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Bending Bars : An article about prison

I wrote this article a couple of years ago but did not seek publication. I have been speaking to my friend, noted under an alias, about her experiences as a woman working in both, federal and state, prisons throughout some years. She has worked in a male and female penitentiary. We agreed that it would be great to record these conversations and I write about them. So, here is the first article. Please leave questions or comments.

“Bending Bars”

by Kimy Martinez

“His skull was opened and I looked.”

“Probably my worst day in prison happened in the dining room where inmates eat. I saw four or five inmates beat to death another inmate with a fire extinguisher. That was my first huge violent scene. Brain matter on the wall; the guy’s head was open. I was seeing all of this firsthand graphic stuff; that was probably the worst I’ve seen. It didn’t make me sick, didn’t make me throw up. Actually, I was able to be detached and calm. I was able to look at the situation. His skull was opened and I looked.”

I have often wondered about how Vivi is able to take on the job she does. Vivi is an Assistant Food Service Administrator for the federal prison system. She has been working in prisons for nineteen years after her service in the Army where she learned how to cook for huge groups of people. Before that she was, and still remains, my best friend from high school. In the pic above we had cut P.E. to spray paint the girl’s bathroom in the gym. She was chillin’ with a cig in mouth, planning our next destruction. We were part of a group called the “Outbackers,” rebellious kids who grew up in foster homes, or were kids of drug dealers, kids of the divorced, kids of domestic violence, kids of bikers, kids of present, former, or future inmates, kids of destruction. Vivi and I took full advantage of the “bad girl” image but because she is working for the government now I’ll use restraint. The important part is, after all the cutting and other “extra curricular” activities, I barely passed and got my diploma but Vivi, well, she remained an honor student throughout it all. She knew how to work the system well.

In prison the laws are different. Vivi tells me, “Inmates have their own prison culture. They do things that pass the time. They gamble but they’re not supposed to. Inside the federal prison, currency is stamps. Say I’m an inmate and my family puts money on my book. (An inmate’s book is like his bank account in prison.) So, I go to the store, the commissary, I buy sodas and cookie snacks. Then I sell those things out of my cell to the guys that are in my unit. A little snack and soda is four stamps. (An inmate is only allowed to use money at the commissary. The collection of stamps can be profitable if you resale items from the commissary to those who only have stamps and no money.)Stamps have a face value. You can look up online and find companies, inmate’s family-friendly companies that you can send stamps to and they pay a certain percentage of the face value of the stamp.” I looked up a non-profit online called “Inside Books Project” which is a resource guide for families of inmates. It directs me to several different sites of my choice. “Bar None” has a prisoner resource list as well. What I find fascinating is that there are several organizations that will sell books, newspapers, articles, and magazines to inmates for cash OR for a number amount of stamps.

“California Lifer Newsletter (CLN)

P.O. BOX 687, Walnut, CA 91788

An informative, editorialized account of correctional, administrative, judicial, political and parole news and events of primary interest to California inmates serving indeterminate prison sentences and their families. $18 or 3 books of postage stamps per year. Minimum 6 issues.”

“Allied Resistance

c/o Kansas Mutual Aid

P.O. Box 442438 Lawrence, KS 66044

Monthly publication of prisoner revolutionaries dedicated to build a movement for a just and sustainable future. $1 or 4 stamp donation suggested. Ask for info about prisoner labor unions.”

“Prisonworld Magazine

P.O. Box 380 Powder Springs, GA 30127

Free Pen Pal ads, VIP memberships with picture on MYSPACE, Trivia contests, resources and more. $15.00 or 40 stamps for one year subscription. Or $3.00 or 9 stamps for single issue.”

According to local “Department of Regulations” an inmate in a state prison is only allowed 20 stamps at a given time. This makes me curious to what Vivi says about gambling, “Let’s say an inmate is a bookie. He runs a sport book. Every once in a while he’ll send out a whole bunch of stamps to his family. They cash them in and keep the money or they put it on his book in prison.” Does this mean if a bookie has more than his legal share of stamps does he hide them and only send out legal portions at a time to his family in exchange for money on his book? This seems like a situation that can lead to paranoia, theft and violence. Vivi says, “If there is a lot of violence that comes from gambling, there will be a crack down on gambling.” I guess, otherwise, it is ignored?

