gone off the rails. Originally started in
the country by King George III, the pre-American Revolutionary prisons
were inhuman and savage petri houses of filth and diseases. The first
post-Revolutionary prisons were not much better. It was not until
Reconstruction when the stark realities of American prisons were viewed as shameful and repugnant.
However, throughout the near century and a half, the politicians in charge
of legislation have done little to change the culture of prison warehousing.
This story will concentrate on the facts that keep the unfortunate in miserable sardine cans without any provable consideration for change.
A country is only as good as its least fortunate. Providing an atmosphere
to allow for self-actualization rather than big government handouts starts
with health, the family unit, and especially education. Recidivism is the
default issue. Finding a “second chance” vocational opportunity or an avenue
back to school for youth is an absolute must. Prisons provide training in some
areas, but nowhere meeting the needs of the large prison populations. This
a generational issue which has never been fully remediated. The book takes
on the central issues underpinning the ever continuum of prison expansion.

CHAPTER 1

The Prison a/k/a The Big House What is our understanding of discipline in the home or in the school? We understand it to be that course of treatment best suited to educate, to whom we call disciples or learners…12 Thus will make prison discipline what it should be, a process of teaching and training, not mainly to make obedient prisoners, but rather to make them good citizens when they shall cease to be prisoners.13 Mrs. Ellen C. Johnson Late Superintendent of the Massachusetts Reformatory Prison for Women, 1877.

Mrs. Ellen Cheney Johnson was a pioneer do-gooder in mid-nineteenth century Boston as a spokesperson for women on welfare. She transformed many of her welfare improvements into the early changes she brought to bear for changes in women’s prisons (during the period women were housed with men). Her extreme efforts were materially responsible for separating the women out and improving their living conditions. She was responsible for the founding and building of the Massachusetts Reformatory Prison for Women in Sherborn, Massachusetts which opened in 1877 as a result of her considerable effort and empathy for mistreated incarcerated women. Her life was consumed with ideals which, for the most part, spoke volumes for the practical yet rooted in idyllic behavior modification. She markedly gave thrust to major educational programs to make women self-resourceful and thus more equipped to readjust to life outside prison. However, even today, prison life for both the majority of men and women has resulted in greater survival barriers. The effect of this has long term profound consequences. Of course, this factors into Level 3 being significantly more of a physical danger than Levels 1 and 2. So, let’s take a real look at what many do not understand about a system where this is endemic, but certainly where most people’s minds never drift. Ideals are important for any society as they serve as tangible objectives, but, on a practical basis, realities may suffocate them when life and death dominate the environment. The Urban dictionary defines “The Big House”14 as a maximum-security prison. Coincidentally. It was also a 1930 Hollywood MetroGoldwyn Mayer movie starring Chester Morris, Wallace Beery, Lewis Stone and Robert Montgomery, and, was based on the 1926 original story by Lennox Robinson. The story gave the whole idea of prison flare and a sense of early Hollywood romanticism, a very typically antithetical look at prison life even if 1930’s crime interpretation. However, the lingo gave it a verve and suddenly tweaked established thinking so it stuck. And when said it softens the thought with comic relief a smile or a smirk prevails. In the real world, though, many people I grew up with thought The Big House was no more enchanting than an outhouse. So, whatever anyone thinks, the moniker does nothing more than to engender a rather light-hearted reference for perhaps a casual smile. And there are others to foster a softness to the eternal juggernaut: slammer, hoosegow, stoney lonesome, joint, crowbar hotel, and many others. Let’s be clear, there is nothing pleasant about prison. It is composed of a cross-section of both non-violent and violent offenders. In a “politically correct statement at the end of his book, John F. Pfaff makes a very personal belief statement: Still, there are a host of strategies we should be pursuing. Some appear straight forward enough, like changing how we talk about people who are in prison (“people convicted of violent crimes”, not “violent offenders”).15 The Slammer 3 I am of a very different opinion, however. Although Mr. Pfaff is convinced that the language will somehow change the reality of why a prisoner is confined, begin to explain sentencing guidelines, and somehow believe it will whitewash the depth of a crime. I believe it is the beginning of an altered reality as in “It depends on what is is” (to draw language from former President William Jefferson Clinton’s personal format for word processing). Yet to a more serious extent the system seems to noticeably live in a typical altered reality when prisoners can fall through the cracks and be victimized by excessive sentencing as a result of “the classification process”, or, more importantly, the political slant of any given parole board. Attributions which refrain from what is real actually hurts more than it helps. It is a stark reflection of “political correctness” which does not help any venture to make the prison system function better nor help the prisoner trying to improve his reality (which is ultimately trying to show redemption and be paroled). But I shall address this in a later chapter. For now it suffices to say that it is just one example of a system poisoned by “political correctness”. I am of the belief that extremes are injurious in all contexts, but evasiveness, living in an “altered reality”, and “plausible deniability” are very damaging. And the prison system is a very fragile one, to wit every politician has her/his two cents for improvement! I started out working in a Level 2 for a couple of months and then moved to a Level 3. The Level 2 was a mixed group, but mostly people who were incarcerated for offenses related to robbery and drugs. However, it had its share of violent individuals who murdered for any number of reasons. They committed murder, however, in the act of robbery, dealing in drugs, rape or kidnapping (or both), or gang violence. At the time I transferred to a Level 3, the prison was transformed into a different kind of prisoner. It was pretty much an institution where HIV and AIDS prisoners were housed. But this changed just before I arrived. When I started it had just produced a central location for the most aggressive male prisoners in the state. They were the twenties and thirties testosterone jacked types in for kidnaping, rape, distribution Robert Allyn Goldman 4 and use of heavy drugs, and psychological issues which made them a risk to themselves and everyone around them. One thing is very clear: the prison system is a temporal, yet where spirituality is a very big deal. It seems incongruous, but after spending just a bit of time there it is easy to see its place. Running a prison is uniquely a very complex day-to-day issue because no one day is the same. Surprise is more common than ho-hum! There is no convenient time in the day to lack focus and be inattentive because something unforeseen is always happening. The unpredictable always ruins quietude always. The explosive nature of fragile personality types always poses a dangerous threat to the surroundings. For this reason, procedure plays a dominant role. The ingredient which can make everything flow is an “IQ”! I found there were a very large number of low-level employees who were not very intelligent (and, I am not talking about education as much as common sense), and this got in the way of making very basic judgment calls. Another point I want to make before proceeding is that the true leaders in the prison system are the wardens and associate wardens. They are extremely intelligent, immensely focused on maintaining order by keying on and integrating the units within the prison into a continuous flow and communication. They often make order from disorder, quiet from sudden pandemonium when a body alarm would go off due a prisoner going off on a guard either yelling obscene language, getting physical, or interceding very quickly during a fight. The ones I got to know worked long hours, were physically worn most of the time, but always presented a smile and a lending hand when needed. Their biggest difficulty from an administrative point of view is the prison yard and cellblock. Issues aside, bureaucratic indifference from central headquarters is real. It was often a very obvious convenient disregard. Unsettling day-to-day “internal tension” made efficiency trying because daily uprisings, fights, or even murder compromised and endangered the entire prison. Civil society cannot imagine the explosive nature of a maximum-security prison. Walking into work in the very wee hours of the morning was often The Slammer 5 an experience rather than an automatic happening. As my stomach acids started churning in response to my sympathetic nervous system as I approached the first gate, the sight of the first gate from the main drag grew to be a daily emotional experience to which I never fully adapted. It was this first gate where I stopped while the attending “swiped” my credentials identification card through a magnetic strip. This never portended anything of concern, and often I would take a couple of minutes to chat with the guard who came out of the office. The small cabin, with an ingress-egress on either side, usually had two overnight guards who were very nice and extremely cordial. The light chatter was pleasant, but it never assuaged the pit in my stomach as I gazed ahead through my windshield to the mile and a half ride to the prison entrance. It was real country farm land, a patch of rolling hills serving countryside cows and deer wandering free and easy aside of this deep-south city. The ride was bumpy through uneasy terrain and saddled with fences on both sides to contain the cows from the farm abutting the prison. On the left side as I made my way through there were also other prisons within the complex as well as a teaching and housing complex. I grew very resentful of the “mental torture” which went for required teaching within, merely a politically correct prerequisite of bureaucratic mind-streaming. It served as the central training unit for the several prisons within the complex as well as all the other statewide institutions within the prison system. (Headquarters was the main administrative building by the main entrance gate). As I became familiar with the area, it was obvious that its out-of-the-way location constituted reasons for the prison’s vulnerability to both aerial and ground contraband thrown over the razor wire fences. If it were not for the austere nature of the buildings, the rolling hills and beautiful scenery would have been more comforting. But the uniquely fabricated synergy of the dangerous undertones with the emotionally draining atmosphere completely rained feelings of misery into the experience. Simply put, I never met anyone within the system who enjoyed the destabilizing Robert Allyn Goldman 6 working conditions. It is no exaggeration at all to say that the atmosphere is overly charged on a daily basis. As