Saturday, October 06, 2012

What are prisoners like?

Last week I started a new job as a mental health clinician at a jail. I hadn't really thought about working in that setting, but I decided to give it a try.

In the job interview, my boss asked what I thought inmates would be like. I said "varied," which apparently was a good answer, because she hired me. I was very curious to find out what the people would actually be like.

Some initial impressions:

- The male inmates are mostly very polite to me. I've never been called ma'am so regularly, nor had so many doors opened for me. I was expecting constant sexual harassment, but it hasn't happened so far.

- I'm allowed to bring library books to the people who can't leave their units. They all want horror novels. The women also read a lot of Nora Roberts romances.

- Most of them were physically or sexually abused as children.

- Exercise is one of the few goal-directed activities that's possible in prison. There are a lot of seriously buff people.

- I was expecting people to claim that they had been framed, but so far I haven't heard that. I've heard a couple of people say they confessed to crimes a relative of theirs committed, because the relative already had a worse criminal record and would serve a longer sentence for the crime. I've also heard people say they didn't commit the particular crime they were convicted of, but that they had done the same thing in the past and not gotten caught. They seemed to feel it all came out even in the end.

- Lots of tattoos.

- Everyone has insomnia.

- They miss their families.

- They're not allowed to have regular pens or pencils, and they all hate the flexible pens the prison provides because they're so annoying to grip. They get excited if you let them write with your real pen.

- When I ask what helps them get through difficult times, many of them say "reading the Bible." Judging from their spelling, some of them are barely literate, so I'm surprised that they get much out of a book as dense and convoluted as the Bible. From a humanitarian perspective, I wonder if the church could advise reading an easier book for comfort and advice? Maybe something in the vein of Pilgrim's Progress? Could we ask Thich Nhat Hanh to draft something?


Lucas Sanders said...

Do they say how the Bible helps them get through difficult times? It's possible that easier answers wouldn't be helpful.

Julia Wise said...

It doesn't have to be easier answers, per se - I'm not looking for Chicken Soup for the Inmate's Soul. But I'm guessing no one finds Leviticus or Chronicles all that inspiring or comforting. I didn't ask what parts they like to read - I'm guessing Psalms and the Gospels are popular. Personally, I'd leave out most of the stuff about smiting enemies.

Lucas Sanders said...

True. Easier answers per se might not have been what I meant, anyway... Mostly I'm just curious as to what parts they're reading, and how they find it helpful.

Joanna said...

Thanks for posting this! I deeply appreciate the thoughtfulness about what commonalities you observe, and the reminder that prisoners are complex people too.

Boris Yakubchik said...

Thank you for sharing.

I'd advise "Ethics for the New Millennium" by Dalai Lama instead of the Bible; I'm a big fan of it.