I went to go visit Vivi’s prison a few years ago. It was a high-maximum security prison but Vivi got me a visit. I couldn’t have any recording or photography devices. She set me up with a casual inmate interview. This inmate had been in a gang. I had asked if he killed anyone, and if he did, did he kill for the gang. He had looked away and just shook his head. My best friend left me alone in a closed room with a killer! Vivi doesn’t look up inmates records because she likes to remain unbiased. She reassured me that she did look at his record. Being in a gang and have killed someone is completely different than being a serial killer or any other kind of murderer. I’ve been around attempted murderers who never got caught but I’ve never been around a murderer or several murderers in a building, at least not that I know of. “Some supervisors will get on the computer and look up the inmates background. I personally don’t do that. I can’t do that. Because there are too many times that I’ve seen things that I can’t be unbiased. When I have looked into someone’s background or I have known something about someone it changes the way I deal with that person. In my head, there are crimes that don’t disturb me and there are crimes that are absolutely unacceptable. I don’t care how nice this person (inmate) is or how this person thinks they have rehabilitated themselves, I can’t get pass what they did in their past.”

Vivi gave me an example first of an inmate she saw everyday at work but who didn’t work in her department. “He was a little old man. He would come everyday and he would get his tray and always say ‘Good morning’ or ‘Good afternoon’. He was very polite, always clean, always tidy, very social.” She said she used to enjoy his company. He was pleasant, and seemed like a refreshing breath of intelligence. “When I heard about him, a co-worker said, ‘You know who that is?’ and I said ‘No’. He told me who he was and when I got home I started looking him up online. It was a huge profile case.” Indeed, Jeffrey R. MacDonald was/is a huge profile case. His murders were committed at the time the Manson murders happened and this little old man’s murders’ were like a “copy cat” to the Manson’s. Jeffrey R. MacDonald had gone to Princeton University and completed his internship at Columbia Presbyterian Medical Center. He was a Captain in the Army and a Group Surgeon to the 3rd Special Forces Group for the Green Berets at the time he committed the murders. His wife, Colette, who had been pregnant with her third child and first son, was lying on the floor of her bedroom. She had been repeatedly clubbed (both her arms were broken) and stabbed 37 times (21 times with an ice pick and 16 times with a knife). MacDonald’s torn pajama top was draped upon her chest. On the headboard of the bed, the word "pig" was written in blood. His five-year-old daughter was found in her bed, having been clubbed in the head and stabbed in the neck with a knife between eight and ten times. His two-year-old daughter was found in her own bed; she had been stabbed with a knife 33 times and stabbed with an ice pick 15 times. After reading about him myself, about these absolutely hideous murders he had committed, I understood Vivi’s complete denouncement of this man. Her gut sits in her mouth as she stutters out, “After that, I, I couldn’t speak to him, couldn’t even talk to him.” Did he notice you ignore him? “After a couple of days he did. And he stopped speaking to me.”

I asked Vivi if she had any of these high profile cases work directly for her in the kitchen. “Just recently I had an inmate that was painting a mural in the officer’s dining room. I stopped the mural from being painted. I wanted him out of my area. The reason he’s in prison is because a couple a years ago his girlfriend ended up pregnant. She was Indian. He is Indian. On the reservation he beat her with a rock, he strangled her, he sat on her stomach, punched her in the stomach, kicked her in the stomach and stabbed her in the stomach because she got pregnant. And that for me is one of those things. I can’t. I’m not going to. I have twelve more years left with the bureau and for nineteen years I’ve done it by trying not to know these things; but by chance I end up knowing these things and there’s something that bothers me I can’t have it around me. That kind of evil, that kind of violence… there are people that are just bad, they're evil and awful. I don’t want it around me. I do believe in,” Vivi lets out a long sigh and laughs at her situation, “I work at a prison and I do believe in karma, in energy, negative and positive energy, and auras.”