I made my way through the night, I had to drive with care and extreme caution as deer were very common running through the grounds. And, somehow, they got around and over the fences with incredible speed and alacrity. I often saw them in groups as I approached the prison entrance. When I first started my employment, I traveled nightly through the state to one of the prisons in very rough and fallow countryside. It was dark for most of the ride and I learned very early that it was not uncommon to be hit by a deer crossing the road. The speed limit was 50 and 60 mph in various portions of the ride, but it was obvious that the most pristine areas had never been protected with safety highway guards or proper lighting. I was almost killed twice: once by a deer I swerved to avoid and almost toppled (I do not know how I did not turn over into the water under the wooden bridge I had just crossed. I guess as the saying goes that “It was not my time”!). The second time was avoiding an “18 wheeler USPS mail delivery truck” speeding by me in a pouring, wind-swept rain out of control over a very high mountainous zone. I saved myself as I swerved away from going off to the side and down a very steep escarpment. With my heart in my throat both times I somehow survived. Each time I was left like a speechless zombie-like witness staring through the windshield as my heart beat out of control. Feeling my heart in my throat, I hyperventilated and oozed with sweat seeing my life before my eyes. Somehow in the dark of night I got my car back in control thinking “oh but for the grace of God goes I”! When I moved to this maximum-security prison within the city limits, my cautionary memories and feelings accompanied my other concerns, chief of which was: Why am I doing this? I have never been able to reason a realistic answer except to say to myself in a ludicrous manner: “the educational experience”! What insane sophistry! So twice my life being challenged by the dark of night, I approached this country road in the capital city tinged with bad memories. I thought for a very long time that something was wrong with me, that I would feel internally empty and just generally “sick”. It was not The Slammer 7 a buyer’s remorse; it was a flagrant, uncertain sense that I refused to show externally as I proceeded through the day. The feeling grew old and burdensome with each passing day. I had, up to that point in my life, been to many dangerous places in the world, and subjected myself to danger zones I still do not like to remember (like the Tangier Casbah in Morocco at night). But this was a slow grade in the daily journey that seemed to feel more dangerous with each passing day. Nigh time always seems to accentuate anything that is largely tenable in the light of day! Perhaps it was related to the fact that with each passing day more and more prisoners knew who I was and now an invisible target was “etch a sketched” on my back. Word travels very quickly through a prison yard so I gathered very soon that reputation meant everything. As the days proceeded, I got to know fellow employees very well, and, I was somewhat encouraged by their universally and freely expressed feelings that “yes”, misery does like company! The one thought that never stopped rippling through my brain was how high the “misery index” grew during my employment stay. The people in the suits at headquarters did not care to ever address this for the lower level employees and feigned concern whenever and wherever possible to keep peace. It was really Orwellian16 in nature! At the beginning I had to fulfill administrative policy obligations, like take basic tutorials on the prison computer. I would soon learn for myself that this was just a beginning to what was a mere facet of a giant bureaucratic maze. The prison was under the control of a weighted state bureaucracy, onerously overbearing, ill-conceived and demoralizing without any careful thought behind it. In time I came to recognize hoe off-the-cuff it was run. Having been a professional for many years, I had commonly confronted the irrational power puppeteering of midlevel automatons working in a system just to collect a paycheck. This was a little different however. This was a prison system staffed with highly disgruntled people who couched their anger because they supported some entity: a family, a living need, an expensive health requirement, or even a basic car loan. It was, plain and simple, just one job of a two or three-tiered job lifestyle necessary to support overall survival Robert Allyn Goldman 8 for others besides themselves. Administrative employees who would barrage the statewide computers reminding everyone to stay current with tedious and mercilessly repetitive obligatory courses were grating and objectionable. It was quite apparent that the training program followed compulsory standards of employment, but with an incredibly token, unsophisticated format with very low-level standards. The atmosphere reflected a Weltschmerz I had never witnessed so intrinsically and pervasively entrenched. It was systemic. Stepping back from the “Big House” tentacles which daily seemed to lurch out unmercifully to taunt already unhappy employees, I want to colorize and give substance to the reality of an acolyte seeing a maximum-security prison for the first time. The entrance to the prison itself was a screening process managed by highly somnambulant individuals who were always sullen, angry and resentful. They hated and resented the overnight duty in such a grim and cold “hell hole” (as told to me quite often). There were very strict policies about what could or could not be brought into the prison. But the physical “pat-downs” were performed by some highly contentious and frustrated employees. Almost anything, without exaggeration, was considered contraband. They were usually very nasty officers who so carefully patted down body surfaces that it relentlessly tested one’s patience for its indiscreet taunting. As for myself, I never wanted to make trouble so I let them have their fun. In addition, there were restrictions on how things could be packaged. This was an area where childishness exceeded need with clear astonishment and exasperation. The combative, defiant people who exacted their small amount of power were covetous of their control. As insignificant as this may sound it was a paradigm structured into the system which resulted in anger, frustration and premature loss of disgusted employees. At times it was excessively degrading. It was my considered opinion that the bureaucracy glossed over these issues with the childish attitude of “hear no evil, speak no evil”! The programs set up for marketing to the public domain rendered a very false sense of job security, promotion and long-term self-satisfaction. Low level awards, brunches, lunches, music recitals, and other ritualistic blessings The Slammer 9 of appreciation were publicized to over-embellish a very pretentious sense of caring while shrugging off the more significant need for wage increases and less burdensome hours. Prisons’ high employee turnover reflect this glaring failure to remedy. Administrations put on a surface image which is only accepted by a minority who are able to tolerate the nonsense with maturity, but internalized disgust. Needless to say that the bureaucracy diminishes enthusiasm and caring. The general employee attitude progressively languishes to an intolerable boiling point when she/he finally terminates with disdain. The few who survive to progress up the ladder of promotion are people with unique skills to surmount the pettiness in the wake of danger and fatigue. This does not paint a pretty picture, but the reality is that a prison is a dangerous, desultory environment with few benefits and very rare gratification. The endgame for those that thrive is a state retirement benefits and health care support program, and, in synch with the blasé bureaucracy a notation of gratitude on the prison website and maybe a gratuitous “thank you” awards luncheon party with fellow employees. All the bridges these survivors have crossed deserve so very much more, over and above the cursory sanctimony and priggish words of praise. In my life I have never witnessed so many disgruntled, disheartened people, and people I admired for their hard work and very pleasant friendships. Getting out and leaving the sanity of my car for the daily purging of one’s soul to manage the exploits of the forthcoming day was a feat unto itself. Putting normalcy aside for whatever would enrage my internal spirit and ramp up my blood pressure was no doubt an unhealthy start. I remember a Caribbean nurse with whom I worked, who often shared her daily remorse, was the most clever and hilarious person I had ever met. I remember one Friday afternoon when I was on my way out after a particularly horrible day of stabbings, alarms going off, lockdowns, and just generalized turmoil of all kinds, we stopped in the parking lot after the last gate and door out to continue our banter. We were just chatting small talk when she started to do her thing about the prison system and its lack of sensibility for hard working employees. It was as good as some of the great repartee that ever came out of Robin Robert Allyn Goldman 10 Williams. It was so hysterical that in spite of my anxious desire to go home she had me bellied over and effusively teary-eyed with uncontrollable laughter. It was cathartic beyond understanding. Her ability to capsulize the nonsense and failings of the system just brilliantly exposed it for why it is amazing that it survives at all as a functional entity! It reminded me of the talk when I was much younger that there was more insanity outside a prison than inside! It did not, however, take me long to realize that concept is reversed, no matter how quippish! If bureaucrats who complain about employee retention, they have no further distance to travel than the nearest mirror. I learned during my stay that prison management is a major disaster. This is no exaggeration. The real problems today with “the Big House” mismanagement are overcome and held together by the most noble of prison staff, the tireless working wardens. They are constrained by a “political correctness” so weighty and irksome that effective management is overwhelmed daily by policy constraints and the legal rights of the prisoners. The very people whose thoughtless behavior results in perfidious violence in total disregard of the basic human rights of their victims are flooded with legal rights that torture any normal thinking mind! The prison system exhibits a political correctness on steroids, dangerously and frivolously opening up to control issues in the yard. There is no doubt that this consideration is a political football kicked all over bureaucratic ladder right up to the Director of Prisons. However, I believe that a distinction has to be made between prisoners who have committed non-violent crimes and those whose violence may or may not have led to a victims’ death. And it seems appropriate and wise to put bias of thought and prejudicial feelings aside to look at crime through the prism of common sense. What stood out was the daily conduct of wardens and associate wardens as “exhibit A”, a managed code of behavior conditioned by imbecilic bureaucratic demands and not their learned leadership thinking. The result: all day long prison management exhausted themselves falling over backwards to make nice to prisoners. It was (and remains) “P.C.” run amok! Their proper and necessary leadership skills came through only when pressed The Slammer 11 to their wits’ end. Then, and only then, was the marshalling of force applied to keep