The Professor Was a Prison Guard

How does college relate to the real world?

By Jeffrey J. Williams (Carnegie Mellon)

When I was 20, I left college and took a job in a prison. I went from reading the great books as a Columbia University undergraduate to locking doors and counting inmates as a New York State correction officer. Since I’m an English professor now, people never entirely believe me when the issue comes up, probably because of the horn-rimmed glasses and felicitous implementation of Latinate words. I fancied I’d be like George Orwell, who took a job as an Imperial Police officer in Burma and wrote about it in “Shooting an Elephant.” I thought I’d go “up the river” to the “big house” and write “Shooting an Inmate” or some such thing. It didn’t quite happen that way, although as a professor, I’ve worked 14 of 16 years in state institutions.

For the most part, I worked at Downstate Correctional Facility, in Fishkill, N.Y. (You can see it in a hollow along the north side of Interstate 84, just east of the Newburgh-Beacon Bridge.) Newly opened and still under construction when I started, in 1979, the place was billed as the prison of the future. It adopted a “campus” style, with clusters of 36 cells arranged in a split-level horseshoe shape, rather than the traditional warehouse style of long rows of 40 or so cells stacked three or four stories high. The new style presumably granted a more pleasant environment, or simply less chaos. Downstate was also threaded with electronic sensors that would supposedly indicate if a cell door was open, or if someone was walking between the rows of razor wire encircling the facility. The electronics were bruited as a wonder solution to security, as well as being more economical, since the old design of a maximum-security prison required a small island of cement, with walls 30 feet high and 20 feet into the ground. The sensors, however, were moody, a sticky door registering locked and unlocked like a temperamental Christmas-tree light, and a raccoon, a bit of rain, or a poltergeist setting off the ones between the fences. Though annoying, they kept you awake if you drew a shift on the berm overlooking the grounds.

Downstate was designed to replace Sing Sing Correctional Facility, in Ossining, as the “classification and reception center” for New York’s state prison system. If you were convicted of a felony and sentenced to a sizable term, you were shipped from a county jail to Downstate. County jails are essentially holding tanks, mixing innocent and guilty awaiting trial, 18-year-old shoplifters and 40-year-old murderers awaiting the next stop. State correction officers looked down on the jails as poorly run zoos, the nursery schools of the prison taxonomy; state officers had substantial training, and state prisons were the higher rehabilitation. Every male inmate in the state system spent his first six weeks at Downstate (women, who at the time numbered less than 5 percent of the prison population, went to Bedford Hills Correctional Facility), taking tests and getting interviewed so counselors could decide where he’d do his time. If he was young, maybe Elmira or Coxsackie; if on a short stretch, a minimum like

Taconic; if on a long sentence, behind the high walls of maximums like Great Meadow, Green Haven, Attica, and Clinton. Since most of those convicted came from New York City and environs, Sing Sing had earned the sobriquet “up the river” because it was a 30-mile barge ride up the Hudson. Downstate continued the tradition another 30 miles up, although the present-day conduit is I-84 and the mode of transport a bus.

Before getting a badge, correction officers did 12 weeks in the training academy in Albany. It was a cross between a military and a technical college, with calisthenics in the morning and classes all day. Wake-up was 6 a.m., with a couple of miles around the track; like in the military, your bed had to be made with crisp corners, belongings neatly stowed in your locker, hair short and face cleanshaven. There were periodic spot inspections, and you got demerits if you missed a step. The academy held hourly classes, punctuated by a bell (lateness was one demerit). One class gave background on the taxonomy and geography of New York’s correctional system, from minimum to maximum, prisons dotting the state like community colleges. Another was on relevant law, defining necessary as opposed to excessive use of physical force (one should restrain an inmate from doing harm to himself or others, but not beat him once restrained), and enumerating rights (if an inmate complained of a physical ailment, you had to notify the hospital, even if you thought he was lying). One course covered procedures, detailing how to do a count, how to keep a notebook (in part for legal protection but mostly to pass on information to the next shift), and how to do searches (never ignore an inconvenient corner, even if you don’t want to reach, but be careful of hidden pieces of glass or razor blades). One course taught rudimentary psychology, or “interpersonal communication,” in which the instructors taught you how to deal with, say, an enraged inmate by responding with something to the effect of, “So you are telling me you’re pissed off because. …” Although it seemed mindlessly redundant, it was not a bad lesson in how to stop and listen. Prisons, like any social institution, run best when they respond appropriately to needs as well as misdeeds. Contrary to the popular image of sadistic prison guards, the motto the academy drummed into you was “firm, fair, and consistent.”