Those of us who have managed to not loose it, who are fortunate to be outside the bars, are able to build our own communities; but more importantly, we can relocate if we find that we are in the wrong place. It’s not that way in prison. There is no place to go until you get the “shit beat out of you” as Vivi says. “We have log books and take counts of utensils and supplies. We have five counts of the inmates everyday, Monday through Friday and on weekends we have six counts. We count inmates with their names.(These counts are typically an hour and a half long and inmates have to stand up in the same place in a line until count ends.) There is a 10 am count, we have about 60 inmates in our kitchen. They get 12 cents an hour. Ten or fifteen are directly in the kitchen working with dangerous food tools, boiling water, freezers, ovens, 50 gallon tubs. (The knives are chained down on bolts to the floor.) To be quite honest you can kill someone with a sharpened plastic spoon just as easily as with a knife. We are our own town. There are inmates that are violent but the majority are not. When there is an inmate that is identified as violent (or a baby/child rapist) and the majority is not, the majority doesn’t feel safe. So they will find a way to get rid of that violent inmate or have him check into SHU (Special Housing Unit, a jail within the prison)on his own; Or, they will beat the shit out of him.” I try to have Vivi clarify this last statement by asking, “They gang up on the most violent one? They are violent with the most violent one?” She responds without hesitation, “ Yeah, because if I have to live with people I don’t really know——— They (the inmates) sit in the units together, they watch tv together, they go out in the recreational yard together, and they play softball together; I mean, it’s a community. If you have someone in your community that is undesirable, what are you going to do? He checks in (to SHU) so he doesn’t get killed.” Ha, I couldn’t believe what she was telling me. I ask her to say that again? “He (the violent inmate) would check in so he wouldn’t get killed. That’s the first step. They (the inmates) try to get him to check in on his own; SHU becomes protected custody which is called “PC”. And they (the violent inmates) will know to check in because the other inmates will do all kinds of shit to them. You know, there have been rapes just to get the guy to check into SHU. And if he doesn't do it, they keep beating the shit out of him. Then we (the officers) HAVE to transfer him (to SHU) because the inmates are beating the shit out of him.”

Vivi had seen some bad things go down growing up. She had witnessed her own father having violent flashbacks from his Vietnam War days. She had survived brutal situations exploding without warning, as if her own childhood was a long walk in a minefield. Perhaps, these unexpected outbursts prepared her for her future in the system. Although, lately it seems everything is starting to bend those bars. Vivi lowers her voice, “I’ll tell you now, a very strange thing started happening in the past couple of years. If I’m asleep or drifting off to sleep and my husband touches me, my reflexes are to strike. That has caused a lot of problems. I don’t feel like I’m always watching over my shoulder at work but I’m very cognizant of where people are in relation to me. I can see movement out from the corner of my eyes, subtle movements. I can see shoplifters in stores when I’m not even looking for them. When I’m in a crowd, and I don’t go in the mall on the weekend, if I can put my back against a wall I will. I feel the safest with my back against a wall.”

Vivi brings home more than 100 grand a year. She supports her stay-home husband, four children, two dogs, two cats, and her four chickens. She says she takes pride in being the bread winner on some days and on other days she doesn’t know why she does what she does. She takes anti-depressants and is aware that her drinking has increased throughout the years. She did have this to say, “The crazy ones (inmates) are like the mascots. Others look out for them. When Reagan (President Ronald Reagan 1981-1989) closed a lot of the state mental institutions, stopped funding them, the homeless population went up. A lot of these guys are self medicating. A lot of them were committing crimes without them really understanding what they were doing. They end up in prison. We have become a quasi-mental health institution because there is no other place to put them.” I asked if she feared these guys more. “No, absolutely not. I’ll tell you, I would hire a 100 crazy looney people in my kitchen because I don’t fear them. If you give them a t-shirt that says,“Food Service” on it and you give them a job, there is ownership. Give them something to concentrate on, something to focus on . . . I’ve noticed if you give them a focus they are the best friggin’ workers we have! They take pride in what they are doing.” I ask Vivi if they are dangerous at all. She replies no. “They are minimal crazy; like schizophrenic, they hear voices in their head; they aren’t the serial murderers kinda crazy. If you give them a purpose, I swear, it keeps the voices away.” She laughs as if she knows all of these voices personally. “This is the part of my job I like. When you get a group of inmates that have probably been abused in their home or on the street, and you can give them a sense of belonging, and you can see it in their faces that this is where they want to be. They want to be at work. They want to belong with the rest of the people there. This is very satisfying for me.”

Being an outsider, an ”Outbacker” to be exact, a rebel in high school, I know Vivi has a certain understanding and tolerance to most inmates. She gets where most of them come from. I worry that it’s the ones that she can’t relate to. The ones that remind her how horrific humans can be; those are the ones that will end up killing her; they will kill her from the inside out.

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