them in their place. Salty and thoroughly undisciplined prisoner behavior was a daily head-shaker that was draining and intolerable for all prison employees. Some could absorb it better than others just to get by the day and go home to sanity. Bur, let it be very clear, the wardens I knew were some of the finest people I have ever known, and they had their daily feast of mental beat-downs with expected regularity. This is all tantamount to a deeper conversation later in the book. When I got to the initial check-in in the wee hours of the morning I was very apprehensive every single day. There was never any sense of mutual respect for the on-duty officers. They were, for the most part, emotionally tortured individuals, a profound display to observe. For the most part, the lowest level guards were overworked and so severely underpaid that they had one (or sometimes two) other job(s) to pay the bills. Very young single mothers were in the vast majority because of boyfriend/husband abandonment. Therefore, when I got to the check-in area, I witnessed the overnight guard(s) understandably asleep. Usually, by rapping hard on the window I got them out of their slumber to check me in. This involved going through the x-ray walk to ensure I was not sneaking in contraband of any kind, and especially for any particular prisoner. (And, this, believe it or not, is a daily experience). Some were very nice, but most were unfriendly, exhausted and thoroughly in a bad mood. When I first passed through in the initial days of employment I was stopped for taking in a radio for my office or other alike items with the warden’s written permission. If I took this route, I had to carry his letter through the check-in. And, often a big deal was made, to the point that calls back and forth to the control room make it seem like I was a convicted smuggler. The major problem simply was illiteracy, and I reasonably refrained from shaming them for their social circumstances. Sinfully, most were so resentful and angry that I absorbed their frustrations because I was impassioned by their misery. However, it became very old very quickly. After the x-ray walk-through, I was patted down with a thoroughness that was more often than naught an unnecessary, nasty experience. I never made a bid Robert Allyn Goldman 12 deal about it because of the “intangibles” at that hour of night fraught with potential danger. I would redress from the ritual disrobing of exterior appurtenances like my belt, shoes, car keys held in my pants, and any other potentially radiolucent items. They were all put through in advance. This five-minute process extended to thirty minutes of nonsense. I arrived at about 3 AM when it would be customary to encounter no more than the yard cats desperately in search of food. Most employees entered about 5AM, and that was followed by “the ladies and gentlemen” of the 8AM wave. The delay was always due to acquired survival skills: nonchalance and oblivion. And I sincerely understood this. When I fully redressed and collected my senses I was buzzed into the central office where I gave up my ID card for swiping (which most often than naught was out of order and delayed my entry sometimes as much as a half hour until calls to the control room got it fixed, or someone would come all the way down to mechanically remediate the computer glitch). Picture this in the damp, cold, sometimes windswept rain of the early morning. Moreover, I have to add that frequently I would have to await the guard who was on night guard patrol in a beat-up truck doing her rounds around the entire perimeter of the razor wires surrounding the grounds. When all this was completed to some degree of certainty, I passed through the swipe in office and was buzzed out to the breezeway to the control room, about a football field entry to the main door. I felt very often that the expenditure of emotional energy was so depleting that I had to regather and toss all my thoughts to the heavens and just proceed on. There was always tension in the air! All this just to nursemaid some of the most vile and violent individuals I have ever met! The rapid walk through the breezeway was the habitual low of my day. The most humbling feeling was the complete lack of respect. I was in some form of private practice for about forty-five years. I was a professional, and this was in complete disregard. I cannot emphasize enough how churlish these guards were. I always kept my cool, but the general tenor of the prison was as inhospitable as it could be. The warden and officers did not care one iota. If I had not been determined to The Slammer 13 understand the workings of a maximum security prison, I would have quit. I rationalized that I was in a hell-hole, and the staff reflected it! Before I continue I want to reflect on a few thoughts. Prisons are not on any priority list for any citizen. It is also true that they are important for community protection. The spillover from within remains limited and controlled for the sake of safety. Locals do not feel obligated to tolerate movement in and out of prison grounds. Prisoners are moved constantly for health or relocation considerations. Everyday people do not feel their lives should be interrupted by prison activities. Strict controls are followed as guards are in constant control of movement through either highly populated city streets or uninhabited countryside. Lapses of attentiveness can be a disaster. I was often struck how casual this was taken in contrast to the checking-in process. In any massive organization such as a prison system (a publicly managed facility) its obligation is the protection of the public sector as well as employee harmony/discipline. However, I gathered very early on that the administrative leadership was passively aggressive in daily management. Tension was constantly in the air, and I attributed this to very poor leadership. One other very significant point. A Level 3 prison is a brutal place so I expected more professionalism. In general, the atmosphere was so tense that guards felt tremendous pressure from all areas. Not a single day went by without a crisis. The bleak reality is not comforting for a hard working guard. I often witnessed guards being physically assaulted. This added to cold, drab feeling. And, piling on with constant computer obligations in addition to self-defense classes with gun range obligations made it confounding why the bureaucrats could not understand the employment turnover. Such prisons are not correctional. They are purely protective institutions. Why is this important? The prison system was at one time in its early days structured physically and intellectually to prepare prisoners for their release post-incarceration. The objective has always been to prepare prisoners to become employable public citizens with a newly invested sense of social responsibility. For many reasons this was a dream Robert Allyn Goldman 14 and an unreality reminiscent of a song with universal words by Dusty Springfield17 in 1964: “Wishing and Hoping, adopted her with a different intuit but similar meaning. I certainly understood the sense of idealism, but the leadership mentality defied this objective. The institutional Achilles heel prevents this lofty expectation. It is important to show how certain prisoners are showing character development, but it’s not right to look away from the reality of a very dangerous and desperate atmosphere. Self-flagellating about lofty accomplishments for public consumption is terribly misleading. This neatly fits under the heading of “political correctness”, the oxygen of the public domain. It would be encouraging to validate euphemistic language with concrete results. As that piercing sound from the buzzer thwacked my mind as I entered the breezeway there was no uncertainty in my spirit. I was always a “half-cup-full” kind of person so William Safire’s18 expression, “Don’t let the bastards grind you down”, echoed through my mind every morning as I expected the unexpected. It was a universally accepted feeling of “function for dysfunction”! I grappled mentally and emotionally, as everyone else around me, to do the job for which I was hired with a smile and a “stiff upper lip”. In a way the breezeway was a momentary suspension of my thoughts as I gazed upon my surroundings: the prison cats so skittishly running through the grounds, the “death house”, the amount of razor wires around the enclosure so stark, the prison nursery, and the plantings right and left so beautifully, but distinctly, out of place with the very harsh backdrop. At the beginning, my impressions were instructive, like I was a “goody-two-shoes” here for a noble mission. But as the days passed on this feeling evaporated into the sheer reality of its very disdainful unpleasantness. As I approached the main control room door there was a very large and lavish sign against the wall in front of me denoting this rather unembellished place as “correctional”. Then, as I turned to the right for the control room to acknowledge my presence with another ear shattering buzzer to pull open the screeching iron door, I entered to another sign of one word, overstated and pretentiously displayed clichés: character, respect, humility, brotherhood, caring, etc. In my The Slammer 15 mind I knew it was very robust “P.C.” and very much over the top. Were they meaningful and instructive? Hardly, most likely due to the daily overreach of propagandized expressions to uplift already depressed feelings. I never counted them, but there must have been about fifty words which seemed to be very anachronistic and quite pretentious. It is quite Hobbesian19 in its governmental, authoritarian and determinist manner for mind-streaming and thought control. I was always warned against making an exaggerated show to make a point. I used to think to myself: a little late for some of the very, very few! It was a very pretentious attempt to convey the importance of ethical and moral rectitude while instilling a universal feeling for virtue and leadership qualities. This obvious and very glaring self-righteousness was only exceeded by its thorough hypocrisy delivered with an unavoidable daily reminder for the employees spending their shifts in conflict, never experiencing lighthearted banter and realizing high-sounding moral standards of behavior. Such was the out-of-place, gratuitous administration sanctimony. My fellow employees did not know whether to go wild with anger, quit, or complain. They did none because they were poor and needed the work! The big iron door clanked and squealed as it slowly passed to the left. I slivered through sideways as soon as I could fit. There I would be met by the overnight woman guard at the central prison control room with more than a dozen television screens focusing everywhere along all facilities. As she gave me keys to the infirmary as well as a body alarm we chatted. She and I developed a friendship over time because of our mutual love history with cats. She was a typical rural, indigent, hard-working, very intelligent (with no formal education) woman who thoroughly despised her job. She confided to me that without this overnight position she and her husband could not survive. The dangerous environment and the understated important concerns versus the overstated compliance to trivia rattled her patience. Her feelings spoke volumes about state bureaucracies which unabashedly and wastefully allowed talent to languish while the supporting tax money was squandered in the rueful pursuit of sententious public acclaim. Robert Allyn Goldman 16 My eyes would automatically look to the numerous TV screens above the desk of phones and other screening paraphernalia