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“You work in a PRISON?!”

Telling people you work in a prison is kind of like telling them you raise unicorns for a living.

I vaguely remember an article by Rachel Carson (author of Silent Spring) in which she speculated that parents would think their child was at least strange — perhaps even disturbed — if at a young age they expressed an interest in becoming a “prison guard.”

For most people, I suppose this is true. Thus, I sometimes find myself asking, why did I gravitate to this profession?

I do remember taking a Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory (MMPI) way back when dinosaurs still walked the earth and I was in the 6th or 7th grade. It reflected an inclination toward police-type work.

Yet, after finishing school I ended up working retail sales — I did it for many years and liked it, but got tired of stores closing up under me. So I completed a brief stint in the Army and took a job with a burglar alarm company.

After that, I worked six years for the DMV as a driver’s license examiner before going to work at Deuel Vocational Institution, a state prison facility outside of Tracy, California.

Truth in Black and White
I never had the slightest personal desire to be a “street cop” but I soon found that the psychology of institutional work appealed to me. I expect that a lot of it is the relative moral clarity of the whole thing: You know who the good guys are and who the bad guys are. You don’t have to worry about walking up on a minor traffic offender or responding to a domestic disturbance or an EDP and having some nutter come out shooting for no obvious reason.

As for stress, in many ways I found working at the DMV more stressful than working at the prison. I can’t tell you how many polite, friendly, scared 16-year olds came close to killing me by making a left turn in front of the oncoming traffic.

At least at the prison, if someone tries to kill you, you get to try to kill them back. You aren’t even supposed to yell at earnest, scared driving students, even when their stupidity nearly kills you.

In fact I believe that the stress of working for some supervisors or managers could be much worse than working with prisoners.

You expect the prisoners to try to con you, cheat you, hurt you, or even kill you. But when your boss — or your boss’ boss — tries something similar it creates a type of stress that can be much harder to deal with than in-your-face hostility.

A Certain Type of Strength
I’ve talked with street cops who say with obvious earnestness that they wouldn’t — or couldn’t — work in an institution. Meanwhile, many jail deputies get out of that duty as quickly as they can.

It used to really bother me, but it doesn’t anymore. I guess what I came to realize is that, despite what it feels like, people are not reacting to me like I am a side-show attraction when I tell them I work (or worked) in a prison.

Sure, they’re shocked. But I think it’s a reaction more to the very idea that prisons actually exist in the real world at all, rather than a reaction to my involvement with them.

Raising Unicorns
The fact is that except for the people directly associated with them, prisons are practically ignored by society (until, of course, the excrement hits the air circulation device).

Most people don’t give a lot of thought to unicorns either, but unlike unicorns, prisons exist.

Considering what they cost to operate, and the potential for good (or harm) these institutions have for society as a whole, I am disappointed that “ordinary” people don’t think about them more.

The question is: how do we go about changing that?

What do you think? Post your comments below or send me an e-mail.

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