“Officer Boothcop” works in the control booth in my living unit here in Washington State’s Monroe Correctional Complex (MCC). This gives him physical separation from the lives he controls with a push of a button. Sound extreme? Consider his interaction with Carl.
Carl has a seven-year-old son named Billy. Not only does the boy’s mother restrict Carl’s access to him, she refuses to pay for overpriced phone calls from prison, and she tells her son daily about how much of a deadbeat Carl is. But on Billy’s birthday, Carl had a chance to talk to him because Billy was at his grandmother’s house having a party. Carl’s mother had given her son a specific time to call, so he could wish him a happy birthday.
Unfortunately, Carl couldn’t make the call. Officer Boothcop refused to press the button to open his door because hadn’t liked the way Carl looked at him the previous week.
Billy probably cried into his pillow. If he had thought his mother had been fibbing about his dad not caring, this might have been the incident to change that. Prisons are filled with Billys who may not have wound up in here had they known their fathers cared.
Is this story true? Officer Boothcop would never know.Then again, maybe he does. Maybe somewhere in the back of his mind, he’s aware that the system for which he works is specifically designed to turn young Billys into Carls in order to assure that jobs remain for booth officers.
People often ask me often if I’m afraid of retaliation for what I write. I’ve made it my mission to expose a toxic mentality within the Department of Corrections (DOC) staff, which I believe causes broken people to leave prison worse off than when they entered. This same mentality contributes greatly to just about everything that’s wrong with American society. I speak up about incidents in which guards have physically assaulted prisoners or engaged in other illegal acts with seeming impunity. I’ve also written stories like Carl’s, all while still in the custody of DOC.
The people I’ve spoken up against quiver at the idea of transparency because so many of their rules run contrary to the U.S. Constitution. Yet they loom over us with guns in a world where every decision is subject to “staff discretion.”
So yes, I’m afraid. Every time I’m published, I wonder if I’ll finally step too close to the hornet’s nest. In 2009, a search of my cell revealed contraband that wasn’t there before the guards entered. During my infraction hearing, it was my word against theirs. That’s how easy it will be to have me locked in segregation, and ultimately sent out of MCC. It will postpone my release date, and like Billy, my children will suffer.
Officer Boothcop has a long grey beard and a handlebar mustache. He’s white, overweight, and would resemble a member of a motorcycle gang if it weren’t for his DOC baseball cap, which he wears with pride. He has taken notice of me since I appeared on a television show, speaking about a guard who assaulted one of my neighbors in the unit. I know this because when the other doors open, mine often remains shut (I used the extra time locked in my cell to write this narrative).
The lieutenant has noticed as well. I was told last week that he was watching me at my job in the prison chapel on the surveillance camera. I’ve been stopped on the breezeway more than ever, and some guards pointedly avoid my eyes.
I’ve never been a coward, and I knew the risks involved before I set out to expose the toxic staff culture and abuses of power. So far the penalty has come in small and bearable ways, but if it’s the small things that reveal a toxicity that enables true danger, then I can only hope the guards in the gun towers don’t eventually take notice as well.
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.