Saturday, June 27, 2015

Inside Cell Block 7

Signs all over said leave your cell phone in the car, so I have no photographic evidence, but we spent our morning at the Cell Block 7 Prison Museum near Jackson, Michigan. It’s a working state correctional facility but they operate a museum in an unused wing. You can visit the prison yard, see the cells and the place where they eat, look at an exhibit of confiscated weapons, everything.

It was especially interesting to talk to a former guard, a retired guy who likes to spend his Saturdays volunteering as a docent.  He says that although the guards were outnumbered about 80 to one, they typically walk through the prison and interact one-on-one with prisoners and after working there a while, the inmates and guards become pretty friendly with one another.  The New York prison escape is in the news, so we asked and he says it can only have been possible if there was widespread corruption among the staff. All the other prisoners must have known the details of the escape while it was being planned. It’s just a thing among prisoners that they all get to know one another, there are no secrets, and there are no snitches.

Yes, homosexual activity is extremely common. Especially if you’re a young, white man, he says, you will certainly be a target, and you may as well just get used to it. In the showers, in the laundry room — the guards just can’t watch everyone all the time. The prisoners repeat over and over that they’re not gay, it's just something they all need to do.

You should have see the clever weapons and other confiscated contraband.  Plenty of sharpened screwdrivers, spoons, scissors, etc, but other things too: one guy even made a working set of walkie-talkies. Some of the prisoners had TV sets in their cells, which apparently is completely okay as long as it was purchased in the prison store.

From the upper level of the museum cell block, you could look out over the entire facility and see current inmates walking to and fro. I think Michigan must be fairly progressive in its policies (they banned capital punishment in 1846) because the prisoners are all kept busy, on everything from making license plates to growing trees. They have one big rule, though: no prisoner can earn money or be assigned a non-cleanup job, unless they pass their GED.

It feels good to be tough on crime, to think it’s okay for prisons to be cruel places where they get what they deserve, but you need to remember that many of these inmates are fundamentally good people who just made a mistake.  I imagine what it must be like to have your own son or brother in jail, and how you’d want the place to be fair to him. Sixty percent of those who are released end up coming back to prison, partly because there are so few things they can legally do on the outside. Many of them study for business degrees, intending to start their own businesses, like landscaping or home repair. Many of them end up in food service, as cooks, waiters, dish washers, etc.

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