which caste numerous views of the prison yard and individual cell blocks. I typically viewed some early rising prisoners passing through the yard. She would then give me her daily warning to be careful as well as a listing of which cellblocks were in lockdown due to some form of violence, contraband event or escape in the late-night hours before I arrived. Being a maximum-security prison with very young prisoners (a great number being very psychologically challenged), this became a nightly occurrence. I would then make my way to the second iron gate diagonally behind my right shoulder as she wished me a safe day. The initial clank and release squeal gave me a pit in my stomach. As it slowly opened, I usually saw duffel bags along the right wall opposite the temporary retaining cells for prisoners in abeyance awaiting transfer to another of the state facilities, or, for others being held as arrivals for administrative protocol in the morning. Some slumbered on the uninviting cement benches affixed to the walls while occasionally some would make a racket yelling obscenities or meaningless, mostly unintelligible commentary as I passed through. I always looked to the right where the windows revealed multiple computers for the overnight control guard (usually an attending Lieutenant or Corporal). I knew them all well. When the Corporal met me at the next fence gate, she would gather the correct key while she bantered warnings and very kind words of appreciation for my presence. She was a very diminutive black woman who would hug me while we talked. She would always give me a breakdown for a future she was relishing at her retirement (after 25 years). She was such a breath of fresh air, an absolute sense of calm, joyful thought and comfort in this house of utter insanity. Being one of the two final gates to the yard, she would warn me to exercise extreme caution as there were no guards on duty. Knowing I had to walk about the length of a football field to the final locked steel door to the infirmary, I listened carefully as it was a very dark walk. Admittedly, as I proceeded through, I would feel for the proper key with my left hand while I properly arranged my body alarm for easy reach. But, as I left The Slammer 17 the Corporal, I always ruminated how she was immensely undervalued for her inspiration and sense of humor. My inner thoughts sped hastily from the reality of “same old, same old” to visceral infuriation that government can fail so miserably. I realized two things: (1) government-controlled institutions like prisons cannot realize increased employment numbers due to internal systemic corruption, and (2) that all the bombastic, puffed-up, genteel euphemisms do not fool nor assuage the deep resentment held by the majority of employees. I referenced in my mind the long forgotten “The Peter Principle” by Laurence J. Peter20 in 1969: how people rise up in business to the level of their incompetence. Prisons bleed this principle, but their failures bleed from the top of the administration! I made my way through a garden area to the yard gate, left unlocked because the yard was supposed to be empty. But prison recklessness being what it is, there were enough times to make my heart pound as I saw prisoners wandering in the shadows unbeknownst and unsupervised. A few times I was accosted in a not-so-friendly backand-forth. Some of my colleagues (especially one Nurse Practitioner) would give me an earnest, friendly dress-down about not using my body alarm. I was hardly cavalier. I was just downright ignorant. This prison was primarily for young, headstrong killers without any respect for life. The proper remediation for ignorance is knowledge, but this is dreaming! I quickly grew into the starkness of the environment as I assumed a much more cautionary awareness (for my own survival). Plain and simple, the prison atmosphere is not a place for relaxed behavior. The dangers of the night hit home why grades Levels I, 2 and 3 are so pronouncedly different. When I finally got to my destination, I would unlock the door as occasional prisoners would accost me with questions which were covers for some ulterior contentious motive. I learned to be terse and abrupt as it became the norm for a guard to be assaulted in this area. The “pill room” was within feet of my entrance so prisoners would linger at this gathering point. The more rural Level 2 prison where I started was more relaxed. I still had to pass through a gaggle of prisoners before Robert Allyn Goldman 18 reaching a guard. As uncomfortable as that was, it was nothing like the Level 3 maximum security waiting room in the infirmary where fighting was more common and sometimes very dangerous. This area was nothing more than a steel-iron cage simulating a circus of safely enclosed animals. This was simply for safety, and, employment taught me why. The prisoners were treated in these type of enclosures with due respect, but without this type waiting room all hell would break out. The “Big House” concept is one of many euphemisms for referencing a prison, a necessary comedic understatement for how criminals are housed. It is essential for public protection, not only for their conceivable endangerment as well from each other. The major issues I saw as fundamental for the wardens are contraband issues, vicious gang conflicts resulting in stabbings and deaths, assaults on guards, guard-prisoner secretive sexual and contraband collaborations, and drug paraphernalia being secreted in through the entry points or thrown over the razor wires. Unfortunately, the “Big House” gets bigger when necessary resources are not properly apportioned by the state to pay a proper way to both secure and retain adequately trained guards. But, as I stated, there were grievously underpaid and highly overworked employees who were always discouraged and exhausted from the lengthy hours. It is extremely important to realize that for an institution whose primary obligation and credo being safety, the hypocrisy of such a necessary steadfast compliance to this reality being subverted by overt oversight is stark. Laughable to a greater extent is to hear the media advertising on radio and television for the potential financial growth in “correctional institution” employment. Staggering is the reality when ambitious young guards revolve in and out of employment owing to low pay, long hours and a complete lack of administrative concern. Institutional focus is “keeping the peace”. Yet, beyond this one wonders why administrative responsibilities concerns concentrate on what looks right rather than what is right! The problems the wardens face are their efforts to make their institutions function in spite of administrative higher-ups allowing politics to derail measures that would make employment more The Slammer 19 desirable. The institutions are held together by many dedicated leaders who honorably maintain stability in spite of the flagrant oversight by politicians whose bureaucratic devotion to their own pockets sets up the institutions to daily risks. And yet, the politically correct measures taken with righteous indignation is to publicize very limited images of “the good deeds” and religious/educational reformations being advanced at some of the Level 1 and 2 institutions. It almost seems like a cruel cover-up for the violence that is really much more significant than the public will ever realize. Stunning is how old and really filthy are all the facilities. The infirmary is an OSHA disgrace, a rather clarion call to the leadership that willfully condones such an environment. It is “hear no evil, speak no evil” conduct of behavior, an unforgivable “razzle-dazzle”. Anyone with basic medical training quickly realizes a complete lack of sterility and sterilization procedures. The equipment is old, the instruments are ill-suited for the prisoners’ needs, and the core of capital investment virtually non-existent. Cleaning up from a knife fight (after which the prisoners enter the infirmary with blood falling pretty much in their wake) involves a mop, water, alcohol and some Clorox. The beds are so dated that a modern-day cot would look advanced. And the heating/AC system is overly antiquated and always dysfunctional. It is important to just mention this because so much lip service is paid to emphasize how the prisoners are well served. Yet, they are coddled and unrealistically pampered in spite of some of the most heinous and disturbingly violent crimes. The people employed to carry out the medical/dental procedures necessary to maintain a basic level of care are asked to administer in both a disturbingly dangerous and “unsterile” (to be gentle) environment! This is very reminiscent of Angola Prison in Louisiana prior to the Civil War where prisoners occupied areas where their roommates were all kinds of vermin. After all my training during my lifetime, particularly paying homage to advances in and the practice of proper sterilization procedures, it was certainly an eye-opener. My conclusions are put in the context that I know that the accepted science is definitely slighted by money and convenience when left to the druthers of Robert Allyn Goldman 20 government as well as the choke-hold and expediency of bureaucracy. A final consideration which I shall illustrate is the continuous “plausible deniability” which runs rampant throughout the entire system. It is like a drug that has addicted the business and operations control as an extension of “political correctness”. It seems that the behavior is so endemic that the “quality assurance” (which is feigned) is really the ultimate disguise, much to the chagrin of the very aware employees. I shall touch on this in a later chapter. Leadership is a quality that is reflected from the inside of people who comport themselves according to the highest ethical standards. Sensing the necessity to be the ultimate example of moral rectitude, leadership in the prison system is special because of its concentrated risks and teeter-tottering emotional demands on a daily basis. Up and down the ladder of employees, the atmosphere was poisoned because of the very out-of-place glorious talk that did not translate to their satisfaction. The daily charge could not be implemented under the stress and strain felt by the majority of people. There was a pervasive feeling that leadership was an act, not a meaningful concern. The boiling point was always reached when the prison became suddenly overwhelmed by a fatality, an extremely bloody fight, or a guard being tragically assaulted. The palpable anxiety and high degree of emotional distress permeated throughout the entire system. Distrust of the leadership made a good number feel all was naught and frightfully unarguable. The facial reflections were ones of disgust and hopelessness. It was awful to see on such nice and hardworking people. But I feel that the wanton cover-up with smiles, ebullient behavior and false bravado made the administrative leadership appear malevolent. The political correctness and plausible deniability are the scourge running havoc throughout the prisons. It was obvious to me that sanctimony from above crushed the plea for honesty from below. The panoramic view behind the razor wire is pretty much generic. That is, a very cookie-cutter layout that is common to the state prison system. If you have seen one, you have pretty much seen them all. The grounds are very similarly arranged, differing only by size. Some have The Slammer 21 more cell blocks; some are resplendent with gardens and an occasional pool surrounded by exquisitely verdant plantings. Most, however, have a sterile, very bland appearance. It really depends on the prisoners, and certainly