Man or monster
What I remember experiencing first, after we all went through security, was the silence.
We knew we would be visiting during roll call when all the men were in their cells. That had been explained by our professor, Meredith Doench of the Department of English, in her spring 2019 U.S. Prisons in Literature and Culture class, which focused on non-fiction writing by American authors who had experienced the prison system.
But still the silence startled me as we began our visit to Warren Correctional Institution, a men’s federal prison in Lebanon, Ohio. Movies and TV shows portray prisons as noisy and rambunctious places, so it surprised me that they could be quiet places, too.
Making it worse — as the correction officers took us on a tour of the different cell blocks, the housing units for inmates — I felt the prisoners watching us from inside their cells.
At the same time, there were some things that Orange is the New Black and The Shawshank Redemption got right — like the plastic picnic table-like fixtures in the middle of each block’s community space or the campus-style layout of the prison with various buildings and cellblocks surrounding a large courtyard.
The correctional officers were brutally realistic about what to expect while touring the prison. There was no sugar-coating here. None of them held back about what the women touring should expect or about all the kinds of guys they had to deal with over the years.
And they were right.
While we were crossing the courtyard between blocks, inmates were yelling out the windows at us, especially at us women. I wasn’t exactly upset, but now I thought, “Wow, this is real; I’m here at a prison and the prisoners are really yelling at me.”
Before I had any time to process my feelings about this harassment, we moved on to another building. There we talked with Nancy, one of the prison’s psychiatrists. She was a fascinating woman who had this positive energy and was passionate about what she did.
Her mentality in treating the inmates was just so much different from what much of the rest of society thinks. She knew how their minds worked and the degree to which much of their criminal behavior was based on survival and mental illness, not pure evil.
She told us a story about a man who had been accused of sexually assaulting his niece. After being tried, convicted and imprisoned, he was abandoned by his family. During the Christmas holiday season, he called members of his family. Nobody returned his calls.
Earlier this year, he committed suicide.
I found myself thinking about the crime for which this man had been imprisoned. I knew that imprisonment was for such a crime highly deserved. I also thought of his isolation, of his being cut off from humanity.
For the last part of the tour, we were herded into a meeting room where one of the correctional officers showed us contraband as well as weapons that inmates had created and used over the years. Items included razorblades tied to improvised handles with string, clothing made from the inmate’s mattress material, and a Bible with white supremacist teachings hidden between the lines.
Then the officers brought in two inmates for us to interview. Both men were on the honor block, a cellblock for inmates who generally have good behavior and take advantage of the prison’s various resources and programs.
They answered all of our questions. They told us visiting hours lasted two and a half hours and that they are allowed to hug. They told us they are allowed access to the commissary every two weeks. And, yes, they told us the prison food is absolutely awful.
After a conversation that lasted about an hour, the men were led back out. I remember being overburdened with information and emotions. They seemed a lot more honest and genuine about their experiences than I had thought they would be. I remember thinking, “They seem almost like normal guys.”
The correctional officers noticed our reactions. In their closing remarks to us before we got ready to leave for the day, they shook their heads and smiled vaguely at us, warning us that while the men we spoke to were on an honor block and seemed like normal men, this was prison. There was no telling what they, to survive on the inside, might do or lies they might tell.
Rucoba, who majored in English with a concentration in creative writing, wrote for both UD Magazine and Flyer News. She is doing a year of service with Amate House in Chicago.