They’ve built another prison, a high security penitentiary, next door to our own. From outside the chow hall we can see the blank 360-degree stare of the guard tower peeking above the yard’s reinforced walls and fencing. The addition of a penitentiary to our medium and nearby minimum and low security facilities makes us officially a “complex;” inmates can be shipped across the security spectrum and remain local while officers can be shared within the complex and allocated wherever manpower is needed, saving the government money on inmate transfers and staff retention.
In wake of the pen’s opening, the complex produced a series of T-shirts intended to boost staff morale. I saw a nurse wearing one of the new shirts at main line. It was Kelly green and imprinted with an imposing guard tower, like something out of Alcatraz, that looks nothing like what we see from the chow hall which more closely resembles the control tower of a small municipal airport. The shirt read, We Tower Above the Rest. Another officer wore a baby blue design that read, One Team, One Mission. I asked Cisco what their mission was exactly.
“To keep us oppressed,” he said.
This last shirt featured the state of Mississippi silhouetted against concertina wire. I imagined that wire stretching across the state, literally, across country and city, over freeway and farm road, dividing neighborhoods and playgrounds, schools and homes. But the irony in such imagery was apparently lost on those who conceived the atrocious idea.
Last month some suits from another prison came through to tour our Education Department. In anticipation of their visit, the library received an extensive makeover: shelves were padded with books, furniture was rearranged, walls were painted a fresh coat of institutional gray, and the floors were waxed and buffed to a gelatinous gleam. The highlight of the tour was to be the job kiosk, an expensive, hulking machine with touch display that allows inmates to find employment ahead of their release. Once while browsing the openings I found my old position, listed by my former employer. I recalled the morning my boss came to my desk and touched me lightly on the shoulder. Soon thereafter I was escorted from the building carrying a box of my belongings–a wireless mouse, a coffee mug with the company logo engraved on the side, a bag of half-eaten goldfish crackers–which they were nice enough to have packed for me while I signed my resignation.
Now, as an inmate working inside a prison library, it was my job to demonstrate the job hunting kiosk to our visitors. But the kiosk, which I heard cost ten-thousand dollars, was broken; the printer wasn’t grabbing paper and inmates hadn’t been able to print job leads for the past three months. Not a problem, said the administrator over Education, a young Eddie Murphy look-alike. We’ll open the machine, feed a slip of paper into the printer by hand, and close her back up. “But we’ll only have one shot at printing,” he said, “so make sure the inmates don’t use the kiosk until after the demonstration.” He taped an Out of Order sign to the machine’s display and instructed me not to remove it until the visitors arrived.
While performing my dog and pony show for the suits–Eddie Murphy stood by wringing his hands, either because he was afraid the kiosk might blow up or because he thought I might try to fuck over his demonstration–I was reminded of a hokey little company I worked for in college that sold websites to small businesses. We’d laugh whenever our customers purchased search engine optimization; none of us knew what it was. We were like the used car salesmen of the tech world.
Prison itself is a hokey business: a bumbling enterprise funded by taxpayers, manned by apathetic saps whose job it is to sell you a vague service–justice, rehabilitation, public welfare–that no one understands or can afford, but are told they can’t live without.
Recently I was granted access into the belly of the enterprise, the administration building, to help with a project. An Assistant Warden was retiring and as a parting gift the staff had framed an enlarged snapshot of the AW dancing awkwardly at a past Christmas party. Eddie Murphy wanted me to sign the surrounding matte with various improvised hands, as if signed by the staff, but a staff with better penmanship.
In a conference room at the end of a long hall, past offices and a kitchenette, I toiled away for almost an hour, experimenting with different lettering and embellishments–Roman and script, uppercase and title case, exclamation marks and underscores–before applying a steady hand to the matte. Crazily I thought they might throw me in the hole if I messed up. But the senior secretary was pleased with my work, and she wrapped the framed gift in scrap paper she’d brought in from home. I picked out the ribbon and helped her tie it with the aid of my finger.
It was this disconnect, I realized later, between prison and the business of prison that had allowed for the creation of those tacky T-shirts. Back there amongst the offices and conference rooms and the kitchenette with communal coffee pot and three kinds of sweetener, buffeted against the desperation and rattling of inmate life, the shirts had seemed like a good idea.
It’s strange to think of my confinement as someone else’s job, one that includes the trappings of any other business–interoffice gifts, Christmas parties, dog and pony shows, concern for employee morale. I stare out the coinslot window of my cell and watch the cars pull in and out of the parking lot, the officers putting in their eight hours, clocking out for lunch, changing shifts. Timesheets. Paid vacations. Retirement. One Team, One Mission.