26 September 2008

In the Strangest Places

There's a bus pulled up in front of one of the buildings, the one marked "Reception." Another load of folks from some county jail has arrived.

We use that word "reception" in so many ways around here. The prison itself is known as "The Reception Center" because every man who gets at least a year and a day to serve starts at county and comes here for assessment and classification. The units into which those people are placed are called "The Receiving Units" or, more often, "The R Units" and they number from one to seven. Units 1-3 are called "The Lower Rs" mostly because however you get there, you have to go down a flight of stairs and through a long tunnel. Men down here wear grey jumpsuits. (Remember this. There will be a test at the end!)

Guys placed in R 1-3 are intensively involved with orientation for a couple of weeks. They get seen by the doctor, the dentist, the optometrist, mental health for a quick assessment. ("Are you breathing? Can you move on your own?" are the basic questions.) They also get a chemical dependency assessment and questions get asked about their school background. State law says that if they are under 24 and don't have a high school diploma or a GED, they will have to get the GED before they leave prison.

At some point, they will meet with a counselor/case manager who will interview them and give them some options about where they might be assigned, according to their custody level.

When the basics are done, those in the Lower Rs move to the Upper Rs, usually to R units 4 and 5. They exchange the grey jumpsuits for orange ones, and get called "pumpkins" to go with it. In 4 and 5 they wait for bedspace at their next prison. When it's time to move on, they'll troop back over to that building where they first arrived and get loaded on to a bus.

While I often see groups of offenders moving from that Reception building to other parts of the prison, I don't usually go inside. It's a hectic place and guys are in various stages of dress and undress. I like to preserve at least the illusion of privacy but sometimes, things can't be helped.

Yesterday I called the Receiving Sergeant to ask when the bus from Spokane was due in. When he told me 2:30, I said I'd be over. There was a man on the bus who was going to get some bad news. I gave them til 3 to be settled into the receiving process: photographs, fingerprints, "do you need protection?" --not a question about condoms, but about actual physical protection.

At 3, I was inside, saying hello to the workers I know from our long-term unit, waving to a guy who recognized me because he'd been in before, and trying desperately to keep my eyes at above-the-shoulder level because most of the new arrivals were wearing only very badly fitting underwear, no boxers in the bunch. I grew up with four younger brothers, but a roomful of nearly naked men is definitely outside my comfort zone.

The man I needed to see was in line for something else, so the sergeant told him to come into the office when he was done. A couple of minutes later, in he came. The sergeant pointed to a chair and asked, "You going to be okay?" The guy shrugged with a "and just what do you think I could do about it" look on his face.

I introduced myself and then told him about the news the county jail had received earlier in the morning. His uncle was on his way to work in Montana, and trying to save gas, chose to drive his small economy car instead of his truck. A moose jumped out on to the road, the car crashed into it, and his uncle was killed. (I didn't tell him what the jail officer had told me, "The moose won.") He wanted to know which uncle, but the jail hadn't been that specific, so we got his sister on the phone and he talked for a while. I put my jacket around his shoulders.

When he was done, he shook his head. "Last time I was here, my grandfather died."

He left to finish getting processed. I checked to see where he'd be housed. On my way out of the institution, I called the R1 sergeant and filled him in, asked him to keep an eye on the man who had to learn about his dead uncle this afternoon. Another bus was pulling up.

I've had to do death notifications in all sorts of places, usually fairly private, all parties fully clothed. But sometimes you just have to be in strange places.