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Sunday, March 26, 2006

Pen Pals

When I left the house yesterday morning I said to JT, "I'll see you around 11:30. Unless I get taken hostage." Wouldn't I have felt stupid if I had been taken hostage? Oh, sure, I'd have felt a lot of other things first, but eventually stupid would have put in an appearance.

I'm pretty sure that feeling stupid would look a whole lot like the photo on my volunteer ID. All of the excitement over having an official prison badge--lemony yellow, with the words CREATIVE WRITING just above the official State of Iowa Department of Corrections seal--is pretty much mitigated by how bad the picture is. My eyes are closed, my head is back, I look like I was forced to stand against a prison wall while someone said, "Turn to your right. Now your left." I am used to taking bad pictures. I am not photogenic. But this is bad, even for me. It might be the worst picture ever. Certainly it's in the top five. Even JT, who is extremely biased, laughed . He looked at it for a long time. I could tell he was trying to find something good to say. He finally shook his head and said, "It's not a good picture." Lucky for him. I'd have smacked him if he'd said it was good, or even "not that bad." Bah. It's bad. Very, very bad.

But the stupid-looking thing gets me into the prison, and even more importantly, out. I didn't realize we would need to show identification in order to leave. What, the CO (correctional officer--see how fast I pick up the prison lingo?) couldn't just look at us and know that we weren't inmates? Hmph. The only other times I've been to the prison have been with groups accompanied at all times by a staff member who had keys and a radio and was known to the CO. (And still, now that I think about it, had to sometimes say, "Hey, gonna open this door, or what?) And the other reason I didn't know that we'd have to show our badges to get out is because when I tried to ask the Volunteer Coordinator some very specific logistical questions, she said, "Oh, So-and-So, who works for me, will meet you and she can answer all your questions." Well, okay. Even better.

So we get to the prison, show our Drivers' Licenses to the Control Officer through a little window. He asks what we're there for and do we know what room we're in. I thought, "Don't you have that information written down somewhere so that you always know where volunteers are at all times in case of a riot or other situation that might be dangerous to the citizens of the community?" but just said, "Uh, 202. I think." Giving up my last piece of concrete information. He handed our badges and DLs through the window and then, after we stood for a long time outside the door, a CO came up behind us and radioed the Control Officer, "Hey, Davis, are you going to come let them in or what?" There was a mumbled squawk from the 2nd CO's radio, and then she unlocked the door for us. Maybe the Control Officer can't leave his bulletproof pod if he's the only one in there. Maybe he can't leave it if there are inmates coming and going. I wouldn't know, because apparently the logistics of how to get in and out of the prison are covered in the 257 more hours of training that staff get. (We had three.)
We knew how to sign in, both of us having been in a class that went to the prison to write with the inmates. No Ms. So-and-So in sight, so we just stood around in the entry. Apparently, Control Officers don't like people just standing around, because he told us we could "go on up." It took us a couple tries to get the sequence right: First the buzz, then you pull on the door that leads into the prison proper. Fortunately, again, we had both been in the Admin Building where the classes are held--which looks, by the way, just like an old school building from the 50s or 60s. (Which it apparently is. One of the important things we learned in Orientation was that the facility used to be a state training school for girls, where families sent "incorrigibles" to have the individuality squelched out of them. ) We figured that Ms. So-and-So would find us.

Which she did. Or we found her. Sitting on the floor in the upstairs hall. Wearing dark blue pants and a light blue shirt. And a...was it? Yes, it was. She was wearing the white badge of an inmate. Apparently my definition of "meet" and the Volunteer Coordinator's definition of "meet" didn't quite...uh, meet. We'd have waited forever for her downstairs. Ms. So-and-So introduced herself and stuck out her hand. (RULE #9: ANY PHYSICAL CONTACT BETWEEN INMATES AND VOLUNTEERS IS PROHIBITED AND VIOLATES STATE LAW.) I shook her hand. So that was one rule broken.

Although there were 12 names on the roster, by 9:00 am, our official start time, there were only 2 or 3 women present, all of whom had to sign in with Ms. So-and-So. Typically, a CO makes an announcement about the start of an activity or class, and none had been made. Ms. So-and-So went down to the control office to rectify that, and then a few more women trickled in. At 9:15, we started with the 9 women who were present, and a few minutes later, Ms. So-and-So left. (RULE #14 IF AN INMATE LEAVES THE ACTIVITY SITE, NOTIFY THE CONTROL CENTER IMMEDIATELY. This also means we're to notify the Control Center if someone scheduled for the activity fails to appear.) I assumed that Ms. So-and-So would notify Control of the MIAs, but I probably should have done it, too. So that was another rule probably broken. And it never even occurred to me to check for a phone in the room so that, RULE # 15 IF AN INCIDENT OCCUR[ED] IN MY AREA THAT IS DISRUPTIVE, [I could] NOTIFY THE CONTROL CENTER IMMEDIATELY BY TELEPHONE (DIAL 0). So I suppose it was fortunate that there were no incidents and that the only disruptions came from periodic announcements, voices from the yard, and a stray inmate who knocked on the locked classroom door and asked if I had called for her to come to the admin building.

We had to provide a list of materials ahead of time. We were also supposed to make sure we took out of the prison everything we brought in. I'm pretty sure we didn't leave anything behind (or that anything was confiscated by a devious inmate), but, uh, we didn't do an exit inventory. Which might have been another rule broken. It was a very good first meeting, and I can't wait to go back next Saturday. Assuming, of course, that they let us go back.


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