My Juvie and Prison life.

Little known fact. I've been in more prisons than anybody I know. Never to jail though... to speak of. And it's true... unless some of you folks haven't been entirely honest. Now that I'm thinking about it, it's not just prisons. "State Hospitals" too! Made my Mama proud.

I wrote part of this story on a web site called Quora. Quora is a social media site where people pose questions to an expectant group of other people who chime in with thoughtful replies. Usually, the folks doing the replying have some degree of credibility. You can't just make shit up. Well, you can. But you don't last long. Off with your head. Anyhow, The site has gone through big changes over the past couple years. Not good changes in my opinion. Now Quora pays people to ask dumb questions. And then troll other people for thoughtful replies. It's brilliant. All this to say... Here's what I wrote. And after, what I didn't write.

That’s an interesting question. I suppose it depends on your reason for visiting and your background.

In the 90’s I had contracts with 2 State Dept. of Corrections. I provided them with Educational Software and then trained inmates on managing it. The first few times I visited prisons I was slightly wigged out. You can watch MSNBC all weekend long, but when you’re voluntarily walking into a maximum security correctional facility it’s the real deal. I can’t imagine what it’s like for a first-time inmate. 

I’d call prior to each visit to go over details of what I could bring in, what I needed to wear and to get an idea of what I was in for.

I could bring in NOTHING. And, I wore what they told me. If I was told “do not wear a blue shirt” I didn’t. That was telling. You don’t want to be confused for an inmate. If the lockdown siren blows - you hit the ground, until a guard tells you to get up. A white shirt (or whatever) made you obvious. Not really a place where a visitor wants to blend in!

Prepare to be scanned, frisked, dog-sniffed, etc.

I worked directly with inmates. Often times on a 1 on 1 basis. I was about as wide-awake as a person can get. You know better than to ask “so, what are you in for?” But you can’t help but wonder.

The scariest facilities I visited were a maximum security facility for women and a “last chance” juvenile facility. Wow.

Overall I don’t recall a single bad experience. The inmates I worked with had earned their way to a good “prison job” and weren’t going to do anything stupid. I found many to be highly intelligent, fun to talk with, curious about how everything worked - just like you or me.

The most amazing thing I saw was a dedicated, caring teaching staff. At that time (and I hope still!) the facilities were required to provide educational programs. And a library. I’ve worked with educators for 30 years. I’ve rarely seen teachers as committed to what they do. They could have worked anywhere. But they chose to work in a really rough environment. Amazing people.

I was always ALWAYS glad when I got into my car and saw the facilities in my rear-view mirror. 


Ok... Here's what I didn't write on Quora.

For real. I wanted that contract. It wasn't a big money maker. But I wanted it. I was making plenty of money. It was the 90's. Good years. I submitted a ringer. I sold them the software at full list price. And threw in a day of training for free. Ha! Nobody submitted a proposal with list price for their software. And nobody threw in a day of free training. There was no way I was going to pass this up. 

The part about the two scariest sites I worked with are for real. The Women's facility was in Baltimore. I swear to God. I've never been cat-called, whistled at, threatened, eye-#*#&ed... and gotten paid full commission for it. (Sorry, I had to toss in that last part.) The Juvie place was just scary. Like nightmare scary. I had to walk around the facility alone. Among these poor kids who were one straw away from The Big House. I don't know why they didn't make somebody escort me to where I needed to be. Nothing happened. But it was super creepy. And, that's the only part of the visit I remember. I don't remember the teacher I worked with, who I trained, nothing. Just that it was scary-creepy. 

My favorite story of all the prison jobs is of Augusta Correctional Facility. It's WAY WAY out in the middle of nowhere Virginia. And it's a place where they send guys with 20+ years to life sentences. It's "The Big House" if there ever was. 

I called ahead as normal. I was NOT to wear denim, blue, or anything that resembled blue. I was told in no uncertain terms... if the whistle blows - hit the dirt. You'll be shot if you don't. And when you hit the dirt, you don't want to be one of the guys in blue. 

I worked with a teacher that I'll call Ed. When I arrived on site, Ed was there waiting for me and walked me through the security process. That was the cool thing to do. It's not a normal thing to enter a prison - for a guy who's never been to prison. We walked through the prison yard, past the inmates, back to where the library was. It had security glass windows, cinder-block walls, and every Louis L'Amour paperback ever printed. It was dark. Lights out. We walked in, turned on some lights and further walked into a security windowed office in the corner.

