15 February 2008

Rest in Peace

Just before I left work yesterday, a phone call came, letting me know that one of the unit sergeants had died. He hadn't come to work, hadn't called. Not typical behavior for him at all. Law enforcement was notified. He was found dead at home. Not suicide. No foul play. Just dead.

The superintendent and other administrators made the rounds during that shift, letting staff know what had happened. The face to face notification is just as important for staff as it is for the offenders I see when I have to tell them someone they know has died.

For the staff, this is a difficult time. It's the third officer to die in just over a year. And a well-loved support staff person died last winter as well.

While there is sometimes a stiff upper lip attitude among staffers, there is always the awareness that we work in a dangerous place, that stress can and does become unmanageable, that each day could be the last.

When a staff person dies and there's a funeral, people turn out in droves. If it's an officer, the honor guard will be there. Sometimes there is also a memorial service at the prison, but that depends on the family's wishes. We find ways to grieve and mark the memories. There is a set of benches out in front of the facility, facing a stone with the names of those who have died carved into it.

This week, there's a new name to add. Remember Steve.

09 February 2008

What's For Dinner?

There's a five-week schedule of menus for all the prisons in Washington State. I don't usually know what's on the menu, though there are days when I know what's NOT on the menu. I look out the chapel windows to the yard enclosed by chain-link fence. Are there seagulls on the field? No chicken on the menu tonight.

You laugh. But it's true! When chicken is on the menu, the seagulls are not to be seen. Out of reverence for their cousins? or fear for their own lives? Hard to tell. Sometimes the seagulls are a thick crew. Other times, you'd never know they come around.

I'm aware of the limitations of the menu when the men complain about how small the meals seem, or how limited in calories, or how starchy it all is. Some make the effort to have a vegetarian diet or a vegan diet, but doing that is a job in itself and the menu is even more limited. And most can only get those diets if they practice a particular religion that has a specific diet. There are few of those.

In segregation, kosher meals are popular. They come packaged. Less chance of someone messing with a tray of food. For people who lean to the paranoid side of life, it just seems safer.

Some years ago, a group of inmates incorporated themselves in a new religion and then petitioned that their diet be recognized by the Department of Corrections. It was fairly simple, just an accommodation for Friday nights when they wanted to have steak and wine. It didn't happen. One of the rules is that your religion has to be recognized out in the public arena.

Every year, some of the Catholics and Episcopalians will ask about a special diet for Lent. Most of them aren't old enough to remember the days you could go to hell for having a hot dog on a Friday. There isn't a special diet for Catholics for Fridays in Lent, so what's a guy to do?

Because he has no control over the menu, he can: skip whatever meat is served, choose to give up something else, or realize that sometimes it is more of a penance to eat and be grateful for what is in front of him. Men choose what they can.

When we were a smoking institution, a number would give up smoking. But no one, including the staff, has smoked on the grounds in years.

At a Lenten gathering last week, some talked about giving up snacks from the store or writing a letter to loved ones without haranguing about "when will you send me money/pictures/a letter." One man is going on a virtual pilgrimage, saying one prayer for every mile between Shelton and Arlington National Cemetery where the Tomb of the Unknowns lies. He is a veteran, and I know the effort has meaning for him on various levels.

Meanwhile, we laugh about the seagulls and gripe about the menu. It's all good.

08 February 2008

The Big Lie

People sometimes ask if guys at the prison lie to me. I'm sure they do. I've been known to tell a few lies myself. Why wouldn't any other person tell me a lie?

The lies are easy to spot some days. I ask how a guy is doing. "I'm fine," he says, but he doesn't look me in the eye, his chin is a little wobbly. "Liar." Usually he looks sheepish. Then we close the door and he talks. He's used to saying, "Fine," because that is what you say. The word maintains the facade of a guy who can handle anything that gets thrown at him. "Fine."

Other lies? They may be less than the truth--about a crime that was committed, a domestic dispute gets wrapped in 4th degree assault, a death in a traffic accident that fails to mention the death. "You got five years for a car accident?" Just asking the question lets him know I know he's lying.

