Behind Bars: Things I Learned Working in a Prison

In my 31 years on this planet, I have worked a variety of jobs, with most of them falling into the retail category in some form or another. As a result, I have probably seen every type of customer there is, from your average Joe to customers who are a bit–how you say–weird, to those who would straight-up murder and/or rape someone who crossed them.

Yes, I said customers who would murder or rape, and I mean that literally. From September 2004 until August 2006, I worked as a retail clerk in the commissary of McNeil Island Corrections Center in Steilacoom, WA: a prison that, until it shut down due to budget cuts a few years ago, was one of the last island prisons in the country (Charles Manson even did a stretch there).

For those that don’t know, in most prisons, inmates work jobs for anywhere from $0.55-$2.00/hour, and that money can be used to buy goods you would normally get at the grocery store, with 90% of them being food items like cereal, junk food and ramen noodles. My job was to process the food orders, bag them up and deliver them to the inmates. And, although the job wasn’t too complex, just being in the facility allowed me a chance to see what life was really like for a lot of these guys, and it doesn’t always go how you might think.

1. Almost no one carries a weapon

I never was in any real danger during my time at MICC. If I had been, however, I went to sleep every night knowing that someone there could defend me with their gun or nightstick if need be?

Oh, wait. No they couldn’t, because none of them carried weapons. As it turns out, in a minimum corrections facility, the officers carry less personal protection than a British bobby. In fact, the only ones who had weapons were the tower guards, and even then the firearms were loaded with rubber bullets. In that regard, I was actually relieved, as guns scare the ever-loving crap out of me. This wasn’t so much a complaint as it was an unusual observation, as I, like most people, assumed all officers/guards carried a gun when I got hired. Turns out the most they can carry is a can of mace, with a few carrying Tazers. This was to keep the chaos to a minimum and be able to ensure the highest level of safety, but I can tell you from my own eye-witness accounts that, a) not only can people build an immunity to mace, but b) going for your spray while a 300-lb. inmate is barreling down on you is easier said than done. One moment, you’re going for your can, the next, said inmate has you in a headlock and is beating your head like a drum with the handset of the cafeteria phone.

2. Inmates can learn just about any trade imaginable

I think most people know that inmates do jobs while in prison, not only to keep them busy while doing their time, but also so they can learn a trade that they can use in the real world should release be coming their way. The standard stereotypical jobs do really exist, such as laundry, making license plates and working in the cafeteria, but that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Thanks to access to the internet and fully stocked libraries, the inmates have access to damn-near as much information as those of us on the outside. Computer programming, truck driving, professional-level craft work, construction, home repair and learning a musical instrument are just a handful of things that are par for the course behind bars.

Because MICC was on an island, a fire crew/EMT staff was always on duty as well, something that is not common in all prisons. And if you guessed the staff was composed of inmates as well, collect your prize. Yep, these guys went through full fire and EMT training and lived the life of a firefighter, including having a firehouse separate from the main housing that they lived in on 12-hour shifts, not to mention going with patients in the ambulance to the hospital on the mainland. As you might guess, it was considered the primo job on the island, given the freedom (albeit limited) the inmates got while on the clock.

On top of that, some inmates qualify for work-release, in which they are released early based on good behavior and do the rest of their time in a work camp. The camp not only puts their newly learned skills to use, but provides them with an actual job with real-world pay and allows them to slowly adjust back to life on the outside. Although they are technically still serving time, unless they screw up, they’re pretty much free men at that point and now have skills/experience that can help get them out there in the job market.

3. Most of the inmates keep things as civilized as possible

Despite being an island facility, MICC was in fact a minimum security prison, with a good portion of the population being in there on minor offenses such as possession or assault. Of course, that’s not to say that murderers, rapists, child molesters, etc. didn’t also make their residence there. You had a mix of all different types of people with different backgrounds, and as a result, you had people with different sentences. The sentences ranged anywhere from a year and a day (yes, it’s that specific number) to life without the possibility of parole.

Regardless of time, a lot of these guys were spending what could be considered a significant amount of time behind bars, and because of that, it was pointless to cause trouble. As a result, fights rarely occurred during my time, and a lot of the inmates did what they could to make nice with their peers as well as the staff. Obviously, the place wasn’t immune to fights, but just like in real life, the fights came with consequences of varying degrees, such as being thrown in the F-unit (what you might call “the hole” or “solitary), to being transferred to another facility, to losing out on their privileges such as the inmate commissary (a bigger deal than you think, considering some of the food that came out of the kitchen).

As a result, most of the guys did what they could to make nice with everyone and not stir the pot. One of the inmates I supervised, who was more or less a lifer, was damn near friends with everyone on the island, and that included the staff. The guy was in on a number of different charges of varying degrees, and knew that he’d probably be in jail until the day he died, so he always went out of his way to make the most of his time and keep the peace, resulting in him being very well-liked by just about everyone. Of course, I couldn’t always say the same about myself…

4. I was treated better by the inmates than my co-workers

Maybe it was because I more or less ran the commissary (again, a big deal for these guys), maybe it was because I had the smallest amount of authority possible, or maybe it was because I didn’t look like I belonged in a government position. I can’t say for sure the reason, but I can tell you that the other members of the staff, especially the administrative staff, did not like me one single bit and treated me with disrespect on a regular basis. From the superintendent acting like she was queen of the universe to my immediate supervisor denying me requests and promotions at every turn, I was not liked at all.

