I recently spoke with a staff member at California’s Mule Creek State Prison, where I reside. This staff member described the medical technician posted at the prison’s front gate to take the temperature of arriving employees, a COVID-19 precaution.
She has “an incredibly infectious, sunny attitude that brightens your day,” said the staff member. “Sometimes, coming to work these days, when I’m barely hanging on, it really helps.”
This comment struck me. In an instant, I realized that it’s not just the inmates who are barely hanging on. It’s all of us. In a moment of shared vulnerability, I realized that the things that connect us are far greater than those which separate us.
I admit, I hadn’t previously considered what a correctional officer (CO) or prison staff member might be dealing with on a daily basis. As prisoners, we face a nearly constant struggle to lead a meaningful existence and to manage the stressors of incarceration. I had imagined that the mournful daily drudge belonged solely to the incarcerated, deemed “lesser” and deserving of our every deprivation, our ever-gloomy sunrise. I had imagined that people who could leave these concrete tombs behind at the end of each day were going home to a glorified existence.
All the years of confinement had distorted my perception. I had forgotten that free people are weathering the storms of life just like incarcerated people.
In Brené Brown’s landmark book “Daring Greatly,” she wrote that “connection is why we’re here” and “shame is the fear of disconnection.” Brown emphasized the need to bring shame and fear out of the shadows where they thrive and into the light where they can be healed. And with so much happening in the world — hurricanes, wildfires, famine, wars, oppression, racial strife, social unrest, a worldwide pandemic claiming millions of lives — it was an opportune time to seek connection.
As a prisoner-journalist at Mule Creek, that is what I work to do. In an interview with a member of the prison medical staff, we discussed the complexity of our current moment, including the social upheaval after George Floyd’s murder and the heightened awareness of the Black Lives Matter movement. She explained that as a person of biracial heritage, she has to deal with racism from both sides. Additionally, she has to navigate the prison custodial paradigm that insists upon a clear line between staff and inmates, with its own set of complexities.
She said that being raised by a Black mother and experiencing racism from a young age had given her strength of character to face our world of uncertainty. But, it had also made her guarded.
“I find myself paying close attention to my surroundings and taking notice of who is in the room,” she said. “I listen to what people say and determine where they are coming from by how they act and what they do. You can’t always tell how a person really feels from what they say. It’s what they do that counts.”
I commented on how calm she always appeared, and how she exhibited great patience in dealing with so many inmates with so many needs and complaints. She admitted the stress gets to her.
“It builds up, and when I let it out it isn’t pretty,” she said.
Isn’t that true for all of us?
In another interview, a CO in my housing unit suggested that inmates often don’t consider what officers might be going through or how it might affect them on the job. The officer presented the example of an inmate who had come at him in a belligerent manner.
“That was completely out of line,” he said. “I could have reacted in a way that easily could have escalated the situation.”
He confided that, at the time, he and his coworkers were dealing with the recent suicide of a fellow officer. It took incredible self-control to approach the situation with a professional, measured response.
Following George Floyd’s murder, I asked another CO about his experience as a person of color working in a prison setting where racial minorities are disproportionately represented. He expressed his belief that the topic needs an honest airing, but he appeared reluctant to actually share his thoughts about racial turmoil with a prisoner-journalist.
There is a line, after all, between staff and inmates that is rarely crossed.
Even though this officer avoided answering my questions directly, he said he appreciated that someone had asked. And in that moment I felt our shared humanity.
We just never know what another individual might be going through. For all we know, at this very moment, they might be barely hanging on. At the very least, we can ask.
Disclaimer: The views in this article are those of the author. Prison Journalism Project has verified the writer’s identity and basic facts such as the names of institutions mentioned.