Residuals From a Life in Jail

During my many years of being a counselor in a jail I had very firm boundaries. I was well aware of the manipulation and games inmates will play to get what they want. My professional training taught me to maintain solid boundaries. Boundaries are important for counselors for many reasons, for the safety of both the client and the counselor. I never once crossed the line or even considered doing anything inappropriate. Inappropriate in jail could be something as simple as giving someone a piece of candy or throwing away a pen in the regular trash. When working in a jail, you have to be aware of absolutely everything you do. I almost never emotionally took my work home with me. Almost never.

I spent nine years building bonds with people society hates. But I saw the other side of these people. I learned about their lives. About how they lived on someone’s porch. About how they were beaten and raped as a child. About them living in a car. About their father selling them to someone for an hour. About the crimes they committed. I heard many a story about burying bodies, beating someone to death with a hammer, teeth stuck in sheet rock, bodies being cut up.

A big part of my job was to evaluate the inmates for safety, determining what possessions they could have. I had a rule for myself, a rule that was born from the experience of a sleepless night. If I was going to go home and worry about a decision I made, then I knew it wasn’t the right decision. This mostly involved potentially suicidal and/or behaviorally challenged inmates. For example, if an inmate was angry and acting up during the day, threatening suicide out of anger, and I was worried it would continue throughout the night after I went home, even if he insisted to me he wasn’t suicidal, I’d keep him on suicide precautions until I could see him the next day to reassess the situation. The reasoning behind that was that once I clocked out and heard the doors lock behind me, I never knew which officer would be in that housing unit and may aggravate the inmate, who then may attempt to hang himself, out of anger, with the sheets I would have been responsible for giving him. Inmates are not afraid to go to extremes out of anger or to make a point. They are completely fearless. Many officers find entertainment in instigating trouble from the inmates.  I was also very careful with inmates who received a life sentence. Typically they would come back from court at the end of the day having just learned of their sentence a few minutes prior to my time to leave for the day. I tried to always put them on suicide watch regardless of how they said they felt about the sentence. My reasoning was that they had not had time to process the sentence and in five or six hours when I was at home in bed and they were in a cold room on a flat, hard mat, it might sink in with them that they would never experience freedom again. Often the administration didn’t agree with my suicide precaution decision, especially if the inmate was saying they were fine, but once again, I knew I would go home and worry about it if I didn’t put them on precautions, so I almost always did. Whether the jail followed through with what I recommended was on them. If they didn’t, at least I did my part.

Four inmates in particular impacted my life in a big way over the nine years I was in jail. The last one just this past week. During those nine years, I had many inmates leave jail and commit suicide. I had inmates die in a makeshift home in a storage unit, overdose on the drugs they hadn’t had in several months, hang themselves. Yes, that always affected me but never to a degree that I couldn’t put it behind me and move on. There are currently four inmates that will never forget, for particular reasons.

The first young man who impacted me more than others was in his early twenties. I think of him often even though I last saw him about nine years ago. He was serving two life sentences in prison for murder. He then killed his prison cellmate. When an inmate is in prison and then has to go to court for another crime, they come back to jail to be housed during the trial. If they receive a sentence of life in prison, they come back to jail after court and are transported to prison early the next morning. If they receive the death penalty, we don’t see them again. They are transported straight to death row from court. This young man who I’ll call Matt (not his real name) came to us afraid and ready to fight. He was paranoid and angry. I think he was prepared for taunting, teasing, and harassment. He got plenty of it. He was prescribed mental health medication but who knows if he was really mentally ill or if his paranoia was a result of living in a constant, but necessary, state of hypervigilance or if he would have been mentally ill in different life circumstances. As he stayed with us, he was a behavior problem, threatening others, accusing the jail of trying to poison him, etc. Over time, I was able to gain his trust and get him to talk to me, calm down (if only with me) and believe I wasn’t there to hurt him. He would often ask for me when upset. I knew he was dangerous and always would be. I knew he could never be in society. However he was still a person and deserved to be treated as such. I think I was the only one who attempted to do that. We had a bond that meant a lot to me. It meant I made a difference in someone’s life. Someone the world had given up on.

The day Matt was to go to his last day of his trial I happened to bump into him in the hallway as he waited to be transported to the courthouse.  He stopped me and thanked me. He thanked me for treating him well. He told me that during various testimonies in court, great things had been said about me. Matt had an expert witness testifying on his behalf in an effort to help him avoid the death penalty. Marti Tamm Loring had spent many hours with him learning about his horrible childhood and sharing his story with the jury. She met with me also and thanked me for my work with him, as he had told her about me and that I was the one person he could trust. He told me he appreciated me and wanted me to know that.  That was a huge thing for someone like Matt to do and say. I thought about him all that day while he awaited his fate in the courtroom. At the end of the day the news came that he had received the death penalty. The detention officers cheered. I was heartbroken for him. I went to my boss to talk with her and I couldn’t believe the words that came out of her mouth. She said, “Good. I guess he got what he deserved.” I hold great disappointment in her to this day. Counselors are taught to be compassionate and unbiased regardless of who the person is or what they have done. A good supervisor, especially a counselor,  would have talked with me about it and kept her biases to herself.