It’s not like I ruffled feathers; I am a total pacifist and avoid confrontation as often as possible. But for reasons that still escape me, most of the staff (with the exception of some of the corrections officers; not all of them) treated me like I was one of the inmates. I must stress that I was on the same payroll as these people, and considering I dressed how I wanted and, you know, got to leave the island every night, it should have been obvious.

At the same time, while the staff was treating me like dirt, the inmates for almost universally great to me. With only a couple of exceptions, I was treated with the utmost respect by these guys. Even on days when I didn’t deliver to their unit, there were guys that would go out of their way to come say hi to myself and my staff. For whatever they did to get behind bars, it didn’t affect their manners or their ability to treat other people the way they liked to be treated. Most of the time, I looked forward more to working with my inmate crew than my actual staff co-workers. Although I got into a few arguments with some of these guys, not once did any of them ever try to attack or start a fight with me. Despite being in a prison, I never had a day where I felt like my life was in danger.

Did I mention only some of the officers treated me with respect? There’s a reason for that.

5. Unless you’re administrative or corrections staff, you don’t matter

The officers I did get along with were just genuinely good people who were only there to do a job, just like myself. While their job was to keep the peace, they wanted to do it with as little problem as possible.

However, they were in the minority.

The rest of the officers I am quite certain were men and women who failed at being/becoming police officers for various reasons (including attitude) and decided corrections was a lateral move since they could still wear a badge and boss people around. For every officer who was great to work with, there were probably five that truly believed their poop didn’t stink. And if they were a sergeant or a lieutenant, it was just that much worse since their jobs were pretty much secure no matter what.

One of the lieutenants not only had a tendency to make deals with inmates for drugs, booze, cigarettes or whatever, but was also reported for animal abuse when he took a stray dog and locked it in his basement on the island (there was housing for staff there, at the most ludicrously low prices you’ve ever seen) and starved it for three weeks until he died. His punishment? Go through an “investigation” for several months. These “investigations” consisted of little more than temporarily demoting the person to a support staff job before getting their original position, making it more or less the adult version of “go stand in the corner for five minutes.”

And the administrative staff wasn’t any better. I mentioned some of my experiences with them in entry #2. They would give the officers all the respect in the world, while doing everything they could to flex their proverbial muscle around most of the support staff. Part of my job was driving the delivery truck from the warehouse to the main housing facility, and in order to do that, I had to pass through a gate that was on somewhat of a tight turn in regards to the truck. During one of these deliveries, the officer in control of the gate closed it too early on me, resulting in it slamming against the back of the truck. Instead of apologizing for his mistake, he reported me to the admins for “driving recklessly,” and requested that I take a drug test, something I didn’t even have to do to GET the job in the first place! When I explained my side, the admins ignored me and agreed I should be tested. Fortunately, the man in charge of the motor pool for the island had final say, and he thought that was ridiculous, so the test was never conducted, not that it would have mattered, since I am straight edge.

Then there was the work environment itself. I don’t know if you’ve ever been to McNeil Island, but it is located within the Puget Sound area, and during the fall, winter and spring, it can get cold there. When you work right on the Sound, it gets even worse thanks to the wind blowing the cold currents off the water everywhere. Now, if I had worked in a place designed for my job, this part wouldn’t be a complaint. However, the area that had been used as the commissary prior to my hiring was used solely for storage for inexplicable reasons, so I was relegated to working in the laundry room of each unit.

The laundry rooms were made of brick, had no insulation, faced the water with a big window that had to be open at all times (commissary was passed through the window), and no heat. You might think an organization such as OSHA would need to be involved here, and you’d be right. Of course, that didn’t matter to the admins. Even when I went as far as to threaten OSHA’s involvement, the most that was done was we were given a space heater. It didn’t work, so another had to be requested. That one worked even less. It’s a miracle my staff and I didn’t get sick constantly in that place, and again, if I mentioned OSHA or the Whistleblower Act, the reaction from the admins was only slightly more serious than unmitigated laughter.

Dustin Nichols is a freelance writer, most notably seen on Camel Clutch Blog, where he has reviewed nearly every single episode of WWE Smackdown since mid-2011. He also reviews TNA Impact every week, because he is a complete masochist and wants to save you the pain. When not busy writing new dialogue for the show Castle in his head, he can also be seen on The Geek Link where he discusses games and his obsession with Firefly. You can follow him on Twitter, look at his Facebook page, or even hire him as your personal trainer. Yep, he’s fit, too.

Dustin had a much better time at this job, because he got paid to ask of 10 Weird Questions with Joanna Angel.

Our 11th question was "Did it hurt when you fell from heaven?" but it turns out she really is an Angel, so we bit our tongue.

Our 11th question was “Did it hurt when you fell from heaven?” but it turns out she really is an Angel, so we bit our tongue.


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