where their energies are expressed. Everything of a maintenance need is generally handled by a prisoner with prior training and experience. Otherwise, more specialized problems necessitate bringing a private repair person into the facility. I can personally attest to the fact that some of the prisoners exhibited pretty fancy technical knowledge, especially dealing with some very complicated plumbing and electrical repairs. I still find it incongruous that these prisoners I came to know quite well were really hardcore, very vicious criminals. It could then be extrapolated that if the “key word: is “was” then early release /mitigation should be seriously considered. I have important thoughts on this issue based on my experience and exposure (which I shall get into in later chapters). Suffice it to say that this is a topic which will always be promoted, rejected, and promoted ad nauseam. Today when I hear or see written “The Big House”, I no longer find it as amusing as I once did. I’d like to consider myself as intelligent and understanding enough to have seen the humor, but spending so much time muddled in the heart of hard time my outlook has demonstrably changed. Walking through the yard is an interesting experience. At times it was a very surreal, an out-of-body feeling: the sublime fused with the absurd! For the people who have been working there for years it has never changed. It is a very dangerous place, and, it took a while for me to accept this because it is easy to get complacent and forget where you are. And, worse yet, as any person growing up and living very distant to heavy survival crime locations of the country, it takes a while for the whole effect to settle in. I worked with a professional lady who always reprimanded me in a motherly way for my naïve trust. In time my perception and feeling for the danger really hit me. I was extremely friendly with one of the guards who was always looking out for me, and, he was always warning me to watch myself. He sensed and knew everything about every prisoner. And, boy, was he right on! Prisoners very quickly learn survival techniques (for many reasons Robert Allyn Goldman 22 that are obvious). I came to learn about some of their hidden fears because of the times I would spend talking to them. My other colleagues within the infirmary warned me early on not to talk to them because word flitters around the yard very rapidly, and, at some later time, I could be the object of an untoward assault. I can confirm that I took the advice with a serious appreciation but continued with selective judgment. I would watch other employees interact with prisoners, and, this was a very educational experience. It was hard to detect what high-level officers (up to the warden himself) were really thinking. This conversation was not taboo so I went back-and-forth with everyone who would listen. It was very informational. The prisoner mindset was always in motion because of in-house gang violence. Out of sheer self-protection, it was stark how fast their eyes surveilled their surroundings to ensure no one would suddenly appear with a shivv or a shank. They did not hide anything because their uniforms would not allow it. They wore light brown khaki sleeveless shirts with long-legged khaki, string-tightened, very fluffy pants. They all wore Crocs or athletic shoes. It never ceased to amaze me how nice their running shoes/ cross-trainers were (gifts from family). In the winter they wore a woollined dark greenish brown overcoat (without pockets). In spite of this, the dangerous wannabes found the right timing and appropriate garb to hide a shivv or shank. The violence was planned, but the immediate action spontaneous. I had just come in early one day when I witnessed (and, then administered treatment to) a guard crying terribly because a prisoner tried to rearrange the anatomy of his face. He was in shock and very hysterical. It appeared one of the prisoners was out in the yard wandering before light (against rules, but this night guards were hard to find). Because guards are always in markedly short numbers the prisoners very quickly become aware. So, when he was turned away at the infirmary for being too early for “the insulin line”, he responded with his one-man revolt. He took it out on the first person he found. Oh, yes, he got his insulin, but then he was locked up in “a special housing unit”. Pardon me, I mean “solitary confinement”! Which The Slammer 23 brings me to my head turning experience, or, what I reference as my personal learning experience: the use of politically correct language in a prison. Well, prisoners have their own slang, but the prison has its own identifying language. So, I quickly digress to expose “the idiocy” of prison culture. I believe in not dancing around the use of terms and language. As a new and unschooled employee, I was brought up to speed very quickly about a lot of cautionary matters of conduct while moving around in the prison. Along with this I learned very early on that the guards do not carry guns. They are left with their rather soft means of self-protection: pepper spray and a walkie-talkie type telephone. Try to imagine for a minute what good would either do if a number of prisoners jumped a single guard. Well, it happens all the time! This was the ultimate insult in an environment of recurrent periods of ungodly terror. The number of times the prison went into total lockdown for serious attacks involved guards as well as prisoners. It always made me repeat in my head the sardonic warning that “you can’t bring a knife to a gun fight”! I saw very young women commonly brought to tears. The result was their quitting, leaving the system vulnerable and dangerously short on key personnel. It is the “theater of the absurd”! Some would call this classic kabuki theater. There is no doubt that I was witness to strange events and people. But the “political correctness” just ran rampant through a system which had no business not rejecting. Like wandering through some vacuous dream, I couldn’t mentally condone such a significantly misplaced value system. In this respect, the responsibility for the mayhem which prevails with impunity on a daily basis rests solely with legal bureaucrats who subject wardens and their officer corps to the dangers embedded in unstable, unsafe areas. Highly risk-taking actions unsupported by proper armamentarium is painfully unreasonable. Surely, the elite guards (Elite Special Operational Guards come equipped with M-15 Vindicator with Disruptor Ammo) enter (after the fact) with guns and chemicals, but, by then, great damage to life and structure has already been done. The “Big House” is not a “backwater outhouse”, it is the last Robert Allyn Goldman 24 and only refuge for human beings (convicted of very violent crimes) confined, for the most part, for their natural lives. Language, behavior and self-protective mechanisms cannot be made up as if the prison is a fairyland where everything is “soft” and “so, so” such that all is superficially proper and justifiably broad-based. There is no place for this kind of thinking where so many lives are at stake. It always made me wonder how could violent offenders (who are incarcerated for murdering in ways a clean mind could not fathom on a bad day) be sequestered in an environment they know could erupt in a riot spontaneosly”! I could never reconcile this in my mind! The infirmary is a very well-built concrete structure with a holding cell for all prisoners who await pre-authorized appointments. It reminded me of a New York subway stop of unkempt, loud ruffians. At best it holds 20 people, sometimes more for standing aside. The clinics are facsimiles of makeshift “Doctors Without Borders” backwater fabrications. One guard is at attention to keep order, but without a weapon and limited to a walkie-talkie phone as well as the usual pepper spray. I am confidently aware that pepper spray will deter, but it will never hold off a violent group.To me this was ridiculous, just baffling! I was present in very untoward, calamitous disturbances. When very volatile prisoners start yelling, fighting and generally upsetting the general atmosphere the boiling point is reached very quickly. It is often prevented in “the nick of time”. The treatment rooms are close by only feet away from the holding cell and on the exterior of the emergency area. The corridors are very narrow and with hidden zones despite specifically placed wall-ceiling mirrors. When there are emergencies with prisoners either lying down or sitting so that personnel can attend their bleeding wounds while EMS (Emergency Medical Services) is on route from the local hospital, the environment is generally emotionally hyperbolic and strained. I have seen it at its best and its worst. The fear I always had was the sudden reach for sharp instruments (of which there were many) to be used as a lethal weapon. No doubt that the incredible limitations on proper control always made me askance as to the “geniuses” The Slammer 25 who allowed so many people to be so vulnerable. These are the same individuals whose training courses for personnel are so over-the-top detailed beyond need, and to boot taught by some of the most power hungry and unskilled individuals possible. I have never encountered such self-centered and self-flagellating ne’er do wells in my life. Teaching officers possessed degrading deportment which was only exceeded by their weak-minded presentation(s)! In teaching for many decades it is a travesty to see a burlesque-like mentality that is the prison’s excuse for a teaching platform (replete with two overly burly individuals with backwoods-level intelligence). The continuous loss of discouraged, recently hired guards was striking. I witnessed in the teaching center individuals who left permanently in a huff. In a distinctly depressed economy the finding of acceptable employment is treasured. Yet, the eventual drop off from the approximately sixty adult employees was close to 75%. A time must come whereby sufficient employee retention numbers should override the burdens which are currently too weighty and emotionally taxing. The time-consuming educational format for all employees does not conflate with the job descriptions. Simply put, they reflect compliance with regulatory controls which make for a uniquely high employee misery index. Between the six-week basic training that guards undergo at the very beginning of their employment, the yearly continuation courses, the shooting range compliance exercises, and the self-defense updates would all fulfill the “necessary and sufficient” mathematical standard if there would not be such a psychological drubbing in pursuit of the daily demands. It is also fundamentally senseless. The guards are the most friendly and highly personable people who have invested tedious and demanding training so that their safety and appreciation demands far greater investment in their safety. A Level III is not a walk in the park atmosphere! Walking amidst the buildings of the yard there was always an elevated spirit. There is no question that I always felt a mutual respect and good humor like no other place I had ever worked. It did not make any difference whether employees were from human resources, Robert Allyn Goldman 26 certification, the arboretum, the cafeteria, wood-working, etc. There was a generalized feeling of mutual understanding and respect. Their sense of dedication was lost to the long hours and very low pay. Within the state prison system across the country this translates to internal violence which can take a life or lives any day of the week. The longer an employee stays within the system for the carrot at the end of the stick (the insurance and retirement benefits) the more noticeable is the gloom which bleeds into every conversation. The older guards always reflected a sense of glee when their retirement was imminent, never afraid to come forth with how much they hated what they did and will never, ever look back. And such was that common denominator that always made me so deeply reflective. The prison computer always exhibited a fawning note that splashed praise to recognize them for years of dedication. Or, there was the proverbial “dog and pony show” which excited a pseudo-sense of mirth as the retiring employee was exalted with an obsequious social glee and delight. In the end it would clearly misrepresent the true mixed emotions prison employees share regarding their many years, never realizing their true financial worth. Every business, be it in the public or private sector, demands leadership and accountability. The state prison system being within the public sector is stymied up and down by bureaucracy and corruption. The “Big House” is its very life force that has not changed since its early beginnings, and most likely will never change. Its management is trying, and it is afflicted with profound inertia. The corruption I shall touch on later, but, for now, it is presently noteworthy to understand that political correctness is the scaffold on which the system rests. The following is known. 