Matt requested a speedy execution and was put to death by lethal injection within the year. I still think about him. I’m sad for the way his short life turned out. I wonder if under different circumstances he would have been a different person. I will never forget him. He taught me a lot.

The second inmate who touched my heart was a young boy. I’ll call him Justin, also not his real name. Justin came to adult jail just two weeks after turning 17. Emotionally he was about 13. He had murdered his mother. He was scared and immediately asked to make a phone call to his friend Mark. Mark turned out to be his pastor. Justin was on the autism spectrum and clearly emotionally and socially delayed. He had no skills to deal with anything and had been raised by very odd parents by most people’s standards. I met his dad twice and that was two times too many for me. Justin used to ask me, with tears streaming down his face, if he would ever see a tree again. It would break my heart. I helped him adjust to jail and when I could see he was doing well with the structure provided, I had to back off and let him fly on his own. I felt he was looking at me as a parental figure, as he had no other, and I knew that would do him more harm than good.

Justin was sentenced to many years in prison. When he gets out he will be a middle aged man. He has never driven a car. He didn’t finish high school. Never used drugs, been on a date, or had many friends. In jail he had his first Snicker bar. He described it as “amazing.” He also got his first tattoo and probably his first drug. He has no family to speak of. They have all abandoned him, however that happened long before his crime. He was just a boy who needed help. He told me he used to beg his mom to take him for help but she didn’t want him “labeled.” Had he gotten that help he so desperately needed she would probably still be here. I worry all the time about what prison will turn him into. Such a waste. Such a preventable circumstance. I learned a lot from him as well.

The third inmate was early on in my jail career. He was young. He’d been involved in various “systems” his entire life, being taken from his mother and put in foster care at an early age. By the time he was a teenager he no longer knew where his family was, stayed in trouble, had been in too many foster homes to count and was diagnosed in jail as schizophrenic by a psychiatrist who didn’t take the time to see he was just saying he heard voices to “fit in”, get pills, and try to fit in. He was barely out of his teens when I met him. He was often depressed, acted out, and didn’t feel like he belonged anywhere. He knew that when he last saw his mother she had AIDS. He knew his father was in prison most of the time. And he knew his older brother’s first name. He was from another city so I started out by calling the Department of Social Services in that city. I finally found an employee who remembered the family and remembered one of his foster parents. She contacted that foster mother who knew the family, and then contacted me and we were able to connect him to his family. His aunt was the one I was connected with. She was ecstatic to find out where he was as they had been looking for him for years. I was so excited to tell him I’d found his family. I allowed him to call his aunt and talk to her. I cried. He cried. His aunt picked him up when he was released and told him they had a family reunion planned. Unfortunately in several more episodes of being locked up over the years, I found out his mother had died and he continued to suffer with depression and behavior problems. He has spent most of his life in prison and has attempted suicide many times. He admits he never had hallucinations or heard voices but just wanted to fit in somewhere so he did what everyone else did and played the game, the “jailhouse rock” as one of my favorite ladies calls it.

The third inmate who has touched my heart is surprising to me. She was in and out of jail quite a few times. I’ll call her Jessica. Jessica was immature, looked and acted much younger than her mid twenties. She had a drug problem, but once she came to jail and got clean she was always smiling and funny. I never saw her angry and I never saw her get into trouble. She was always happy, joking, did what she was asked and was overall cooperative and pleasant. I didn’t have any special bond with her in jail, no more than I did with the other inmates. She participated in my substance abuse program and bloomed like a flower, like most of them do. I saw her once after I left the jail as she came into my new place of employment, not as a client but with a friend. She was happy to see me, all smiles, gave me a big hug, and told me she was doing well.

Jessica was on the news this week. When I saw her face, my heart sank. She allegedly beat a man to death. She was on the run for a few days but has now been arrested and sits in jail waiting to probably spend the rest of her life in prison. I’m not sure why this one hit me so hard. Maybe because I’ve seen the good side of her. Maybe because I can’t even imagine her doing what she is charged with. Maybe it’s sad to see what drugs turn people into. Jessica taught me a lot too. I always say I learn more from my clients than they do from me. The ones that never leave my heart keep those lessons alive.


2 thoughts on “Residuals From a Life in Jail

  1. I loved your post. It helped me realize that the work I do at my present employment is not done in vain. It’s nice to know there are people out their that feel the same way I do about people. It doesn’t matter there present or past situations treat everyone with dignity and respect.


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