We chatted for a bit, went over the plan for the day and then Ed called in the inmate that "we'd" be working with for the day. Let's call him Eric. Eric walked in. Eric was a presence. THE size of the doorway he just passed through. We shook hands, exchanged greetings, etc. And then... Ed said "well. Ok guys. I've got to run to a meeting. I'll check back around lunch time. 

And he left. 

I about shit my non-blue pants. 

I could end the story right there. But it gets better. 

The software that I had provided was to manage the library book collection's circulation. Who checked out exactly what book. Who had a book on reserve. Who had overdue books. Who owed fines. And also the whole setup of the software. The policies, database, the works. 

Eric was brilliant. I was used to working with advanced degreed academic types. And here, in this prison, Eric (wearing blue) was killin' it. If you've ever taught or trained people, you know when they're "getting it." And when they aren't. Eric was getting it. Great questions, thoughts, etc. We finished the entire days content before the break. 

About that time, Ed walked in. He sent Eric off to his lunch. We went off to ours. The guards, teachers, and administrators don't eat prison food. Either do the guys that didn't shit their non-blue pants. 

After lunch, we went back to the room within a room. Eric came in, Ed excused himself to an afternoon of "meetings." Wtf. It seemed like Eric had grown even larger during lunch. He ducked to get in the door. He was an enigma. A brilliant guy, in a maximum security prison, learning somewhat complex software. Dressed in blue. 

Right on time, Ed walked in. Eric and I had just finished what normally would have been Day 2 of an advanced training. Eric was seriously smart. We had a great conversation. About all kinds of stuff... except stuff involving anything... serious. Hard to explain. There was talk but nothing revealing. Very surface, but honest, funny, real. 

Eric and I shook hands and off he went. Back to his prison life. With a job at the prison library. Eating the prison food that I didn't have to. 

Ed and I talked for a while after Eric left. One of the questions he asked was "what do you think?" I answered him with a very professional "I think you're all going to be in great shape. Eric picked up everything and we went into the typical day 2 agenda." Ed knew the topics we covered. And didn't really care about all that. He said...  "No... what do you think? How do you feel? What's going on in your head?"

Well damn! Nobody really ever asked me that before. But believe me - my head was spinning with thoughts that I usually mulled over on my drives back home. 

I eventually told/asked Ed "I'm confused. I'm at a loss to understand - what happens in a persons life that can bring somebody so smart, so nice, so much like the folks we live around and work with - to a place like this?" Oh shit... I offered a "no offense" and all but he didn't care. He knew exactly what I meant. And exactly how I felt. It's a surreal kind of thing. A lot of people that I met in prisons were seemingly normal, everyday people. We must have talked for an hour. 

Ed asked if I wanted to know why Eric was there. I eventually said yes. Ed told me. I'll keep it to myself. And remember what I wrote earlier about my looking in my rearview mirror as I drove away. It was real. 

About six months later, I ran into Ed at a conference. It was great to catch up. I asked how Eric was doing and how things were going with the library and the software. Ed frowned. "Well Bill, remember how smart Eric is? And remember how we talked about how these guys have 24 hours a day to scheme and hustle and try and find a way to live through all this?" 

"Uh... yeah." 

"Well. Eric's hustle was that he was bookie. He took bets on professional sports. And he configured a second copy of the software to manage his operation. If somebody lost a bet - he'd send out overdue/fine notices with the amount. The guards unknowingly passed them out among the cells. The inmates paid. The inmates always paid their debts to Eric. He was a one man operation. His own bookie, record keeper, collector, knee-breaker, etc. I doubt he had to break any knees. Eric harvested cash. It was a classic, brilliant, front to a classic brilliant hustle. I loved it. Ed did too. 

I must have told that story a hundred times over the years. To my dad. He loved that story. But usually to other librarians. They loved it. It was a great story to tell when I didn't feel like sticking with planned or typical topics. A rabbit trail if there ever was. I loved rabbit trails. Stories sell. Good stories sell really well. They are a great way to be remembered. 

In later years a friend I worked with nicknamed me "Bill - That Reminds Me Of A Story - Payne." I couldn't argue. It fit. 

There's not enough ink to write all the stories. There's not enough time to tell them. What a life. From trailer parks to mansions. From preacher's kid to step-son of a farmer and salesman. From college drop-out to VP of Sales and Marketing. I've lived in a ton of places. I've traveled around the world. I've been in prison. And I never shit my non-blue pants.


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