Some offenders lie about why they are in prison altogether. When the prison pecking order seems to glamorize murder and assault, the bottom of the pile is the sex offense, especially those against children. If a man is going to survive the first few months of prison, he finds another charge with an equivalent sentence and claims that as his own.

Behind the door of my office, I hear the truth, or at least more truth than another offender is likely to hear.

I don't go to my work thinking everyone is lying to me. I expect they are telling the truth and if they're not, the truth will eventually come out. I've advocated for a man on occasion, only to discover that he hadn't told me enough truth for me to be a credible advocate. But I go on.

01 February 2008

What's that you say?

When I was in the third grade, attending St. Mary of the Assumption Catholic School in central California, there were fifty students in my class. Sr. Terence managed us all quite well, though how she kept track of us, I don't know. It was my first year at that school, but I'd scored the role of Mary for the Christmas play and got treated to raised eyebrows from the guy who played Joseph every time we prayed the Hail Mary.

Sr. Terence was unlike any other nun I'd known up until that time. When we had special petitions, she wouldn't just pray, but she'd use her own words. In a time when everything was memorized, she stood out. She also jumped rope with us, 15-decade rosary clattering in rhythm, and was quite at ease during folk dances. But it was those spontaneous prayers that really stood out. And, third graders that we were, we angled for attention.

Which brings me to my story. In the early spring of that year, probably in April, a group of us were at Sr. Terence's desk, getting ready for class. A few spoke their requests to her. Me? This is what I said: "My brother died." She gave me a long look, but when we prayed at the beginning of class, she prayed for my brother.

The next Sunday, as my dad and I were walking to the car after Mass, she happened to come out of the convent. She greeted us and asked, "How's your little boy doing?" My dad said, "He was pretty sick for a while, spent a couple of days in the hospital, but he's home now and doing fine." She looked at me and then went back inside.

Our home was a number of miles from church. Dad didn't say anything about my brother. I think I pretended to be asleep.

Some time that afternoon, both Mom and Dad came into my bedroom and closed the door. Mom sat down on the bed. "Why did you tell Sr. Terence that Geoffrey died?"

"I didn't!"

"She says you did."

"She must have me mixed up with someone else!" (Fifty kids in the class, surely she could be wrong.)

I don't remember anything else of the conversation. I'm sure my parents were rational about it all because I don't remember getting spanked for lying.

In later years, I think about how inadequate third-grade thinking is. There was one Catholic church for the whole town. The sisters, who lived a block away, would have known about any funeral. I never missed a day of school--it wouldn't have occurred to me.

My brother, who lived through the event, has asked me why I tried to kill him off. How do I explain that I just wanted some attention from a nun who used her own words to pray?

So why do I tell this now?

Over the last couple of days, I've dealt with an offender who received horrific news, that his 6 year old daughter had died of injuries sustained in a bad fall down a stairwell. He was, after several years, getting ready for a visit with her, and now this. When I talked with him, there was more to the story: his brother who'd told him on the phone that their mother had taken the news so badly that she'd had a stroke or heart attack and ended up in the hospital. And she was dead.

But two days later he got a letter from his mother who'd heard about what the brother had said and was furious.

Today, I had an email saying that offender had gotten news last night that his ex-wife had committed suicide.

How can one person hold all that pain?

I talked with him again. Sorted through the things people were telling him ("Well, she was your EX, so it can't hurt that badly") and check with him about a referral to mental health. He's not feeling suicidal, but he hasn't been able to sleep.

Now, in this early evening, I read a note from mental health, saying the coroner was called and has no record of a six-year-old dying in the past several months and there had been no suicides.

I begin to wonder. I'm standing in a third grade classroom again. I know I've told the big lie. Did someone else?

UPDATE: 2/8/08 I talked with a couple of other people who'd also listened to this story and finally called the man who is in charge of investigations. "Something just doesn't seem right with this. Can you use your law enforcement contacts and check it out?"

The short end of the story: the offender came in last night and said, "You know all that stuff? It was a big fat LIE." Someone new was dating his ex-wife; she didn't want to see him again. What better way than to say she was dead?

I don't know all the details. I don't know if I want to know.