Dateline: 5 January 2007
For the past six and a half years I have worked in a furniture factory that is inside a class A, maximum security New York State prison. Each day I drive 20 minutes from my pleasant rural homestead into the city and walk into another world—a world so incredibly contrary to what I have ever known.
After showing my identification to a prison guard inside the front entrance, I make my way past six checkpoints where I pass through ten iron gates or doors that are opened for me by a guard who is watching from inside a heavily secured room. Ten minutes or so later, I have walked to the back of the facility where the three story factory I work in is located. The factory, all prison buildings, all 1,800 inmates, and several hundred employees, are surrounded by a thick, 40-foot concrete wall. Guards with rifles are positioned around the perimeter of the wall. The prison is among the oldest in the country and, to my knowledge, no one has ever escaped, but many have tried.
The factory I work in makes license plates and office furniture of various kinds. The furniture is sold to state agencies and schools. I am a supervisor in a shop that makes desks and bookcases. My employees are convicted felons—murderers, rapists, child molesters, and their ilk. They are men who have done some of the most heinous crimes imaginable, and some of those crimes are beyond imagination. Many of the men will never get out of prison, and it is a good thing that they don’t. Some will do their time and be allowed back into society, which is not always a good thing.
I give my employees tools like hammers, chisels, screwdrivers, and even utility knives. I make sure they are doing their job properly and that we fill the orders we have. My employee workforce is constantly changing as men are moved to other prisons or get into trouble and lose their job. The man who is in charge of placing inmates into my shop assures me that I am getting the “top of the bottom of the barrel” when it comes to workers. My employees work six hours a day and get paid anywhere from sixteen cents to 45 cents an hour.
Prior to doing this work, I spent 20 years in the building trades. Ten of those years I worked for area contractors. Then I worked ten years for myself. I loved the work but it was all-consuming, especially being self employed. I had little time for family.
Then came the “time of humbling.” The Lord took me through a period of significant financial loss and self-doubt. It was the lowest point of my life. I was fighting depression. I didn’t know what to do with myself. I worked some but my drive was gone. It was a bad time. I cried out to the Lord for some sort of job, but I had no idea what. I couldn’t even bring myself to go look for a job. Then the phone rang.
A man I knew, a friend from the past, asked me if I would like to work as an assistant teacher in the building trades program at the local vocational school. The job only paid $12,000 a year. It was not something I could really support my family on, but I felt the Lord had opened a door and that I needed to take the job. So I did. I’ve written about it here.
Around that same time, another friend called to see if I would like to work at the prison. This same friend had asked the same question of me a few times in previous years and I always said no. I couldn’t imagine such a thing. But this time I said, “When do I start?”
He told me to fill out a form (which he got for me) and send it into some state agency with $25. I did that but didn’t really think anything would come of it. As the school year was winding down, I was faced with the task of finding some sort of job. I certainly could not afford to take the summer off. The finances were very, very tight.
Then, two weeks before the end of school, the phone rang again. The prison called to arrange an interview. It was many months after I filed out the paperwork. My friend gave me some advice: “Wear a tie and whatever they ask you, tell them you can do it.” He assured me that I certainly could do the job.
That’s how I got the job, and I realize now that it was something of a miracle because I had no political connections. With a week remaining in the school year, I resigned from the teacher position and went to work at the prison. I didn’t care what I was getting into. All I cared about at the time was that I would be making more money and better supporting my family.
The first few days of my new job, Marlene and the boys wanted to know what it was like.
I told them it was like going to hell.
The analogy is still appropriate. I almost never talk about my job at home. It’s not something I want to discuss. And I don’t ever expect to bring it up on this blog again.
Contrary to what you may have heard, state prison is not a “country club.” It is a place of big muscles, bad scars, and cheap tattoos. It is a Darwinian society where anger, intimidation, and brutality are the norm. It is a place of extreme perversion--a place where the most perverse and obscene things are, in fact, routinely discussed and laughed about. It is a place where no one really cares. If you are sick or hurt or scared, no one really cares. No one really cares if you live or die. The state has lawful responsibilities to care for inmates and endeavors to do so, but no one really cares.
State prison is a place where sicknesses like AIDS and hepatitis are common. Many inmates have mental problems and are medicated. More exotic ailments like flesh eating bacteria have been known to show up. It is a place that is sterile in its starkness, yet filthy.
