Who really has 'game'?

By Tracie Roe, former corrections' officer

For the last four months I was an employee with the Bureau of Prisons. I was at a High/Max prison in South Carolina. I worked in a housing unit with over 200 male inmates. The key word is 'was.' Over those four months I was told that an "inmate is just an inmate;" "they're crooks;" "they've all got game, be careful it's their goal to con and manipulate you." What did I find? The inmates were the only predictable people. The people on staff were the shock to my system. People asked me how I could work at a male prison; well, it wasn't the inmates who made it hostile.

I was never asked to do anything illegal. The most that prisoners asked for was a phone call, stamps from the unit team, gum, or directions for their family members planning a visit. I spent a great deal of time talking to these people, reading their mail or listening to how their friends and family dropped off little by little over the years. There are many lonely, desperate men and women in our nation's prisons, all of them keeping hope for some miracle from the courts. In my four months with the Bureau of Prisons I never met one person who said they were innocent of the charges ­ this was a shock to me. I expected to meet hundreds of men crying 'innocent.'

The other shock was the percentage of men incarcerated for drug offenses. One in particular, a unit orderly who worked with me, has spent the last 11 years locked up for Conspiracy to Distribute and to Possess with Intent to Distribute Cocaine, Employing Persons Under Eighteen Years of Age to Distribute Controlled Substances, Using a Firearm During a Drug Trafficking Offense, and Using a Communication Facility to Commit a Drug Felony. He has Life plus 60 months with no chance of parole. I read his PSI. He was never caught with anything. He 'employed' kids who were right around his age; he was arrested one month after his 18th birthday. He did have a gun; he was never caught with drugs, and he used a cell phone (the communication facility). His REAL crime was that he didn't cooperate with the government. His punishment for that was LIFE. This man obviously had problems as a child and lived in a rough environment, but he will never have the opportunity at a second chance. Sure, he has court appeals going, but so do most inmates.

The system tried to train me to be inhumane and robotic in my dealings with the men. How did I do? I failed. I had feelings for these human beings. I empathized with their plight. My thought process was "wrong." My belief is that these people were put here as punishment, not to be punished. On a daily basis I saw prisoners frustrated by the lack of attention to their needs. Simple requests went ignored, requests for staff to do their jobs, i.e., process visitor requests, phone lists, obtaining addresses to the courts, assisting with inmate programming, providing counseling and release preparation and more. The best non-response I heard was "come back during open house." Guess what? Open house rarely happened. On the rare occasion it did occur, there were so many people waiting to get in, that few were seen.

I saw correctional officers intentionally damage inmate property. There were occasions where I observed officers pack property for inmates sent to the Special Housing Unit. The officers intentionally placed bottles of lotion or shampoo in the bag with the top off. There were times when soap powder was put in the bag upside-down. I observed one officer cut a lock on a locker with bolt cutters that I checked out of the control center. What was his reason for cutting the lock? It was too difficult for him to open with his key. He had gotten the locker open; he just needed to punish the inmate for having a difficult lock. He then proceeded to cut another lock that was inside the locker for good measure.

What did I do during all this? I verbally protested, then shut my mouth. Why? I was a probationary employee who already had a reputation for being an "inmate lover." What is an inmate lover? An inmate lover is anyone who defends the rights of a prisoner, anyone who talks to them with some modicum of respect, anyone who listens to them.

These people are locked up with no real recourse. I saw legitimate administrative remedies (their recourse for injustices) being shot down. Although these remedies are addressed to the warden or to a regional office, they are sent to the department under complaint for response. How often do you think those departments find fault with their own work or actions? The responses are then sent back to the warden for his signature and blessing.

Why am I bothering to put all this in writing? Because, although I feel sentencing reform is important and worth fighting for, we must also push for the government to monitor the actions of their own. The Bureau of Prisons has policies in place. Such written statements are impressive with their talk of rehabilitation, education, counseling and security. However, it is only talk, words with little substance.

The Razor Wire is a publication of The November Coalition, a nonprofit organization that advocates drug law reform. Contact information: moreinfo@november.org
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