Officer X is short, skinny and wears wire-rimmed glasses. His voice is nasally and he sports his Department of Corrections (DOC) ball cap inside and out, no matter what the weather. He looks to be in his late twenties, but prison has distorted my ability to differentiate ages, so I could be wrong. Among prisoners, the joke about corrections officers is that they only work in Corrections because they can’t make the cut as real cops. However, I doubt this is the case with Officer X, because I’ve heard that his father is the lieutenant here in Washington State’s Monroe Correctional Complex (MCC).
I approached him today because we’re in the midst of a global pandemic and prominent news stations have recently declared jails and prisons the new epicenter. MCC is the only facility in the state with confirmed cases of COVID-19, and the first prison in the country to have had a riot as a result. I heard this morning there was another confirmed case in my home, so I approached Officer X to ask if this was true.
I don’t like interacting with him because he makes me uneasy. I don’t mean to be judgmental but at some point during my past three and a half years here, he began paying extra attention to me. Whenever I pass him in the halls, he orders me to stop so he can tell me I should wear tighter clothing or to pat me down. Sometimes he says, “Hey, Trouble, come over here and talk to me,” and then he asks me various questions about my day, in an attempt to make idle conversation.
So today when he responded, “I don’t know, and even if I did, I wouldn’t tell you,” his disinterest would have come as a relief if it hadn’t meant that I don’t have the right to information pertaining to my health and wellbeing.
The simplest action a person can take, it would seem, is to tell the truth. It requires no extra effort or creativity. But one consistency, which has been made abundantly clear to my neighbors and me during this pandemic, is that the DOC either will not or cannot operate with transparency, regardless of circumstance.
However, Officer X’s response was also strangely gratifying. It provided insight into the lens through which the DOC views those whose lives have been entrusted to them. It confirmed that the standardized answer “I don’t know” is a tactical lie, constructed to keep information from our ears, and those of our loved ones who might speak up to the media on our behalf.
So for the first time since meeting him, I’m grateful to Officer X because in one sentence, he told me more about whether my life is in danger than the DOC has in the past four months.
The answer: You don’t have the right to know.
Disclaimer: The views in this article are those of the author. The Prison Journalism Project has verified the writer’s identity and basic facts such as the names of institutions mentioned. The work is lightly edited but has not been otherwise fact-checked.