A few months into my prison experience the major retired. This major was known for his steaks during employee appreciation week and for coining the phrase, “All this and a paycheck too.”
When we had to reschedule an awards ceremony and cancel GED testing the week before, we all knew something was going to happen. A murder in a nearby facility, however, nearly stopped us, but at 7:10 AM, the decision was final. Because of an increase in bartering and tattoos in recent weeks, we were asked to shake down the entire facility. A special team came in to strip search each offender while the rest of us gathered into search teams. I had worked here for nearly two years and never had to do a shake down, although I had heard about them. “You won’t want to eat afterwards,” said one as we headed toward the cells, and he was right. The smell, the grime, the sweat, the sloppiness of these cells was gross. The simple fact of going through other peoples’ belongings was revolting to me, even though I understood it had to be done.
By keeping the search a secret, some offenders were caught off guard, but not all. As we marched over to Building 8, more residents than usual crammed into the windows to scrutinize us for some sign. They too were alerted early that morning when they were ushered through breakfast and to the med line earlier than usual. Even when they knew what was happening they all came out of their rooms blinking and bleary-eyed. Maybe that was their countenance of defense. I thought it strange that they would appear disoriented even though some of these guys undergo a strip search each weekend in order to visit with family.
Before reading our assignments, the major made it clear that no one could switch work assignments just because we didn’t like someone. You might laugh, but that’s exactly what happened the last time we had to work in the units. This didn’t, however, stop the Shift Commander from reassigning individuals so that by the end of the day only three of the six members on my team were the same. That is partly why our day went from bad to worse.
We had just finished searching and processing all of the lower floors, and returned the residents to their rooms, when the Shift Commander had to acknowledge a lost set of keys. By this time we had all checked, double-checked, and all but pat-searched each other trying to locate the keys. The officer who had lost them was walking up and down the corridor muttering, “I just can’t remember who I gave them to.” People huddled to whisper. He was pulled aside to view video footage and asked to retrace his steps. Master Control radioed the folks patrolling the perimeter to check their pockets. The special team began strip searching offenders in the room where the keys were last seen. And just when all hope was lost, when we thought we would have to rekey property boxes, when we thought we would have to shake down rooms a second time, when we all thought we’d be at work for twelve hours straight, that’s when the second perimeter called in to say he found the keys he borrowed to access the bathroom a couple hours before. We dispersed to devour cold pizza, avoiding the eyes of our co-worker on our way out the door.
That’s when I called my husband to say I could be late.
After a greasy lunch, people complaining about their heartburn, one of my team members looked up at the drinking fountain in the day hall. “Doesn’t work!!” noted a sign in big black letters. “I think we should make a few of those signs, ” she said, “and post them on some of the people around here.” O, but where would we start?
Confusion abounded among us. How do we collect contraband? What is considered contraband? Where do we take contraband? What’s the difference between trash and contraband? Do we take this binder, but leave that one? Do we return calculators to the teachers or turn them in to the people collecting contraband? I turned to my captain and went to work. By the end of the first room I had become the contraband processor and recorder which made everyone’s lives a little easier. In the third room my nemesis, joined by another woman just like her, showed up to replace one of my missing team mates. I started to fill out the nine forms, preparing for the process my team had worked out, when both women turned on me. How dare I not rummage through mattresses and desks and property boxes! By the time I had flipped a mattress, people were handing me items to document, and I let them take it up with my captain who conveniently walked in at that moment. We finished the room rather quickly in near silence.
In the next room a new partner turned up nude photos a girlfriend sent in. The woman kept thrusting them in my face, “See that? Can you believe it?” Do you mind? I finally had to point out that I didn’t need to see that kind of material. Was that necessary?
By the end of the day, despite being told ten times–I counted–that we weren’t reading mail, everyone had slowed down, and started reading mail. That gave them the excuse to work a little slower. I thought I would scream. Didn’t we want to go home? In spite of lost keys, personal spats, discoveries that warranted extra teams (like the Hooch l’Orange that didn’t pass the field test because it was too new), and myriad other digressions, we overturned the entire facility in under ten hours and we dispersed to take showers. I know I drained the hot water tank and another colleague sprayed disinfectant on every surface that didn’t go through the washer.
And that is why the old major used to marvel that we not only get to experience a certain level of daily excitement and disgust, but that we get paid to do so.