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Why I'm No Longer a Prison Guard

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To clarify, I never set out to work in corrections. I graduated from a private (expensive) university with a degree in Philosophy. I'd chosen the school because of how the campus looked in fall, and I'd chosen the major because my girlfriend (at the time) wanted me to go into Law. When the dust settled I was back in my Appalachian hometown--minus the girlfriend, plus sixty thousand dollars of debt, wondering how the hell I was going to scrape a life together. 

My family treated me like I was still a teenager, and it wasn't long before their silly rules and needling questions about my future grew too much to bear. I couldn't stand to see the smug *how the mighty have fallen* faces of my conservative uncles over one more Thanksgiving dinner. I had to get out--and job sites were just smeared with listings for (Name Redacted) Correctional Facility.

I was skeptical at first. The pay seemed too good to be true, and my friends never missed a chance to regale me with horror stories about jail. Yet the HR people were friendly and helpful at my brief interview, and the facility seemed modern and professional. I had some moral qualms about working in a For-Profit Prison, but (like any sellout) I convinced myself that having $600 in the bank granted me some ethical wiggle-room. On my tour, I learned that the complex had been built in the 1850's, and had been plagued with scandal and corruption until (the tight-bunned, smartly dressed corporate rep said proudly) "It was bought by our company in the 70's and reformed. We run a very tight ship here."

The overall effect, though, was a Frankenstein building; Shawshank Redemption by way of Steve Jobs. Later, when I tried to find architectural diagrams of the place, it was clear that it had been renovated and rebuilt so many times no one was sure of anything really; the place sat on a twisted tentacular maze of pipes, basements, dead corridors. Imagining those dank lightless tunnels provided plenty of nightmare fuel on my first days.

It was worse--and at the same time, not as bad--as I'd feared. The prisoners were from a different world than mine, and they knew it. Getting a rise out of newbies like me was one of the few entertainment options in their sterile, sunlight-free world. On my first walk down the cellblock, a Jamaican drug runner who'd shot two kids in a drive-by ran to his bars and spat blood at me, laughing as I sputtered and tried to wipe it off. I later learned he was HIV-positive. On the other hand, my co-workers understood how difficult the first days could be, and presented a pretty united front. As days went by I came to understand the prisoners better, too--their culture, how to interact with them, and the fact that they were humans like me. 

Things got so routine, to be honest, that I got a little bored. It was hard to socialize with the other officers--I had no interest in who won the game or how to keep a wife in line. I started just...looking...at things, trying to really see what was going on around me, and in this silent solitary mode I began to notice something strange. 

Power among prisoners is determined mostly by stature: either social stature in some gang or because of some exploit, or physical stature, as in *the ability to beat the daylights out of someone.* There was one guy in yard, though, who didn't fit the bill.

A slight, tanned white guy, clean-shaven, with grandfather wrinkles and silver hair styled like a corporate executive's. Unlike the other cons (who would lift weights, huddle in circles gossiping, or play basketball) he would walk briskly around the yard or do some kind of methodical, yoga-like stretches. Sometimes he would just lay staring up at the clouds, or mark in a little notebook he always carried. I thought prisoners weren't allowed to have pencils, but something about the guy made me keep my distance. Our Ice Age ancestors lived as prey for millennia, and now I think it may have been those instincts that kept me away from Dave.

Whenever I asked about him, everyone knew immediately who I was talking about. "Oh, that's Dave." came the reply, followed by a hasty, "stay away from him." And that was where the information stopped. Any further inquiries were met with vague answers at best, or not-so-vague threats at worst. "Like having a job? Like having a face?" the CO told me finally, "Then stop asking."

I know I shouldn't have, but curiosity got the better of me. I waited until one of the computer terminals was unwatched and searched for Dave. Nothing came up. I searched his ID, his cell number, everything. It was like the man didn't exist--and in our Metadata-driven world, that's quite an accomplishment. We amass huge dossiers on cons--crime, gang affiliations, sexual habits, next-of-kin--an NSA wet dream. There wasn't even a date for Dave's arrival here. I kept watching...and the more I watched, the stranger things got.

It was a windy day in October, grey and dreary. Plastic bags, dead leaves, and junk writhed like hanged men in the double-fences of the yard. Dave was squatting, alone, with his notebook out. I walked behind him on the pretext of doing my rounds, and I was amazed by what I saw. 

Dave had sketched a caterpillar with skill like Da Vinci. On the opposite page was an illustration of a dandelion with the same artistic and scientific detail. Something about the way he shuffled made it clear he knew I was there. As I trudged away I felt his electric-blue, intelligent eyes burning into the back of my head. *Brain boiling, boiling like a pot of worms!* I thought, and had to stop the mad laugh building in my throat. The other prisoners stared. *What was going on?* I had somehow lost several minutes; I was back at the gate to the yard. I felt tears on my face, cold in the biting wind. 

Later that week, I played sick to escape my duty during Dave's yard time, and went to check out his cell. Technically that was just as illegal as looking up his personal information, since Dave was in Block C and I worked in Block B, but I was obsessed. When I reached his cell I found it had a door--like a science classroom's--not bars, and that my ordinary key wouldn't open it. The cell seemed normal, apart from the banned items in neat piles inside. Books and accompanying notes in several languages, more sketches, a chalkboard and abacus--even candles. This was all in clear violation of regulations, but then again, who would I report it to? My CO had already made it crystal clear how he felt about discussing Dave. There was nothing to do but go back to my duty, with more questions than answers. 