Everyone asks if I carried a gun, but inside the walls you were always outnumbered, and a gun would more likely be used for a takeover or escape. Instead, the most severe weapon was a nightstick. The only place you were issued a gun was on a perimeter post, at one of the gates or on the berm. At the academy, there were classes in weapons ‹ at the time, in the trusty Smith & Wesson .38 revolver, which everyone had to qualify to use; the Remington pump-action shotgun, which you just had to shoot without falling over; and a long-distance .30-30, basically a deer rifle, which granted a special qualification to work in a tower at one of the walled prisons. After you were on the job, you had to qualify with the .38 every year, and, like a field trip, we looked forward to the day we went out to the shooting range. The one part we didn’t look forward to was getting tear-gassed, deemed necessary so you knew what it felt like to have the rabid sting of CS or CN gas on your skin and wouldn’t panic.

The lessons were usually reinforced with black humor, anecdotes, and morality tales. For example, you can use lethal physical force to prevent an imminent escape but not if an inmate is still on prison grounds. One quip was that if you shot an inmate scaling the fence, you had better make sure he landed on the outside ‹ otherwise you’d end up inside. One story to remind us not to slack off on searches was about an escape from the Fishkill Correctional Facility (actually in Beacon, across the highway from Downstate). The inmate, so the story went, had gotten a gun smuggled in the bottom of a bucket of Kentucky Fried Chicken because the correction officer searching packages had supposedly eaten a piece off the top and passed the bucket through. Another story, to reinforce the rule that you should not eat state food or accept favors, however slight, from inmates, went something like this: An inmate, who worked in the mess hall and prepared the trays that got sent to the blocks for ill or keep-locked inmates, regularly brought BLT’s to the correction officer on his block. One day the kitchen officer happened upon the inmate using a bodily fluid as a condiment on the bread. I never knew whether the story was true, but I always brought my lunch.

The first thing you learn when you get behind the walls or concertina wire is that prison has its own language. We received a glossary of terms at the training academy, but, just as with learning a foreign language, the words didn’t mean much until you got inside. A prison guard is not a “screw,” as in a James Cagney movie, but a “correction officer,” or usually just a “CO.” A prisoner is not a “convict” but an “inmate.” A sentence is a “bid.” A cell is a “crib.” To calm down is to “chill.” A homemade knife is a “shiv.”

Life in prison is punctuated by counts, three or four for every eight-hour shift. When I was in training at Elmira, which was an old prison with what seemed like mile-long rows of cells three stories high, I remember walking down the narrow runway to take the evening count. There were whispered goads “CO, you look gooood,” “Who you eyeballing?,” “Hey motherfucker” or simply hissing, which was the worst. I didn’t turn around to look, since you rarely knew where the voices came from, amidst the echoes of reinforced concrete. Besides, turning would show that they were getting under your skin, which would just fuel the hiss.

What makes time go by in prison is the talk. Talk among the guards was a constant buzz about life, yesterday’s mail, what happened in the visiting room, the food in the mess hall this morning, the lieutenant who was a hard-ass and snuck around at night to catch you sleeping, if you were going fishing on your days off, if you were getting any. With the inmates, though, as in a game of poker, you never let too much show. The one time you worried was when the buzz stopped. You didn’t have to know the literary definition of foreshadowing to know that something was aching to happen.

I got good at finding things, as much to stave off boredom as from a sense of duty. Once I found a 10-inch shiv hung in a crevice of cement behind a fuse-box door. It was fashioned from a soup-ladle handle purloined from the kitchen, filed laboriously on cement to a knife edge, its handle wrapped with white athletic tape. I would periodically find jugs of homemade booze, made from fruit and fermented in floor-wax containers, wedged behind a clothes dryer to cook or stowed beneath the bag in a utility vacuum. Once I found a few joints taped under a toilet tank. The joints bothered me more than the rest, not because they were harmful ‹ in fact, one way to still a prison population would be to hand out joints, whereas booze, especially home-brews, tends to prime people for a fight ‹ but because they came from outside. They could have come in through visits, swallowed in a condom, or they could mean a CO or other worker had a business they weren’t declaring on their 1040. It violated the boundaries of the place, boundaries that you did not want to get fuzzy.