1. The language of communication has been watered down “to please” and “to appease”. For example: convicts or prisoners are referenced as inmates. Cell blocks are called dormitories, or, dorms for short. Guards are not guards. They are officers. Solitary confinement is called a Special Housing Unit. 2. Incident reports are for documentation of negative events which require administrative review and reconciliation. The Slammer 27 They are basically impact statements. However, they are abused overwhelmingly so that a simple animus for another employee can be used as an abusive cudgel. It only rarely conveys value to what is an already laborious procedure weighed down by reams of paper trails (that generally get lost in the system, or, that take so much time to investigate that their value is lost). 3. The prison system has its employees reduced to “robots in a tiered system”. They are very congenial, intelligent people, but so undereducated and ill-informed that they do not think nor intelligently communicate. It is purposefully run this way so there is bureaucratic control over the system. 4. The employees who travel between the different in-state institutions are in more stable positions as they are not present long enough in the Level 3 institutions to feel the daily tension: the people working in classification, some psychologists, and outside delivery personnel. 5. For the most part, the majority of the prisoners are flagrantly pampered and given costly access channels not even available outside to people in need. This will be discussed later as the most politically correct gratuity making a mockery of legitimacy and equity. 6. There are prisoners inside who should be released, others whose sentences are too long due to ridiculous sentencing guidelines, others who are released way prematurely, and those who should die in prison for the horrific nature of their crimes. 7. Inaction, failure of action, and, methodically evasive action by prison bureaucracy enables a level of bureaucratic corruption so systemic that it is sadly inviolate. 8. The prison system cannot ever change as is because its lifeblood is the “business as usual” mentality. Its existence is defined by decades of misappropriated history and “goodole-boy” political coddling. Its Achilles heel redounds to Robert Allyn Goldman 28 issues intimately connected to education in the country. As it remains, visceral wounds in the system are patched as if merthiolate tincture would suffice where reconstructive surgery is indicated. 9. The training center for prospective employees must be turned upside down on its head, re-evaluated, and then reshaped to attract and keep ambitious, worthy, and dedicated people. Perfunctory complacency is a losing proposition. 10. Each state needs organizational fealty at the Governors’ level to be a watchdog on the conduct and channeling of money for its prudent disposition. Left to its druthers, the correctional institutions require close surveillance for what is “run-amok”, self-serving power and failure to address the needs of its employees. 11. The general policies of the prison system are written in typical legalese, and, they are on the website for every employee’s scrutiny. Its stream of consciousness is every bit politically correct and, as absurd as it might sound, is written with the expectation of “plausible deniability”. The administrative bureaucracy would never accept responsibility for misgivings. It would be the misfortune of a more appropriately selected lower level employee. I chose to name the policies as “selective adjudication”! The primary obligation of the prison system is to protect citizenry against exploitation by those people who would willfully break the law committing either violent or non-violent crimes. It is as simple as that. Oh that it would be so easy and possible! Perhaps in Shangri-La, but certainly nowhere else. Shangri-La is James Hilton21’s Lost Horizon utopia, and, in some sense a prison is conversely a dystopia where “correctional” is not applicable beyond what it really is: a lockup. That is the cold reality. For some who prevail and truly make the most of their detention in a positive direction it is different. It is important to understand that the tiered nature of a prison makes true separation of prisoners important. As in life, when people of like mind assemble for The Slammer 29 the same purpose, there is a greater chance that positive energies are channeled for those that want to improve their station in life and create a purpose for themselves. Prisons housing violent people are generally devoid of soul, and hollow to the core. This would never be the covenant of a religious prelate, a priest or even a committed religious devotee. But I am observing strictly as an educated, observing and practical individual who has witnessed a prison system lost in time. Reflecting carefully on opinion blogs and books, I do not believe there is enough of a clear distinction made between prisoners convicted of non-violent versus violent crimes. If these individuals are separated out, then I feel an argument exists supporting differences of opinion regarding sentencing, parole issues, parole boards, prisoner rights, bureaucratic corruption, “three strikes and you’re out” sentencing, life sentencing, etc. There are so many inherent wrongs which may never be properly addressed and redressed, but at least discussions can be more sensible and less emotional. There should be room for “truth without prejudice”. There are so many tenable issues raised by both Gottschalk22 and Pfaff23. However, in my estimation, their philosophies and arguments made in support of and against certain laws and regulations are statistically significant but practically refutable. Their arguments and statistical breakdowns lack substantive appreciation of the daily burdens. Non-violent offenders demand sensible re-evaluation of overboard sentencing. Violent offenders are “cats” of a different breed. There is no reason to let them out without serious scrutiny and evaluation year to year. There is no doubt that careful evaluation will determine some should be released at some point. In this regard, this consideration demands watchful analysis over time. Grouping them together in one institution further hardens their being if that is the prisoner’s inclination. For both groups, life stops upon imprisonment, and, as they are inured to their surroundings, some become resentful and ossified. It is important to separate the resentful from the resilient. To the falsely incarcerated the advent of DNA identification and other chemical/ biologic markers can liberate falsely incriminated prisoners. And, a Robert Allyn Goldman 30 district attorney who prosecutes with an ax to grind can ruin lives (later I relate such an officious case in New Orleans). The importuning of an innocent “violent offender” by dint of personal foibles is such an unfortunate happenstance. Personal vendettas as well are beneath any forgiveness! The blur between non-violent and violent offenders is quite clear, but this does not excuse following strict investigation, honorable trials, proper defense, honest prosecution, and reasonable sentencing devoid of political intent. Overcrowded jails and prisons with non-violent offenders has to be dealt with in a serious manner or mass incarceration will never get the serious reduction it demands. In this regard, I fully acknowledge that much more has to be done to clear out the fog and bureaucratic corruption to realize what prisons are and are not: they are warehouses of humanity, and, they are not sufficiently what they purport to be: correctional institutions. In general, they are shrouded with timid advocacy and support groups of all types, grasping for reality, and yet just turning within the same wheel from generation to generation like laboratory rats. Unless there is an acknowledgement that the laws require reconfiguration in the way state prosecution handles non-violent offenders all the words and writing will be empty and feckless. It is a sine qua non that most prisons realistically reflect extreme racial imbalance and this redounds to domestic upbringing and inferior education. Saddle this with high unemployment, failure to remedy drug addiction and the insidious exposure to drug trafficking, and especially murder rates associated with gangs and extreme religious fanaticism, the future looks quite dim for delimiting the rates of incarceration. I do not want to embellish here, but to even begin thinking about how to remedy the way the country (really the individual states as noted above) develops a consensus and gets serious will be delimited by typical political bargaining. The problem is too serious to be eternally run amok. Between prison bureaucracy and continuous political attention this issue will continue for years. Being in the “Big House” does leave a social stain. Generally, it reflects back very painfully on family with profound disruption and The Slammer 31 the subtleties of unspoken pain. I walked through the yard every day and frequently stood outside of the infirmary door glancing around the individual cellblocks. And the prisoners would stroll by me giving me a stare or even saying hello. A great number would come over and start a conversation. I was friendly but extremely cautious because of their interest where I live. Very cleverly, most would attempt to pry into my personal life, but I would quickly shut this down. They have easy access to family and friends on the outside who would do their bidding should they wish to seek revenge on an employee. One such episode about which I was numerously warned was the murder of a person who came to his door and was shot in the face. This was a revenge killing in behalf of a prisoner who was angry over disciplinary punishment for a prison violation. I cannot vouch for this, but I was repeatedly told by a reliable source early on in my employment to keep me aware of the inherent exposure to any suspicious motive(s). At first, I disabused myself of such extreme apprehension. But as time passed, I realized how accurate the warnings were. My learning curve was rapidly accelerated as I witnessed extreme behavior play out. The prisoners were like chameleons, adopting behaviors which advanced their personal