Tuesday, November 04, 2008

Behind the Walls: Surprises in a Maximum Security Prison

It is New England's largest maximum security prison measured by its inmate population of 2,101 as of July 1. I am about to spend 23 hours there locked up with a couple of dozen convicted criminals.

All the inmates are men. All have been convicted of serious crimes, including murder. Most are serving long sentences. Some have been in prison for as long as 40 years. Some will never get out.

In this prison this past spring, an inmate beat another inmate to death. The murdered inmate had been sentenced for his involvement in a car chase leading to an accident that caused the deaths of four people. A relative of one of the victims happened to be in the prison -- and he took deadly revenge.
Why do this?

First, a couple of months before, my friend Ray told me about his volunteer work with the Alternatives to Violence Project. Associated with the Quakers, AVP conducts workshops in prisons and other institutions on understanding and controlling violent impulses.

Ray is a retired accountant and former manufacturing business comptroller who has been conducting AVP workshops in prisons for 12 years. He has also been an AVP volunteer in several nations in Africa.

He is deeply committed to AVP, which has been highly successful in teaching convicts and others how to control impulses to violence. Ray feels he is making an important contribution. His AVP work also gives him great personal satisfaction. And when he said that I might be able to take part in the program, I was intrigued.

I agreed to give it a shot and filled out a form that seeks to uncover any criminal past or unsavory associations. Felons need not apply. “Good news," Ray said when he called later. “They couldn't find anything on you. You're approved.”

Second, I have been thinking a lot about what seems to me to be an epidemic of violence. Shooting and stabbings have become almost commonplace. They are no longer confined to “bad” parts of town.

They happen where we live. Shown here is a typical frequent news story about a killing where I live. Indeed, everyday violence has become almost normal, and – grotesquely – even celebrated. See the previous post.

A few weeks ago, within walking distance of where I live, a 19-year-old Becker College student was stabbed to death after an argument at a Saturday night party. He was a freshman with his whole life ahead of him. He died of a single knife thrust to the heart.

The killer was among a group of young men who arrived at the party uninvited and, according to the police, looking for trouble. In all likelihood, the police will find him and he'll end up doing time in a maximum security prison such as they one I will enter.

Third, there is something else about American violence that is rarely spoken of: It is overwhelmingly male. Generally speaking, husbands beat wives, not the other way around. Men, not women, are warlike. Men get into fights in bar parking lots, not women. Men carry knives, not women. If you're walking alone at night and you see a woman, no need to worry. But if you see a man, you are well advised to walk faster and watch your back.

Of course, not all men are violent. If you see my friend Ray walking on the street at night, not to worry. He wouldn't harm a fly. Or if it happens to be me, no sweat. Although I got into fistfights as a kid, boxed Saturday nights at the old Los Angeles Arena before a crowd looking for blood and usually getting it, and took pride crunching ice-hockey opponents into the boards, today I'm as nonviolent as Mother Theresa.

My wife doesn't worry about me smacking her one. Call me a girlie guy, I don't care. Violence has nothing to do with manliness. This was a chance to talk with men whose past would seem to suggest a different attitude toward violence.

They are men who have killed, men imprisoned for punishment but also because they are deemed dangers to society. How did they get that way? Born violent? Taught to be? Forced to be? Can they change? Do they want to? Or would they just as soon gut an intruding stranger?

Fourth, we all have views and attitudes toward men locked up for murder and other crimes of violence. A common attitude: They're animals. They deserve it. Look what they did; let them suffer. Life in prison is too good for them. Good riddance.

I have my share of negative attitudes about the kind of people these convicted inmates must be. How would my own preconceptions stand up to the reality of looking into the eyes of, and listening to, and getting to know a bunch of convicted inmates?

This will be no run-in and run-out thing. We will be locked together in a room for a total of 23 hours over the weekend. With everything that must be done in running a life, many of us feel lucky to get twenty minutes alone with family members and best friends. Our doctor gives us 14 minutes. A whole undistracted hour with anybody today is a rarity.

Now think 23 hours.

While you mull that, also think -- ready for this?-- laughter. Yes, you read right. I'm asking you to keep your sense of humor at ready. I never dreamed that I'd find anything to laugh about inside a maximum security prison, but I did.

It is one of many surprises.

The full story is now an E-book, "Killers: Surprises Inside a Maximum Security Prison,"  on Amazon.com at a special discounted price.  Click here.


Surprises Inside a

Maximum Security Prison


The author “escapes” to tell the story.

George Pollock

E-Books By George Pollock

"Last Laughs," the true story of how five siblings found their way in life and each other; "I, Cadaver", about the author’s planned postmortem mischief in the anatomy lab at UMass Medical School;  "Unlove Story," true account of a dumped husband's marriage, family, love, and life; "Killers: Surprises Inside a Maximum Security Prison;"about the author’s 24 hours locked up with murderers serving long years to life; “State Kid: Hero of Literacy,”  a novel about how the written word gets  a foster kid out of juvenile prison and, from there, the sky’s the limit!; and “A Beautiful Story,” novel about a 16-year-old foster kid who, with the help of his old grammar school English teacher, writes a beautiful story that literally saves his life.

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At November 26, 2008 7:43 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Congratulations! The "Behind the Walls" article gave me a bird's eye view of the prison life and your well penned persuasive composition should be mandatory reading for all first time offenders.

At December 22, 2008 6:36 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Very moving. Thank you for writing about this. The Alternatives to Violence Program (AVP) sounds like something that works.

At January 07, 2009 8:55 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Good George, Powerful stuff. I felt I was there with you. I won't forget those men or that closed world you have carried us to--for one brief visit. Thank you. A.


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