I have yet to find one single coworker who shares my Christian convictions. I am so out of place that it is amazing. I am the complete oddball. Christianity is routinely mocked and laughed at. Discussions about matters of faith and worldview sometimes happen (I steer them that way when I can) but no one wants to take Jesus Christ or a Biblical worldview seriously. Christians are part of the problem in their eyes. Homeschoolers are akin to terrorists. It is a tough place in so many ways.
The majority of inmates are black. Many are Latino. Quite a few are Muslim. Some profess to be Christians. It is not unusual to see inmates reading a Bible. But I do not see the fruit of the spirit in most professing Christian inmates I’ve met in prison. In some, I have.
I can not, as an employee, be friends with any one inmate. I can not bring them food, or books or anything. I must treat them all the same, and that is what I do. I treat inmates with a measure of respect (unless they give me reason not to) and I am firm, fair, & consistent in my dealings with them. This is more than they get from most other employee. They all know I am a Christian and that I will not harass them. Unfortunately, though, prison is a place where kindness is mistaken for weakness
I am, by nature, not a confrontational person. But I have had to learn to deal with inmates who take advantage of my good nature. If you do not learn this in prison, you will have a very hard time.
I once had an employee who was not doing the work I wanted him to be doing. He was much larger than I and was very intimidating to look at. I walked over to him to confront him and found myself looking up into his scowling face. I could not help but notice that one of his nostrils was way bigger than the other. All I could think at the moment was that it looked like a rat hole I have seen in the ground around the outside of our chicken coop. A rat hole into his head. Writers notice things like that and make such associations. Some of the people I work with know I am a writer and they have told me I should write a book about prison. That will never happen.
But if it did, I’d include inmate ideas about how to make money…
One inmate told me how to make an easy and legal $75,000. He explained that all I had to do was rob a drug dealer or a bookie. Then take the bag of money out on some deserted road and throw it in a muddy ditch. A month or so later, get your girlfriend to “find” it and turn it into the police. If no one claims it (and drug dealers or bookies won’t do that) she gets to keep the money. The IRS will take 25% and the rest is all yours. Perfectly legal. Interestingly, this particular inmate was in jail for life for murdering two drug dealers.
Yes, I sure could write a book about prison. But it will never happen. That’s because prison is full of everything that I don’t like. The place affects your mind and your soul in a very negative way
Every day I go to work I get a dose of spiritual poison. I walk out the door and get into my car and drive home and I do not look at the world the same, I do not look at people the same. Paranoia, suspicion and other self-defensive mechanisms have been working in me all day. I’ve been exposed to the worst language and ideas around. I am in the grip of a general malaise of bad feelings. It is not a good thing.
But, fortunately, I have an antidote for the poison. It is my Christian faith, my family, and the down-to-earth rural life we live. My day-job is centered around the worst things in life, but when I am not at work, my life centers around the best things in life. It is a dichotomy of the most extreme kind.
Once, when speaking to fellow Christian agrarian Franklin Sanders (who has done jail time in the past), he asked me what I did for a living. I told him I worked in a maximum security prison. He got a good laugh out of that. And then he commented that such work probably gives me a passion for writing about the things I write about. I believe he is absolutely correct in that observation.
Some people, after reading this story, will wonder why I work at such a job. Why stay there if it is dangerous and hostile and evil and poisons your soul? Why stay there if I do not like it?
Well, I stay because I feel like that is exactly where God wants me for now. Hardly a day goes by that I don’t thank Him for the job which provides for my family while also giving me personal time to focus on my family and my writing projects. But at the same time, I ask Him to please take me out of there.
All I can think is that I am there for a reason that has not yet been made clear to me. Perhaps I am there for a time when I will witness something very wrong and will have to testify in an investigation. Fortunatly, that has not happened (I am actually separated from much of the worst of prison culture). But if it does happen, I will tell the truth. People who tell the truth, who break the code of silence and shroud of lies, are not looked upon well. Perhaps I am there to be tortured and die in a riot one day. Perhaps I am being far too dramatic and morbid in my imaginings. Perhaps I’m there to simply support my family until I get enough years in to retire. I don’t know.
What I do know is that when God makes it clear to me that I should leave, I will leave. I will shake the dust of that place off my feet and never look back