24 May 2012

Notes from the Penitentiary

 by Eve Fisher

     I’ve been offline for the last 8 days, because I was down at the state penitentiary. 
Believe it or not, a postcard from the Sioux Falls State Pen - circa 1910

     Three of those I was helping to facilitate a workshop as part of the Alternatives to Violence Project – for more information about that VERY worthy organization and concept, please see here http://www.avpusa.org/.  We had a good workshop.  Exhausting.  You can’t just stand up there and lecture at inmates, because that isn’t going to work.  Instead, you try to get 18 to 25 inmates fully interested, invested, participating for 8-12 hours a day for 3 days – and that keeps you hopping.
     The other five days I spent doing training for a higher security clearance at the pen and other state correctional facilities.  (The hope is some day to take AVP to the women’s prison in Pierre.)  Anyway, I learned all kinds of stuff at the training.  Not just the routine and the ritual and what’s expected of correctional officers. who were the main cohort of the training.  Believe me, volunteers are not the center of training, and why should they be?
     Actually, the answer to that is, at least up here in South Dakota, is because the prisoners cannot have any AA, NA, AVP, Al-Anon, etc. meetings, church functions (of any religion, from Native pow-wows to Buddhist meditation), or other non-state provided functions without a fully vetted volunteer present.  And, since South Dakota is currently as broke and in debt as any other state, and has cut everything to the bone, about all the prisoners get is GED classes, and a 12 week chemical dependency treatment.  Basically, without volunteers, the prisoners don’t get much of anything. But enough of that rant.
     Anyway, the training was mainly directed at newly hired correctional officers, and after five days of that…  well, I believe that institutionalization can happen on both sides of the cell door, and we’ll leave it at that.  They went over things like the daily routine, various security/safety priorities and procedures, talked about suicide awareness (and hopefully) prevention, about rape prevention (from what I hear, good luck with that one), the endless counts (standing, emergency, and other), what the various inmate shirt colors indicate, and all about con games, including the 14 steps of a set up which begin with observation and end with the sting.  Most of the 14 steps appeared to me to be fairly obvious, but… 
     Among the other tid-bits, and if all of you know all of this already, forgive me:
  1. Never give your full name to an inmate. NOTE:  As a volunteer, my full name is printed out on my ID card along with my photo for all the world to see, so I had a good laugh about that.
  2. Some of the gangs in our prisons are the Mexican Mafia, Sorreno, MS-13, the Bloods and the Crips – although up here these are Native American, not black. 
  3. The question to ask a newly released inmate is are they “flat” (i.e., done their time) or “on paper” (i.e., on parole).
  4. Prison burritos have nothing to do with tortillas.  They’re a mixture of Ramen soup, mayonnaise, chips, refried beans, jalapeno peppers, chili, and other ingredients, mixed up, packed up in wet towels, cooked over whatever heat source the inmates can manage to find.  It’s then cooked up in slices with an ID card or other sharp utensil and sold for $5.00 a slice.
  5. Ramen soups are one of the main inmate currencies, and are worth $5.00 each.  (They get them at commissary at an obviously inflated price and inflate more.)  Why Ramen?  I have no idea.  I always thought the only reason students lived on them was they cost about 10 cents each.
  6. Among the main things every inmate wants are chew (in a tobacco free environment, chew is VERY pricey) and a cell phone.  The prison has dogs that can sniff out both.
  7. Another thing inmates want is drugs.  Now the inmates are given prescribed medications, but they have to take all their meds crushed, in suspension (water, whatever), in front of a nurse.  This doesn’t stop the entrepreneurial inmate from putting a wad of toilet paper in his cheek and sucking all the liquid there, and then later taking that soggy crap out of their mouth, drying it, and selling it to someone desperate for a high.  
  8. One of the main drugs is welbutrin, because the state has a program that gives it away free to people who want to quit smoking.  The inmates can get it (for a while), and inmates get their families to get free welbutrin from the state, and smuggle it in to them.  (How?  Let me count the ways…  as one trainer put it, the first place to search is always the crotch.)  A welbutrin pill goes for serious Ramen inside, and is crushed and snorted for a quick high.  
  9. Our South Dakota prisons are very, very clean.  I mean that.  They don’t smell of dirty socks.  They have inmates cleaning constantly.  There’s a whole group of them called bleachers who go around rubbing bleach on every surface, every handle, every bar.  
  10. A “punk” is someone who’s been/being persuaded/forced to provide sex for…  protection, help, whatever.  
  11. Our South Dakota prisons are crowded, but they’re not full yet.  I already knew this.  As I told a lawyer, years ago, who was telling me about his fresh-from-California client, who wanted a plea bargain for his big lump of cocaine, “Go back and tell him this is South Dakota, and we have room for him in the prison.” Still do. 
Anyway, I passed – we had an exam – which is good.  I have my clearance, which is better.  And I got to go home, which is best of all.  




6 comments:

Janice said...

Good piece and good work, too.

David Dean said...

Really enjoyed this, Eve. I also learned a few things, which is a pretty good way to start the day.

Dixon Hill said...

I really appreciated learning the information in this article. Priceless.

Thank you, so much.

--Dix

Terrie Farley Moran said...

Thanks so much for great information, and congratulations on the great work you do.

R.T. Lawton said...

Eve, I was always used to being the one walking behind people. That way you can see what they are going to do almost as soon as they decide to do it. Of course, most of those people were either superiors (a matter of respect) or prisoners (a matter of safety). But, whwnever I went inside the SD Pen up on the hill (or other state or federal incarceration institutions), the guards always had me walking in front even though I was law enforcement. It's the way they're trained. Made me feel odd though. Not really a place I'd want to inhabit for very long.

Eve Fisher said...

R.T., they still do that. And they check my ID oh, so very nicely. Twice. It's all noise and steel and concrete, and it sucks. Yet another reason I am so thankful that I never got caught in my wild youth, and those things that were perhaps witnessed were before Facebook or digital cameras. Whew.