California Department of Corrections, Female Offenders, Training Academy, Wisdom

What I Learned in Prison: Women in Front and Behind Bars #5

photo via Colorado Int’ School

When you want to learn a new language, experts say that ‘immersion’ programs work faster and better than taking semi-regular classes. This applies to working in the law enforcement field. A couple of weeks ago I talked about the initial training I received when I began my career in corrections. Much of the training was OJT-on the job, not only training from other staff members but also the female offenders or wards, as we called them back in the ’80’s.

                                             The full immersion program is known as the Academy. 

It’s the same concept as a military boot camp or a police academy. You are there to learn discipline, the language, customs, and rules of the Department. Notice I capitalized ” Academy” and “Department.” That’s how certain things are referred to in quasi-military training academies. In this regimented world, you can bet that it wasn’t welcoming to women. Most of the women who worked in the prisons were nurses, teachers, social workers, or  MTA’s (Medical Technical Assistant).

It was a man’s world. And I don’t say this in a negative, judgmental sense. It is what it is (or was in those days). In my class, there were five women out of sixty men.  An outcome of having few women in the Academy was that we were tested more often than men, to see ‘what we were made of.’ Consequently, we tried harder, sometimes acted more masculine than needed, and often times tried to outdo our male classmates. 

The Academy stressed that the trainers objective was to get a person ready to work in a high-stress environment as safely as possible. It was drilled into us that order and safety were the priorities. 

                                               How can you supervise inmates if you’re dead, 

one of the instructors said. Made sense to me. After the first week, one of the women dropped out. 

The classroom lectures were reinforced by the dozens of ‘war stories’ one hears during breaks and from the veteran training staff teaching said, classes. The field trips to the closest correctional facility: Duel Vocational Institute-DVI, frighteningly referred to as “gladiator school,” further reinforced why one needed to pay attention in class, learn the self-defense techniques, proper handcuffing, and so on. 

Again, all this made sense to me as a twenty-one-year-old, that is until we were told about the tear gas shack. Say what? 

An older guy, in his thirties, told me that the trainers were going to herd us into a shack and then shoot tear gas through the open windows. His buddy, an earlier cadet, told him about the scenario. 

                                           Don’t worry, I went through this in Nam. Piece of cake.

He told me to cover my face with a handkerchief, close my eyes and run. “You’re going to be disoriented, but run in a straight line.” My first reaction was “Hell No.” 

My second thought was the idea of me sobbing from the stinging chemical, laying in the middle of the tear gas shack and all the men standing outside shaking their heads, saying “That’s why women shouldn’t be allowed to work for the Department.”

 “Oh, hell no.”   I swiped a hand towel from the women’s bathroom and stuffed it in my pocket. 

 The scenario played out exactly like my Viet Nam friend said. Twenty of us were herded into a 16×16 wooden building and told to line up against the wall-I was the first and only woman in the group. Two open windows were on opposing walls. 
                                         Two tear gas canisters will be shot into the windows,

our instructor said and pointed to each window. “Your objective? Make it out the door over there.”
“Where are our gas masks, sir?” a male cadet asked. The trainer smirked in response. My VN friend elbowed me and whispered “cover yourself as soon as you hear the shotgun sound. When you get outside, kneel down and take in some air.” I listened for the sound and ran like a bat out of hell. 

The tear gas stung like a swarm of bees. Immediately, the eyes and nose gushed with tears and mucus. I felt like dropping to the ground. My friend and I crashed through that front door first and fell forward on our knees, gasping for breath. 

A few guys didn’t make it out and the trainers, in their gas masks, went into the building to haul them out. One of the cadets asked the trainers, “why did we have to do this without gas masks?”

                                    So you know how it feels to use this on a human being. It’s not a toy.

That was the best moral lesson I learned in the Academy. Treat others as human beings regardless of the circumstances. Sometimes you learn wisdom in the most roundabout ways, like in a tear gas shack. It’s a lesson I carried with me and hope I never forget. 