agendas. It is amazing how fast information travels in a prison yard. Survival is generally their number one priority. And, they take to the extreme, some with subtlety, but the majority with overtly extreme passion. In his book, The Survivors Club: The Secrets and Science that Could Save Your Life, Ben Sherwood24 reduces the survivor’s profile to five types: The Fighter, The Believer, The Connector, The Thinker, and, The Realist. All five characteristics define whether the survivor will fight physically and mentally, never deter from his/her internal belief system, develop personal connections with others for aid and comfort, will act predominantly thinking actions through in advance, and will accept that there will be ups and downs (and, things will not always work out as desired). My observations as I came to know many and watching them from a distance convinced me that they manifest profiles which are a product of some or all such characteristics. Most were “gut-checkers” with very evident instinctive behaviors, but occasionally Robert Allyn Goldman 32 I met a very overriding cerebral personality. By every measure they were all desperate survivor types. Because they are severely educationally challenged the cerebration qualities Ben Sherwood describes are almost universally deficient, but grousing to any extent was non-existent. I made contact with individuals of all ages. Both the middle-aged and the more wizened had substantially mellowed. They stood out amidst so many arrogant and brazen “Young Turks”. The youths were flashy, know-it-all types with gang affiliations, and covered head to toe with tattoos of every conceivable gang affiliation. Some were so prideful they would stop me to illustrate the meaning (as they pointed) of each different one. Even as they were laden with ink the configurations were as stark as they hideously shrouded a prior pubescent life. It was bizarre in its simulation to a living totem pole. In my conversations with many I would point out an older, calm prisoner and point out that this would be their change in a number of years. Some would come back at me: never, in defiance! Once in a while I got to one of the young ones, leaving him totally silent (seemingly trying to consider my shared thoughts). As I recount all these conversations I am still imbued with the distinct feeling how even the most heinous murder will, for the most part, become the people they defiantly rejected as a young hellion. This is eerily alarming in considering the need for guidance and education opportunities during the most vulnerable years of development. Molding clay by a talented artist speaks volumes of the importance of family and education in the development of America’s youth. It was obvious to understand how gang affiliation became a surrogate need for even the most odious criminal. The spiritual needs and feelings surface even within the wicked. As I walked through the yard, each cell block had its own side yard with a basketball net, a mini track, a calisthenics work out area with weights and lifting bars, and an area just to pass time. Some would just lean against the fence, but groups were quite evident. I always thought that “bugs” may be placed strategically to listen in and monitor. But that was probably my suspicious mind wandering as I hastily walked The Slammer 33 so as to avoid prisoners yelling at me from the fences. Thank the Lord for the advent of razor wire! The prodigious effort to leave the prison was in many ways worse that my nightly entry, even though the light of day was certainly cathartic! The one time I could keenly observe, be accosted, and talk was during my exit because I came in the dark of night (when I was met by deer, feral cats and the occasional snake). I was always amazed by the relaxed atmosphere, seeing the randomness of prisoners hanging alone or in groups. Where were the guards I thought? Most of the time, nowhere! So, there I was alone with the Level 3 “worst of the worst”! I slowly got to know a great number of them quite well from having treated them repeatedly for some of the worst acute oral infections. And, when they saw me they were inscrutably demanding, over-bearing and bossy. A few of the older prisoners were a breath of fresh air. When I went back to my computer to observe their criminal histories I recoiled with amazement. The person then was hardly the person today. This, for my thinking, is and should be the wakeup call to anyone in the field of criminal justice trying to make a mark dealing with the issues of mass incarceration, for social workers, or governmental operatives (inclusive of politicians) dealing with inner city crime. They were crafty and clever, mostly out of the self-defense and survival personality mindset developed over time. The youngest recent arrivals were just simply “in-your-face aggressive” borne of their “street upbringing”. However, at some point in time, there is a transition, a wakeup call, a “come to Jesus” moment that blossoms, and a new person is really alive with a sense of passion for life itself. Regrets are so evident that as I left the prison grounds in my car I could not help but think that change must come, and, that the repetition of the criminal mind generation after generation cannot continue! I also thought that with my seventeen years in school and professional development I could read and research everything printed on criminal justice, but truly “seeing is believing”! Scholastic experience is very defining, but it is empty without observational training day in-day out! Robert Allyn Goldman 34 Always attentive to my daily exit strategy I always avoided eye contact (unless I was called out by name, which was often), never lingering at a gate, and, when possible, holding my head down. This was an imperative to avoid sudden attack. I understood it was no joke. It was akin to walking through a bread factory without awareness of its intensely pungent aroma sedating one’s soul with a serotonin surge! At times I felt that I was really in trouble because there wasn’t one guard in sight should I be “grouped” by some of the young ne’er-do-wells. When I was accosted, often I could not understand their very garbled speech. I have never forgotten the contrast so apparent between the splendor of the rustic surroundings and my body swelling with inner glee as it was shattered by numerous encounters. Most were conventional, but one day it was just one of these encounters that contributed to my self-imposed termination, suspecting that at any point I may not see a tomorrow. There was no doubt in my mind. As I said, word travels through the yard with incalculable speed so it is impossible to detect even a flashpoint. I was always alert. One Friday a couple of weeks before my leaving a prisoner hanging around the “pill room” outside window next to the infirmary door told me he was going to “f” me up. Did I get under someone’s skin? I do not think so because I had a stellar reputation (so I was told by many of the prisoners). But, I understood that at any minute anything can happen. This had to be a basic understanding! I had never even seen him before. So as my joking mind would do, I tried to apply sensible thought with the very mathematical computations for my demise. Ridiculous. I never thought I would react with such dark humor. I very quickly squirreled that thought away. I always tried to dispel the unbelievable with a blend of the pragmatic. I also had such a growing sense of the administrative corruption which was so drowned in political correctness that I realized how difficult it must have been for the wardens to handle the daily outbursts of violence. And I know the administration put on a great dog and pony show to camouflage the very clear-cut, striking realities of everyday encounters (some savage, some mild). The public was definitely kept in the dark The Slammer 35 with occasional newsworthy platitudes. When encounters made the news it was due to parents of prisoners leaking to the press or media. So, my daily exit was never a “rite of passage”. From the cavalier initiate I became the undeterred realist. Having witnessed the incorrigible ferocity amidst “God-fearing prisoners”, I became committed to the belief that the prisoner domain is so complex that the outside-inside perceptions of its grim actualities are upside down. I have read many blogs and books reporting statistical defenses for critiques of endemic prison failings and shortcomings. Or, ones that weave incongruent commentary about the prison system paralleling historical periods and movements; e.g. the women’s movement, the civil rights movement, the underground railroad-slavery movement, etc. The social-economic consequences impacting issues which outline percentage ups and downs of prison numbers, sentencing guidelines, state issues with excessive sentencing (“three strikes” life sentences), parole boards and paroling, early release, natural versus life sentences, false convictions, etc., are too complex to draw summary opinions without seeing and measuring intellectually the realities of prison life from the inside out! I cannot make petty or unnecessary objections to scholarly efforts based on statistical scrutiny. There are in fact sociological points to be made, but such efforts might render a false sense of the everyday prison system. Statistical analysis is important, but blind to the reality of prison life. This is where the story of mass incarceration begins and ends. Not with statistical analysis. Statistics are markers, not indicators. This is hard for analytics to accept. Statistics have very definite limitations as noted by this comical, but profound, thought: Statistics are like a bikini. What they reveal is interesting. But what they conceal is vital.25 Statistical analysis in and of itself renders a pure black and white picture without understanding causation. In order to capture meaning for what statistics depict the facts on the ground paint the true picture. Whether they are skewed or meaningful can only be judged over time as viewed with intention. Whether incarceration rates for non-violent Robert Allyn Goldman 36 offenders have increased from the millennium change to now, and by how much, is pertinent, but its significance lies in the circumstances which contributed to that. For example, it might be the demographic changes relating to census changes, migration patterns, influx of immigrants, increased violence within the inner cities, etc. Statistics make concepts interesting, but their meaning (their vitality) lies in the whys and wherefores. Even my favorite author, Mark Twain26, never couched his feelings. He offered up this famous line in his autobiography from the wisdom of the Conservative British Prime Minister, Benjamin Disraeli: “There are three kinds of lies: lies, more lies, damned lies, and statistics”. My observations during my employment led me to believe that prisons are to some degree a microcosm of society’s underbelly, that area which expands with its hard luck individuals. White collar crime and non-violent “soft” offenders do not fit this category. The gang populations and extreme zealots who would just as soon fillet your body with a razor-sharp hunting knife as say hello are people who compose the bottom of the food chain. They are the “somewhere people” who for any number of reasons watched as life passed them by. The most dangerous prison gang, Mexicana, is a perfect example of “crime for crime sake”! Their violent nature cannot be seen buried in a statistical page. Statistical numbers are analytic numbers for their long term understanding. Seeing and understanding events in real time convey true meaning. The shifting numbers