On the odd occaisions that I thought about prison, I would hear the sounds of Hollywood–harsh heavy metal sounds, cups banged against cell bars, hollering, the rhythmic sounds of gym machines, even the shuffle of ball and chain against stone floor. My experience inside prison didn’t match up.
Walking across the yard to the school building one muggy, September morning I was surprised to hear a familiar sound in an unfamiliar setting. It took me a moment to recognize the honking of Canadian Geese who frequented the campus the next two months. There would be lots of strangely familiar sounds that would become my life the next year.
By trade, I am a teacher, by default I am also a prison guard, or in today’s terms, a correctional officer. When I came to interview on a bleak, April morning, I was buzzed in through one gate and remained there in the 4 x 4 space, video camera trained on me, until it clanged shut. Then, only then, would the second gate buzz open and I proceeded through the front door to the security desk. On good mornings there’s usually three or four of us joking with each other as we go through the ritual of checking in. As the rookie, I’m the victim of most of the pranks. That April morning, though, it was just me and the correctional officer assigned to the desk. Fortunately, he is one of the friendliest faces on the facility.
Now, I’m not claustrophobic, but I get panicky when I don’t know how to immediately exit a spce, so coming to a prison was a bit of stretch for me. Although there’s room to move, I get tense when I catch sight of the razor wire and think about the minimum of four doors (usually six or seven) I have to be permitted through before I’m a free citizen again. The click of the gates every morning isn’t exactly scary, nor is it the exclamation point to “you’ve screwed up” that it must be for my students, but it creeps into my shoulders and appears at the corners of my mouth.
As a teacher I’m conditioned to respond to bells. A year in prison and I still anticipate them, but they don’t exist. This is one area where prison culture trumps school culture because it’s safer this way. Instead of bells we all wait for the announcement, “Movement. Movement at this time.” Ususually, the officer tacks on a reminder that a committee or administrator thinks the offenders need to hear again: Walk, do not run. Stay on the sidewalk, stay off of the grass. Get to your assigned areas on time.
Classroom doors fly open, students shuffle on the worn tile, Mr. W. can be heard talking to everyone as they walk by, Mr. M. sterly reminds an offender to tuck in his shirt or to shave, another offender bangs out a rap beat down the hallway wall. Despite the noise, the loudest part is the silent gestures, meaningful glances, slight adjustments to clothing, changes in countenances. In between the noise and the silence there also exist the real conversations, hushed, urgent whispers over the public phone; heads bowed in the yard so other offenders and officers can’t see what’s being said; the rare occasions two cellmates are alone to talk.
Of all the sounds, the sounds that get me are the toilet. You can’t imagine my shock when at basic training I was taught that I not only had the authority to, but in the interest of safety (including my own), I could be obliged to assist in strip searches. Coming from a public school and volunteering with youth where a touch on the shoulder could get you sued, I just about choked on the news. (I’ve never had to do more than a few pat searches,thank goodness.) The accoustics of the school building make it so that the toilet sounds like it’s outside my classroom door and the reality of my public service roars at me about four times an hour. We don’t close the offenders’ bathroom door because it’s a great place to hide or pass things, so we see and hear things we don’t want to. And I haven’t seen more than two of my students in their boxers which means I haven’t seen anything yet.