For former post in this Wednesday series click on:
First post  in “What I Learned in Prison…”
Second post
Third post
Fourth post

If you have any questions about life inside please share in the comment section. 

California Department of Corrections, Female Offenders, Television shows on prison, Women in Prison, Women Prisoners, Writing

Women in Prison: In Front and Behind the Cell Bars

photo from National Geographic
There has been an increase in T.V. female prisoner shows: Lockup, Cellblock 6 (TLC), Babies behind Bars (TLC), Beyond Scared Straight (A & E), and even Oprah’s OWN channel has Breaking Down Bars. Women are the fastest growing prison population in America and some of the toughest to handle.  

The subject of women in prison is a new one for this blog. After a year of posting I think it’s time I wrote about my experiences working in the Criminal Justice system. I spent 28 years working inside of Youth Correctional facilities in California and two years working at work furlough and prison pre-release programs, with male and female inmates, young offenders and older inmates. This has been a huge part of my working life. 

I can’t think of a ‘pretty picture’ to accompany this post so I chose the one that I feel is closest to the reality of life inside a prison. Granted, my life has been as a correctional worker, not as a prisoner. but I offer my perspective of women behind and in front of the cell bars.

My career has affected me in so many ways that all three of my works-in-progress (WIP’s) are about characters on both sides of the law. One of the three WIP’s is set inside of a women’s prison and much of the setting is real, for that particular facility.  

For now I’ll begin with some background, not of my upbringing , but my career back story. In other words, how did I get from Catholic school to working inside of prison walls? 

After changes to my major (Psychology, Teaching, English) I found my niche: Sociology and Criminal Justice. During my Junior year I took a field trip to Lompoc Federal Penitentiary. It wasn’t scary until they let a large group of male inmates into the 16×20 conference room with two Correctional Officers (CO’s) a Caseworker and two teachers. 

It was like a show and tell about the programs inside. I was a shapely twenty year old with long hair to my waist. I felt naked as I sat on a folding chair and tried to make myself as small as possible. The teachers and Caseworker spoke and I heard the passion, and tiredness, in their voices. The passion was for the belief in rehabilitation and the tiredness was from the reality that everyone cannot or will not change. The ‘pitch’ was for student tutors, primarily for literacy tutors. I knew enough about the lives of drug dealers, con men and sweet talk that I was not going to volunteer for the program. 

During my Senior year I had more loans than scholarships and grants. I applied for a paid internship and that is how I ended up working with a Psychologist and two Probation Officers (PO’s) at a 90 day Pre-Release program for Lompoc Fed inmates. The staff mentored me and had me assist in their paperwork, especially the P.O’s. I spent eight months sitting in small group counseling sessions with a different group of eight parolees three times a week, the Psych, and one PO. I experienced the ‘games,’ got tough quick, learned the prison jargon, the Psych’s language, and the PO’s workload. 

My mentors recommended I go into Probation or work at the Juvenile Hall. I decided to apply at a Youth Correctional Facility in my county, graduated with my June, and began working in July. I was twenty one years old, a new Youth Correctional Counselor, and my caseload of eight females ranged in age from eighteen to twenty-four. Most of them were older than me. 

The Youth Correctional Facility is under the Division of Juvenile Justice which is under the California Department of Corrections. There have been several changes throughout the years and the facility has housed ages 12-24 year old females to 16-21 year old males. It has been solely for girls and women, and then co-ed, back to all females 12-21 and now it’s coed again. The population has been as high as 1100 to a low of 230. Gender changes and population fluctuates in response to sentencing laws, prison overcrowding, and deteriorating structures. 

A prison is a world of its own. There are staff rules, inmate rules, gang rules, race rules and others that are best left for another time. Every Wednesday, my intention is to show readers this world, the girls and women inside (which I will refer to as female offenders), the sub-cultures, and the hopes and aspirations of young women doing time.