vary over time, and this has meaning. Onsite events colorizes the value and meaning of statistics. Social movements and judicial refining of laws will reorient the statistical basis of how prisons will shift in population, but the more important issue is why prisons have never changed. Why are they frozen in time and remain a constant thorn in the side of the justice system.Time stands still inside a prison. Correction is relegated to the “born again” to some degree in Level I and Level II facilities, but only sparingly in Level III. Level III is generally a dead-end. I would suggest that the “Big House” is other-worldly and run by a two-tier system defined as a “correctional institution”. One of the The Slammer 37 reasons I took the job was to learn about the system which seems to live in its own unique twilight zone. It is a world which can only subsist from day-to-day, an eternal entity frozen in time. Its personality is unambiguously one-dimensional, defined by the ill-humored, ill-tempered and peevishly embittered. There is no other way it can be, or ever will be. Bloggers and books written (except for ex-convicts who write tell all books) seem to be formulaic in subject matter. Viewing it in motion daily is educational as well as emotionally redefining. The emotional pulse is thoroughly mercurial, each day giving up the unexpected with an excitement that sometimes is tragically jaw-dropping. Being there left me with an incredible respect and love for the wardens I came to know. Their dedication to the spirit and demands of their jobs is unwavering. The guards, subjected daily to the unpredictable and harsh physical interactions with prisoners, went way beyond the call of their duties. Seeing is believing, but it is also riveting to witness such devotion. And the danger zones are omnipresent. They are compelled to expect the unexpected. The torrent of emotion I witnessed from them on a daily basis would capture the admiration and gratitude of most outside employers. In the prison, it was gratuitous and expected. The bureaucracy plays its employees with cunning and hubristic pride. It was put on to engender group think and commandeer allegiance in lemming-like solidarity. One day I was in the operational room talking to the head nurse when I heard this bellowing howl. So, I went out to the call center of the infirmary where the attending guard was telling a prisoner to shut up. The call center was flooded with prisoners to the brim. He was trying to shut him up so as to foment a riot. The prisoner did not care. That type of incident is one that can result in the worst type of event. And, because this prison was so understaffed there was no easy way out of this event. Inevitably something would happen, it had to, either explode or calm down. Well, neither. The prison got away lucky this time because a few of the extra-large prisoners took over and subdued him. This was a unique circumstance because most events like this do not end so cleanly. For example, the prisoner who was rushed into the Robert Allyn Goldman 38 infirmary on a holiday day with a “slicing and dicing” to his left cheek and lip while in the cafeteria. He almost bled out! The Bureau of Justice Statistics27 in 2014 documents 1,561,500 prisoners in state facilities, a 1% decrease. Federal Prisons held 5,300 prisoners, a 2.5% decrease. In the last United States 2010 census28, the population tallied 308.7 million, a 9.7% increase from the 2000 census. Of this number 125.9 million were adult males, and 119.4 females. At age 85 and older women outnumbered men about 2:1 (4 million to 2.1 million). John Pfaff notes that there were a total of 2.2 million federal and state prisoners in 201429. But my experience tells me the numbers are only significant if a case is being made where numbers are used to make a meaningful argument. And the story he relates is spot on, but its black and white picture has to be colorized to really understand what he relates. But, in general, his message holds true. “The Standard Story” theme makes a lot of sense and indubitably well documented, but I want to add one very delimiting essential area of differentiation: offenders involved in very violent crime. I do not want to diminish his arguments because he is totally correct in areas of non-violent offenses. In a like stream of thought, Marie Gottschalk30’s book, The Prison and the Gallows, argues in a like manner for a constructive reduction in prison numbers in tracing various historical movements: the welfare state; feminists’ groups, the anti-rape movement, and, the battered women’s movement. She traces capital punishment, court decisions and related arguments. A very detailed and powerfully scripted analysis, she relates very bold statistics illuminating where the penal system has failed various elements of society. Like my supplemental thought for Phaff’s “The Standard Story” argument, I likewise add this distinction to Gottschalk’s thoughts about mass incarceration. Non-violent and violent offenders must be viewed differently in consideration of prison reform. This is so important and cannot be truly appreciated without being witness for an extended period of time. They are “apples and oranges” in view of the level of criminality and general depraved behavior. Prison numbers as large swaths of the criminal population have The Slammer 39 decreased into the late 1990’s. However, viewing the problems today with gangs, criminal illegal aliens, and radical Islamic terrorist incidents, I see the numbers always on the rise. It is thus imperative to be declarative and peremptory about comprehensive prison reform. This argument I shall lay out later. Otherwise, prisons will become ungainly to manage at any level of safety and administration. Prisons have evolved as a clear-cut reflection of many real social problems in the country: drugs and disease in particular. Criminal behavior is not a hot button issue without understanding the demographics of American society. Education, employment opportunity, retention of the family unit, religious participation, political reform, media reform, corruption control, and ending the country’s divisiveness must arouse serious concern and provoke reasonable accommodation and change by thoughtful and concerned leadership. Throwing money alone at these problems will never suffice. Contentious living is out of control in the country, and, the inexplicable lack of control will not only destroy generations in the future, but the prisons will expand in number and kind. They are national “cancers” for which universal attention is long overdue, or the country will pay a potentially irreversible price. It’s an inside-out conundrum of huge proportions! The penal system and the carceral state, as I see it, is never changing in this country. It is both the byproduct and embodiment of bureaucratic neglect and corruption at all levels of government. It is also a reflection of egos and pride, the self-flagellation and power hungry at both local, regional, state and federal levels of government. The will of our political leaders is too soiled to think virtue is going to suddenly ride into our cities and states on a white horse in the guise of limitless integrity to affirm and make good on their demagogic pledges for change. For people who believe in their false promises, just read (even in a cursory manner) just the historical record going back to 1776. Greed for power and position will never allow our prisons to suddenly separate out the people who should be allowed a new found freedom, and those who should be imprisoned while throwing the keys away. Just the insanely low approval rating of Congress is hugely appalling Robert Allyn Goldman 40 (wavering around 12%, up and down, sometimes as low as 7%)31. On the one hand, this all serves as fodder for those who write books, critical blogs, magazine articles, etc. And, in my opinion, it ends there. Therefore, when examining the statistics cited above, that’s what they are: just statistics! They do not in any measure have enough impact to think that things will change for the better. Out of approximately 330 million people (in total; about 245 adults) there are slightly over 2.2 million in our prisons. It is more significant to examine why the carceral state continues to expand despite periods of slight decline. The “Big House” will always be with us. What can be done to bring down these glaring numbers is the magical question! It might take some form of alchemy to wake up the country that change is necessary! The outside is deaf and blind to the inside, only important to the families who play a support role for those fighting for a second chance at freedom and those who grope at very frail vestiges of hope as the vestiges of human life decay year to year without a wit of horror and concern for the person without a stake in the issue. However, is this not the reason for the political class? The “Big House” is so different from everyman’s house that maybe the important reasons for its salty state of existence should be examined, even if subjectively, through the prism of social circumstances which seem to provide gasoline for the fire that burns from one generation to the next. And to some degree it is why candor slides where real reporting is obscured and facts hidden from public scrutiny. So, let’s proceed. We are so biased in our own favor that often what we take for virtues are only vices disguised by self-love.32 In the ensuing chapters I am going to clarify what I consider some of the most considered reasons for what has turned our culture upside down, so divisive (which is really not new), and seriously on the wrong track in dealing with poignant deficiencies in the management of the prison system. But, at the same time, I want to clearly point out that it is also all we have to keep civil society protected. Level I and 2 prisons do not reform, and they should. The prison industry is a self-sufficient The Slammer 41 cottage industry. This is not the fault of its employees. It is the fault of federal and state politicians who know they can “go along to get along” without having to answer for their continued empty talk and sinful banter. It is sufficient to keep them under control (especially the maximum-security Level 3 institutions) and out of the news. For them no news is good news. Liberty provides us freedoms seen in no other country, but it does not relinquish society from its responsibility to those held in confinement. It’s not enough that custodial care and support continue from one generation to the next. There are no elegiac memories for the wasted lives. Though it is hard to digest, they are human beings and history shows that their numbers will continue to increase. This thought raises the uneasy reality that prisons will have to readjust and become truly correctional. I am going to try to measure up to the challenge and demonstrate how this is possible. I hope my reasoning will echo and create a national conversation so that individuals far better than I will rise up from their stagnant thresholds and enter the fray where they may be creative and productive. However, the specter of the past also suggests this may be illusory in hope and impractical in reality. I hope not, at least for the sake of future generations.

About the author

I grew up in New England, USA, outside Boston, Massachusetts. I have been educated all over the USA and Europe. I am into all aspects of different cultures. I guess that is why my favorite reading is National Geographic and National Geographic History. My book is a reflection: such a wide panorama. view profile

Published on November 25, 2020

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