What I Learned in Prison

                                                                    Women in Front and Behind the Cell Bars #3

Disclaimer: No real names used. These stories are from one employee’s perspective during 1980-2008 with the California Youth Authority (CYA).Training, classifications, and agency have significantly changed in the last 10-15 years. There is no longer a CYA, it merged under the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. This is the first post.
The red brick building I stopped in front of looked like the other eight buildings nearby. Behind me, I heard the sound of a car careening to a stop in front of the unit across the grass. Two Correctional Officers ran up the walkway towards the unit where Wise Ass had gone to just a couple of minutes earlier.
I pulled on the door handle of my assigned building and found it locked. A black rubber button on the left side of the door looked like a doorbell but something told me it wasn’t. I flipped through the five nearly identically shaped silver keys on the metal ring that Sarg had given me and slipped the largest key into the lock above the handle. The cylinder clicked but the door didn’t open. I tried twice more.

A knocking sound came from my right side. Two young women in blue t-shirts and jeans, inside the living unit, looked at me through a wide window. One pointed at the door and made a twisting motion with one hand and a pulling motion with the other.

                Okay, so the female offenders taught me how to open the unit door on my first day.

Once inside I heard some laughter. It came a quarter of the way down the hallway. I expected the offenders to laugh, but it was the staff members sitting on a desk. Oh yeah, they were expecting the ‘new boot.’

“At least you didn’t push the button,” the older guy said and smiled. He looked like Rosie Grier, the football player.

“Yeah, the other newbie across the way pushed it,” the woman who was about my mother’s age said and pointed to the unit where Wise Ass had entered. “It’s an alarm, not a doorbell.” She slapped her thigh, laughed hard and then hooted “Oh, lawd that was funny.” 

I drew a deep breath. Thank goodness, I listened to my gut.

The female staff member, Mrs. South, notified the unit supervisor that I had arrived and after introductions, she told me to watch and listen to my co-workers as they went about their shift. I had two days of ‘shadowing,’ the staff before I’d be on my own.

                                                    Have you ever gone to a foreign country?

You don’t know the language, culture or rules. That feeling of being out of place, stared at, and vulnerable sweeps over you. You try to act like you’re okay with everything, but you’re not. Several young women sat in large softback chairs arranged in slanted rows on the right side of the living area. They frequently turned and looked at me. They were checking me out. A pretty young woman with a blonde ponytail came up to the counter and wanted to know my name and age. I gave my first and last name.

Mrs. South asked if I was a Miss or Mrs., “I’m getting married in two months…” Her hand flew up in front of my face. “Call her Miss Alvarado,” she told the girl, who promptly left and spoke to a couple of other girls.

“Don’t give them more info than absolutely necessary,” she instructed me.

Rosey Grier shook his head. “No nicknames, horseplay, or otherwise over familiarization.” I never heard the word ‘horseplay’ before but I understood the rest.

“Before we leave this desk, take this.” Mrs. South handed me a shoestring knotted with another. “Use it as a belt. String your personal alarm and keys through it.” I was so embarrassed that I didn’t look at Rosey Grier.

                                                      As we walked and talked, she ‘schooled me down.’

Within a few hours, I had another vocabulary: wicket, yard, count, code 2, code 3, trays, scrape, 24’s, EP’s. “Keep your head up, watch your surroundings, don’t act scared even if you are.” I needed a notebook for the info and earplugs for the noise of clanking keys, doors, and buzzers.

Meanwhile, the female offenders looked at me or looked away from me. Some looked scary, some like typical high schoolers, a couple like surfer girls, and one like a shy mouse. My co-worker said I’d interact with the ‘wards,’ the next day.

“So are all of them here for misdemeanor stuff,” I asked.

“No, all felonies.”

This was confusing. In college, ‘wards,’ referred to wards of the court, under 18 years of age, not for felons. She saw the question on my face.

“This facility was modeled after Dr. Glasser’s therapies. The social workers tell us to call them wards.”

“You mean Dr. William Glasser, the founder of Reality Therapy?”

“He did his research here, but that was back in the early sixties when we had runaways and incorrigibles. Things have changed. There weren’t drug babies, coke fiends, and gangbangers back then like now,” she said.

After my eight hours were over, I felt a little disoriented. Mrs. South buzzed open the front door for me. “Don’t forget that belt tomorrow,” her voice rang out as I rushed out into the clear evening air.


Categories: Correctional Officers, Female Offenders, Women in Prison

3 replies

  1. You know I always watch movies about jails and what not, so to read about it from someone who's worked in one is fascinating. I wonder how the inmates behaved? Without sounding dumb…do they behave like they do in the movies? lol. There must have been a ton of emotions roiling around in your mind that first day…

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  2. The movies go for the most extreme behavior however I'd say they nail it a couple of times. Much of the behavior is more subtle than extreme but then again that's behavior shown in front of staff. Thanks for your comments and stopping by. Next week we'll meet some of the offenders.

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  3. An interesting look inside a world many people have no experience with.Thanks for sharing.

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