One of my assorted past jobs was in a medium security state prison, where I supervised a work crew
Working day in and day out with a small group of convicted criminals offers an interesting perspective on our law enforcement, courts, corrections and some of the people who get caught up in the system.
As long as I worked for the state, I was careful to follow the regulations surrounding interaction between staff and inmates. Not everyone is. One of my co-workers became pregnant by an inmate, and married him when he was released.
When budget cutbacks and changes in administrative practices gutted most of the programs and services available in the prison, changing the entire atmosphere, I decided to move on. Once I was no longer a state employee, I was free to keep in touch with many of the inmates, primarily by mail. For some, I was their only contact with anyone outside prison.
Having access to inside information on how things worked, from a convict’s point of view, has been a wonderful asset for my writing.
At some point, I promised one guy, Smitty, that I’d pick him up and take him to lunch when he got released from prison. And drive him to whatever program or housing he managed to find.
To tell the truth, I never thought the day would come.
He’d have parole hearings, of course, but who’d ever vote to parole him?
Prisons got more and more overcrowded. Budgets got cut. Public and political opinion on “lock ‘em up and throw away the key” thinking began to change.
Smitty got older and mellowed out. He started working as an observation aide. In that position, he took eight-hour shifts sitting outside the cell of an inmate on suicide watch, checking on him and making a notation every ten minutes. It paid a little over a dollar a shift. He was careful and conscientious.
Finally, he was granted parole on a delayed release.
He didn’t realize it at the time, but another factor probably figured into the decision. He was at a very high risk for liver cancer. If he developed it while he was incarcerated, the prison system would be responsible for providing expensive care, probably including trips to outside facilities. Each trip would take several corrections officers and a vehicle, a considerable expense. And always a security risk.
The eighteen months before his release date were supposed to prepare him for re-entry to society. Transfer to a minimum security/prerelease program. Participate in Narcotics Anonymous. Be assigned to an outside work detail, probably picking up trash along the highway. Finally get a job on work release, preferably somewhere he could save up some money and continue to work after he walked out that gate.
Something went wrong with these plans. Smitty wouldn’t tell me exactly what happened, but he ended up being charged with a disciplinary violation that resulted in an overnight transfer from the prerelease program to a maximum-security prison miles away.
Whatever the violation was, the charges didn’t stick, and there was no re-consideration of his release date. He would be released on schedule.
Since it was a long-term, maximum security facility, re-classifications were held annually. Smitty had one at the pre-release program the night they transferred him, which increased his security level to maximum. He wouldn’t get another one for a year. Well after his scheduled release date.
He would step directly from one of the most restrictive environments in the corrections system to the street. With the clothes on his back and fifty dollars gate money.
One of the few people to whom he could appeal for help was the chaplain. To give the man the credit he’s due, he set Smitty up with a religious re-entry program that would house and support him for six months as he found a job and a place to live.
To stay in the program, he’d have to attend religious services and NA meetings regularly, but the meetings would be required by the terms of his parole, anyhow. As would an ankle monitor and periodic drug tests.
When I arrived to pick him up, at the time the prison’s information officer gave me, Smitty’s release hadn’t been processed yet.
The actual release took place in an auxiliary building across the huge, wind-swept parking lot that separated it from the main prison. He was escorted, handcuffed and shackled, by two corrections officers. Until he had the paperwork signed and approved, he was a maximum-security inmate and would be treated as such.
The officers had jackets, but Smitty was shivering by the time they arrived.
I wasn’t surprised at the delay. If there’s one thing prison inmates have an abundance of, it’s time. Very seldom does anyone have a sense of urgency. I knew I’d just have to wait while he was unshackled and a clerk went through a whole pile of paperwork with him.
Sign away a number of rights. Agree to parole search and detention, which meant no warrant or even reasonable suspicion was needed. Promise to pay the not-inconsiderable costs of drug testing, the ankle monitor and all parole-related expenses. Report to the parole office within 24 hours.
Property returned. The clothes in which he’d been arrested, a pair of shorts & a T-shirt, no longer fit. He hadn’t been wearing shoes.
A few coins, no folding money. A paper clip. A worn wallet with an expired drivers license and a scrap of paper with phone numbers of people he hadn’t heard from in twenty years and probably were no longer in service, at least to anybody he knew.
Aware that he’d be released with one set of clothes, I had been visiting thrift stores for the past few months looking for what he’d need. I also got some basic, easily fixed, food supplies. I went to the car and got him the jacket I’d found.
When he was finally done, both of the officers shook his hand and wished him luck. “Don’t let us see you back here.”
Holding his emotions firmly in check, Smitty slipped on the jacket and followed me out the door.
He marveled as I unlocked the car using my key fob. He had never seen a seatbelt with a shoulder strap, and struggled with that.
As I settled into the driver’s seat, he said, “Let’s get far away from here. Fast.”
I will continue the saga of Smitty’s re-introduction to the world outside prison on my next blog.