When I returned to the yard the next day, the weather had cleared. The sun seemed to put all of us, cons and guards alike, in a good mood. The relaxed atmosphere gave me a lot of time to think about some of my recent decisions. Here I was with a good job, good hours, finally getting a handle on life...and I was going to throw it away for some funny old man. I'd been stupid. It was just the time in life, I supposed, that made everything seem so odd and uncertain. I was caught up in my musings I didn't realize that Dave was not among the other prisoners.

I knew he was behind me before I turned. I moved with the dread of a child looking under his bed after a nightmare, but I hadn't expected him to be so close. Prison rules state that inmates maintain a certain distance from guards, and those rules are hard and fast. Yet Dave's face was less than an inch from mine. He stood there, grinning and chuckling his old man's laugh. Even then I knew that laugh would echo in my dreams. I felt a scream welling up inside. Then burly arms were around me, pulling me into the bright fluorescent lights and away from the horror in the yard.

I don't remember the stern lecture the CO gave me, or the IV drip in the med ward after, the hushed conversations of the nurses. I do remember laying in near paralysis on the Pepto-Bismol pink sheets, staring at broom closet. Waiting for it to open like a toothless mouth while everyone's backs were turned. Faint laughter would echo out, then it would pull me in...

When I woke, I called my worried family and muttered something about dizziness. I ate a sticky bun from the vending machine, barely tasting it or noticing the dark glances of my co-workers. It wasn't until I got home that I found the torn bit of yellow notebook paper in my pocket. It was a Da-Vinci-perfect sketch of me, sleeping in my bed at home. When I compared that drawing to my bedroom at my parents' house everything matched, from the coffee stain on the table to the pattern of the sheets. I lay all night with the lights on, listening to classic rock and trying to think of other things.

After that day, it seemed that Dave and I had a sort of truce. I wouldn't pay him undue attention, and he wouldn't...well, do anything further to me. I knew that I'd been let off with a warning, and not just from the CO. The nightmares stopped. I moved into a new apartment and started seeing a girl from OkCupid. Life, it seemed, was going back to normal. Until Salvador "Sweet" Rodriguez showed up.

Sweet had been arrested at age nineteen for shooting up a minivan to complete his gang initiation. In and out of Juvie, this was his first stay in "big boy" prison. He showed up with a wild, violent look in his black eyes. HE was determined to make it clear that no matter how thin and handsome he was, he was nobody's meat for the shower room--and a cheerful-looking old white man seemed like an easy target. By the time I got to them, it was too late.

Dave had been staring at a dead tree, motionless apart from a slight rocking back and forth and the autumn breeze ruffling his hair. Sweet stalked over to Dave and snatched the pencil from the old man's loose grip, snapping it. 

"Do somethin' bitch!" Sweet snarled. "Bitch. Queer. Ol' peckerwood."

Two husky lifers, as well as all the guards were all running to save the loudmouthed boy from himself. It was almost funny in a way, if not for the look in Dave's eyes. It reminded me of a man who finds a fly in his soup trying to decide whether to eat it or not. 

A storm blew up that night. Everyone was on edge; the congenial mood we'd had early was gone. There was almost a riot when we ran out of grits, and the corridors rang with the sounds of angry prisoners hooting like animals and pounding on the bars. We'd broken up three fights already. 

I had been assigned to "watch the cameras." I wasn't sure if it was my history with Dave or just my status as a newbie, but I was left alone in the main security hub, watching the CCTV feeds. I was hunched up biting my nails, but couldn't say why I was so nervous. Around midnight, long after Quiet Hours, something came up that made me freeze. Surely I was seeing things.

Frank DeWhittle, a hulking lifer who'd brutally castrated a pedophile with a lunch tray during my first week, was helping one of the guards carry "Sweet" Rodriguez down the central hall of Block B. Even if this wasn't a violation of every prisoner transfer protocol in the book, Sweet was obviously screaming his head off. I buzzed the guard; no response. No response from anyone. I could only watch as Sweet was dragged from Block B to Block C, toward a tiny room with a door like a science classroom. 

I was running before I could stop myself, but when I saw the door to Dave's room close I knew I was too late. It did its job well, cutting off Sweet's screams just as they began. The con and guard could have stopped me easily, if they'd expected me to do what I did. I wouldn't have expected it myself. I snatched the key from co-worker's hand and jammed it into Dave's cell door, shoving it open with my shoulder.

Dave looked up from *Writings of Epicurus* with a bemused expression, as though I were a dog that had padded into the room looking for a petting. And I knew that all that was left of Sweet Rodriguez was a few flecks of red at the corner of Dave's mouth. He looked up at me and smiled.

"I'm working on a new sketch, you know."

I was let go that evening. I went through the process in a daze; I didn't have the mental fortitude to put up a fight. I never went back, or even drove by the prison again. I got a job waiting tables at a local Applebee's; my buddy behind the bar lets me polish off unfinished martinis until I'm finally drunk enough to sleep. But sometimes, I still wake up crying.



Credited to beardify 

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