13 June 2007

Ya Gotta Love It

An informal chat with a couple of guys one night led to the topic of tattoos. They come in all colors and subjects here. The religious ones tend to be crosses or thorns. Many Hispanic men have a rosary tattooed around the neck or wrist. I've seen a few beautifully done images of Our Lady of Guadalupe. Some are prison-done. Artful, but crude. The ones guys got on the outside are sometimes wildly stunning.

But that brings me to our chat. With summer coming on, many of the men are shaving their hair. It's just easier to be bald in the summer time. But that also reveals some more interesting tattoos. Spider webs. A half-forgotten girlfriend. Or the one that took the cake. A fuel gauge with the arrow pointing to empty. Right there on the guy's head. Can you imagine what will happen when he goes in for a job interview? Better hope he gets to work release in the winter time, when his hair is grown out a bit and the tattoo is hidden.

06 June 2007

Block Training

Once a year, I have to sign up for training. It’s a time to reinforce the things I learned eight years ago during a grueling six weeks when I was in class Monday through Friday from eight to five and then worked on Sundays doing four worship services. That was CORE, an intense training ground for correctional workers. For most of the time, custody staff, who wore blue and had shiny badges, were right there with the support staff who wore civilian clothes and sported laminated ID badges. Together we learned how to write a succinct report, how to count offenders in their cells, how to find our way from one part of the institution to another, how to search both cells and persons, how to put on handcuffs, how to make an emergency call without dialing a single number (just take the phone off the hook) and how to find a cartridge sitting in the armrest of a car.

The best part of the training, when all was said and done, was getting to know other people who were working at the institution. In my first months at the prison, I tried to go around to different living units and introduce myself, but I didn’t make much headway. One officer finally invited me to watch while a new group of men was brought in from one living unit and assigned to new cells in this unit. It was organized chaos, but it worked. It was a small piece of the picture.

After I finished CORE and had the small polished button to prove it, doors opened. Officers who wouldn’t have given me the time of day before were suddenly willing to talk or to make an offender available if I called.

Things are different now. Eight years and uncountable emergencies since then, I get to hear, “I’ve had to tell dozens of guys about a death in the family, but I can’t do this one. Would you mind?” I don’t.

Two of the last three days I have sat with a roomful of co-workers as we make our way through the annual refresher course. This year, we got to take the fire extinguisher training online, but some things can only be done in the classroom. They need discussion, like the two hour ethics class this afternoon, or demonstration, like the emergency response planning. This year there was a new section on dealing with hearing-impaired inmates. (“Must have been a lawsuit,” someone muttered.)

We practiced our verbal skills, with the code phrase “paper or plastic?” in the background. Did you know that, if given two options, most people will take the last one you mention? So instead of saying, “You can pick up your toys or you can go to your room” you’ll get the results you want more often by saying, “You can either go to your room or pick up your toys”?

I found myself thinking about other in-service trainings I’ve done as a teacher, as a parish worker, as a chaplain. I’ve learned how to manage my time (NOT--but at least I can think about how someone else might manage my time), how to teach “across the curriculum,” and how to implement the latest in church guidelines. I took the sex abuse prevention workshop 20 years ago, long before too many people were paying much attention to the problem.

Today, as I practiced smashing a dummy’s face with the heel of my hand and swiping its eye, I remembered a nasty boss and slammed a little harder. I worked my elbows into an assailant’s chest and stomped on an imaginary foot. I watched the more adventurous of my colleagues volunteer to be choked so they could demonstrate their escape strategy. I haven’t ever had to practice these skills in my other jobs. Maybe if I were teaching in public schools I might need the physical training, but angry parishioners tend to just leave the church without smashing any thing or any one on their way out.

It’s stories like this that make people ask, “Aren’t you afraid to work in a prison?” My answer is always the same, “No. I get training and the people who work around me are trained. We don’t let our guard down.” Or the offenders promise they’ll warn me if something is going to happen--but I can never rely on that.

In eight years, I’ve only had to get physical once. I was on a tier, talking to a couple of guys in their cell. It was noisy. One was sitting on his bunk, the other was leaning up against the bars. The one on his bunk said something I couldn’t hear, so I stepped closer to the bars. The second guy took a swipe at my breast. I slapped his hand like I would have slapped any naughty kid, then I went to the officer’s office, wrote out an infraction, and he was hauled off to segregation. For good reason. He had a long history of committing sexual harassment and abuse.

I have one more day of training. Tomorrow we’ll be learning about gang signs and gang membership and how staff can get compromised. Much more fun than some other in-service trainings I’ve had in the past.