What I learned in prison

Hey, I only worked in prison, honest! I’ve been inside many jail and prison cells during my years working in community mental health and Corrections, but I’ve always been able to leave them at will. Correctional institutions are as close to Hell as I’ve ever come, or want to come.

My first job at a correctional institution was at South Carolina’s largest juvenile prison, where I did counseling, clinical and psychological assessments, worked on a treatment team, gave testimony at parole board hearings, and co-led treatment groups in the sex offender treatment program. Years later I worked at two maximum security prisons for males, with visits to the women’s prison to co-lead groups. During my three years as a psychologist at the Intermediate Care Unit (ICU) – the “mental health” unit of South Carolina Corrections – I routinely visited the Administrative Segregation Unit (solitary confinement) and the prison psychiatric hospital, and even went on the Supermax Unit, where the worst-of-the-worst criminals in the state are housed. I’ve had career criminals, rapists, murderers, and other violent felons on my caseload. I was once sucker-punched by a legless man on the prison yard, but I’ll save that story for a later post. One thing I learned was that incarcerated people know two distinct worlds, with totally different sets of rules: Inside and Outside.

Another thing I learned was that all too often prisons are dumping grounds for mentally ill people who should be housed and treated in more humane institutions. The ICU housed some of the sickest psychiatric patients I’ve ever encountered. If one of the inmates in the unit needed hospitalization, he was temporarily transferred to Gilliam Psychiatric Hospital (GPH), on the prison grounds. Sometimes when I went there to check on a patient, I was reminded of the origin of the word “bedlam,” which was derived from Bethlehem Asylum, in Old London. The bay in GPH was often filled with a hellish cacophony of shouts, shrieks, and men banging on their metal doors. And this was where inmates were sent to recover from psychotic episodes.

I learned that when people have their freedom of movement restricted to a tiny cell and almost everything is taken from them, as in solitary confinement, they can become very creative with such things as their body fluids. I won’t elaborate here, except to say that self-mutilation is not uncommon in Administrative Segregation (“admin seg”) units, and that a colleague had a “corrections cocktail” of urine and excrement thrown in his face. I’ve known guys who could hide a razor blade in their mouths, or conceal a straightened paper clip beneath their skin. I knew an inmate artist who painted with his blood. Admin seg units are where you get housed if you need protection from other inmates, violate certain prison rules, or present a danger to other inmates or staff. Only inmates in admin seg, the psychiatric hospital, and the Supermax Unit have a cell to themselves. Part of my job was to help formulate behavior management plans for inmates who were engaging in extreme behaviors, or were suicidal.

I learned about “lifers” – inmates with life sentences. They’re only a small percentage of the prison population, but having a life sentence confers a reputation for violence. Many lifers have the attitude that they can do whatever they want, short of murder. “What are they going to do, give me another life sentence?” In prisons, the strong inevitably prey on the weak. I learned that some inmates have genuine regrets or remorse for their crimes, while others only regret having been caught.

I learned at a deeper level something I already knew: that you can’t rehabilitate a person by treating him like an animal. Some people think of prisons as correctional institutions, with the goal of reforming criminals, knowing that most of them will return to free society someday. Others think of prisons as penitentiaries, whose goal is to exact legal revenge, to make the inmates suffer for their crimes. I was glad to resign from my job as a prison psychologist, because I’d come to see the prisons I’d worked in as misery factories. There are evil people in the world, and we need prisons. The temporary deprivation of liberty can be a powerful incentive to reform, for those who have a conscience and good judgment. If we, as a society, deprive a person of his liberty, we are morally responsible for his humane treatment. Jesus taught that we should love our enemies; he never said it would be easy.

One of the things I learned in prison that makes me saddest is that when prison systems aren’t adequately staffed and don’t succeed in habilitating or rehabilitating criminals, they often return brutalized people to the streets, and institutionalize many inmates who could have been prepared to return to society. I’ve known inmates who, upon release, weren’t prepared to make it Outside and committed crimes in order to return to prison, where they understood the rules.



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