Prison carries its own set of lessons. One was about how life works, albeit life in a crockpot: mostly by repetition and habit, punctuated by sudden, sometimes scary, but strangely exhilarating moments that shattered the routine. Once when I was at Elmira, whiling away a shift after the inmates were locked in, except for the porters, who did the cleaning, I heard a clomping on the stairs. I looked over to see a porter, head dripping blood, running down the stairs, with another following a few steps back, carrying a piece of jagged glass in his hand. I followed to find two officers on the first tier pinning both inmates to the floor. Danger raises your blood pressure, which isn’t good for you over the long term, but acts as a drug in the short.

Another lesson was “Do your job,” which was a kind of mantra, repeated by CO’s and inmates alike. It meant take your responsibility, don’t slough off, don’t dump your job on someone else, or you’d be not very tactfully reminded on the cellblock, in the parking lot, or at the next union meeting. The ecological balance of prisons is probably not much more fragile than those of other institutions, or there wouldn’t be many prisons still standing, but its imbalances take on a particular intensity. If an inmate had a visitor, you made sure that inmate was escorted to the visiting room right away; otherwise he would have a legitimate beef, which would make life harder for everyone. Especially in the summer, when cement holds heat like barbecue bricks and you didn’t want any sparks.

Another lesson was “Don’t back down.” If an inmate didn’t go into his cell at count, you had to confront him and write it up or be ready to hit the beeper you wore on your belt; otherwise, the next day, three people would be lingering at the TV. It was a different kind of lesson than I had learned at Columbia. One might find it in the Iliad but not, in my experience, in most academic venues, where aggression is usually served with the sugary coating of passive circumlocution. I miss the clarity of it and, as with single malt, prefer my aggression straight.

Something else to remember was to the effect of “There but for the grace of God go I.” There wasn’t much room for moral superiority inside the razor wire, and you quickly lost it if you had it. I worked for a time in draft processing, which is where inmates first arrive after coming through the gates. They got a speech, a shower and delousing, a crew cut, and a khaki uniform cut like hospital scrubs, and then were assigned to a block. To avoid bias, officers generally didn’t have access to rap sheets, except in draft and transport, when the sheets were like passports that traveled with the inmates. There was a young kid, maybe 18 or 19, who had been returned from Florida after escaping from a minimum. He had gotten three to five for stealing (taking a joy ride in a dump truck in upstate New York), and the escape would probably double his sentence. On his sheet, there was an entry that read “act attributed to: drinking a case of beer.” I’m not exaggerating.

Prison gave me a kind of adult education that, as a scholarship boy, I had not gotten in the humanities sequence at Columbia. It gave me an education about people, how they get by and how they don’t. One of the ways they get by is loyalty. The people I worked with, even some of the inmates, “had my back”: If a lieutenant gave you a hard time, the union rep would be in his face. If you were out too late and took a nap in the bathroom, another CO would cover for you. If an inmate saw the superintendent coming while you were watching TV and he thought you did your job, he would warn you. The better species of loyalty is, in fact, not blind: If you screw up, someone you work with should tell you. The corruption of loyalty is when no one says anything.

It’s always curious to see how colleagues react when they find out about my time (as I like to put it) in prison. Some are fascinated and quote Cool Hand Luke, but clearly it’s just a fantasy to them. Some take on a more serious cast and ask what I think of Foucault’s Discipline and Punish, but then prison has become a disembodied abstraction, something they know as much about as dairy farms (as with most prisons, set a long way from any roads they’ve been on). Some look away, as if I had a swastika tattooed on my forearm. What they don’t seem to realize is that correction officers are of the unionized working classes, like cops, whom my colleagues wouldn’t hesitate to call if they had an accident or their house was broken into. It is often said that literature expands your world, but it can also close it off.

It is also often said that the university is not the real world, but in my experience each institutional parcel of life has its own world. When you work in prison, just as when you work in academe, you experience a world that has its own language, its own training, its own hierarchy, its own forms of recognition, its own forms of disrepute, and its own wall from the outside. In some ways, prison is the flip side of meritocracy. Both prisons and universities originated in religious institutions and are based on the model of the cloister; both are transitional institutions; both house and grade people; and both marshal primarily the young. The difference, of course, is that the university represents the hope, prison the failing, of the meritocracy. It’s an unseemly sign that we invest more in the underside than in the hope.

*Article originally published in the Chronicle of Higher Education, April 6, 2007.

Jeffrey J. Williams is a professor of English and literary and cultural studies at Carnegie Mellon University, and editor of the minnesota review. His most recent book is the collection Critics at Work: Interviews, 1993-2003 (New York University Press, 2004)


Author: Brooke Allen

Founder – Viral Virtue, Inc.

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