One of the most exciting days was also my first. I shadowed by boss nearly everywhere that first day. I attended the morning roll call with the security officers and administrators, sticking out as I did in my professional clothes among the sea of blue uniforms. I listened in as my boss mentored an especially challenging offender who slouched and rolled his eyes and mumbled his answers thick with street talk. He was true Hollywood material, the type of student who probably first came to mind when I applied for the job.
The principal doesn’t officially have mentees, but he has about eight offenders or so at a time who revolve through his office door or catch up with him around the facility. He encouraged me to mentor when I could, and I have about three. I was able to observe him with this difficult one and one who is turning out to be a success. He’s kind of hard on them, but they respond, and they keep coming back.
We continued on his rounds. He filled me with more information about the buildings and staff than I could hope to remember. One loud offender tried to get a response from me over a crowd. Not knowing what to do, I didn’t respond, and he was quiet. I cringed inwardly as I felt the scrutiny of my boss upon me. Another one in the barber shop drilled holes into my skull with his piercing eyes. I couldn’t wait to leave.
As we neared the large rectangular two-story block of brick on the West side of the campus, my boss told me we were entering Lower East. The brick block is divided into four equal units, or pods. A staircase divides the building neatly in half vertically while corridors run the length of both floors horizontally. Some architect obsessed with symmetry must have designed the thing. Each pod has a day hall furnished with a security desk, metal tables and chairs, and a TV; and another “quiet” room next to the day hall that can be viewed through the large window. The cells and doors line the hallway.
Lower East is so named because it is on the lower floor on the east side of the building. This, my boss said, is where most of the action takes place. No sooner had he finished saying this than he opened up the door for me where I was taken aback by a tall security officer running toward me shouting “Staff support. Staff support!” Before he got to me, though, he ducked into the bathroom, other officers hot in pursuit. I wondered how large the bathroom could be, or if it was a clown car that could support an unreasonable number of bodies.
We stood back to give the officers room to do their job. I was not yet trained, so I was not expected to respond. What happened next was unclear to me, but I remember this: several blue shirts pushed into the bathroom; one emerged with an offender bent over at the waist; another emerged with an offender in cuffs; I was invited to look at the crime scene, since that’s how it was being treated, and I looked bravely at the pool of blood, hiding the fact that the sight of blood makes me sick; and finally, we walked past the assailant sitting quietly in his cuffs. I remember this because I remember his eyes, only I couldn’t make sense of them. Later, I would think it odd that this was my first encounter with him. Our second meeting wasn’t much better.
The officers took bets about whether I would come back the next day. I’ll just say this now, although it will become increasingly obvious as my story unfolds, that I don’t look like I belong in a prison. I’ve met some other security officers who defy the stereotypes, but they are rare, and I knew I had a lot to prove. The element that no one but me was betting on, the element that wasn’t immediately obvious to my boss, my new colleagues, or to my future students was my sheer determination. Well, my husband was counting on it too. When I came home after my three month evaluation and declared I wasn’t a total failure he raised his eye brows and said, “You don’t fail.” I guess I won’t tell him about those few Latin and Biology exams or pumpkin cookies.
Needless to say, some of those bets were probably real, but it never occurred to me to not to come to work the next morning.
Later, I heard a part of the narrative of the incident we walked in on. It had begun an hour or two earlier when one offender stuffed a stolen lock inside the toe of a sock. Using this as a weapon he pounded the victim, breaking the skin on his skull. Since then I’ve heard conflicting accounts about where and how serious this injury was, but some staff say he’s never been the same. When we came in he had been bleeding over an hour. The actual attacker was elsewhere, and the one I saw in cuffs was a decoy, intended to take the blame. Such was my introduction to the ways of gangs.