Live Or Die
I had a large student loan to repay in 1985, after I had earned my Master's degree in sociology from Ohio State University, but I found that there were precious few jobs for liberal arts majors, even those focused on demography and statistics. It was a situation of beggars can't be choosers, so I took the only job that I could find, which was employment at a maximum security federal penitentiary. The huge penitentiary had a claustrophobia-inducing enhanced level of security "to prevent prisoners from escaping and from doing harm to other inmates or security guards." During my orientation a hard-bitten prison official singled me out in front of the class, "I think I'll let you find your own way." or some prison-lingo to the effect that he would let me go on my own, which I knew was extremely hazardous in a prison setting. I immediately knew that I would not be there long, but I hoped for a few weeks of pay to enable me to continue on to better employment. I had told my parents that I did not want to work at a prison, but their take on it was, "You have to do what you have to do." I was on my own all the way around.
My job was to help inmates write resumes that would help them find better jobs when they were released. Ironic.
After about a month at the penitentiary I still had no supplies to work with. I was coasting through the days counting the pennies of my pay. The inmates were not allowed access to computers and I did not even have a typewriter. I was used to working at the Ohio State University and I knew how to work within a stiff system of rules and regulations but there seemed to be no process at the penitentiary. There were a few inmates about, now and then, but I had not yet been assigned students.
Late one afternoon I sat on a table in my barren "classroom" as my only chair was buried in my office under heavy furniture piled up to the ceiling, or perhaps it was a storage closet and I had no office. Unclear. A stocky Hispanic inmate with an unusually pleasant demeanor sidled up to me. I had never seen him before, but his demeanor was that of a dog that longs for company and hopes he will not be hurt for being needy. I also saw that he had something to tell me. When he saw that I did not bite, he swung himself up onto the table a few feet away from me, courteously. This was twenty-five years ago but I recall key elements of our fateful conversation. He told me that he wished that he could escape the walls of the penitentiary, his voice was soft and longing. I did not commiserate but I did not harden the conversation by asking him what had put him there. We took a walk out into the yard (no locked doors?), a huge yard between many buildings, cell blocks, shops, industrial kitchen, laundry works, administration, all enclosed by thick, high walls. You could not recognize the inmates' faces at the far end of the vast yard, you could not even see what they were doing. Within the penitentiary I always crushed my fear down within me, tried not to give anything away. It was not easy, because I always felt a low-grade terror there, like a low-grade fever that never stops warning you that there is sickness underneath. The inmate who had involved himself with me increased the pathos, telling me, oh, how he longed even for a tornado to whisk him up and over the high walls, far, far away. He would take his chances, live or die but do it outside of the penitentiary walls. I had to laugh, I too wanted to be outside the penitentiary walls. I know what they say, while you work hard the criminals are sitting around taking it easy, figuring out ways to con you, but I had to laugh. I may even have wished him well. He reciprocated as follows.
The inmate pointed far out across the yard, where large, bulky men were leaving an outdoor weight-lifting station and sauntering our way. The men were two or three blocks away but the confident menace of their approach was unmistakable.
"Do you see him? The big guy, ugly, in the middle. Mean. Evil. See, he has seen you, he sees you. Oh, you've had it now. He's seen you!" There were no guards in the yard, the wall guards were too far away to see, so woman to man I asked him, "What should I do?" He said, "Go and see the priest." I anxiously darted into a couple of buildings before I found the priest, who was pacing with his own anxiety within a shabby chapel-like room. Like the room the priest looked hard-used. He was shocked to see me, a woman in this men's penitentiary, and he was appalled. I asked him about the evil guy in the yard with his gang, and I told the priest that an inmate had warned me about him. The priest immediately turned away from me, throwing his hand down to ward me off, "Get out. Get out right now." He saw my confusion, and said harshly, "Get out of this penitentiary. Now. Right now. And don't ever come back." Then he left the room so abruptly that I did not follow him. Thank God that I had the good sense to do as he commanded. As I made my way directly toward the tunnel to the gates to leave, a troubled Jewish man clutching a holy book and praying fervently trotted past me on his way to somewhere else within the walls. I did not know him but he shouted to me, "Shalom."* It was the last thing that I heard within that penitentiary. Ironic.
At the gate the guards did not want to let me go, "You have to finish your shift." But I was not staying, I quit.
I quit that day, at that very moment. I had not earned enough to tide me over, but at least I lived. Another woman working there was not so fortunate. She died there, and according to the newspaper account they tortured her all afternoon before they killed her. Horrors.
* Shalom. Used as salutation by Jews at meeting or parting, meaning “peace.”
A Tornado To Take Him Away
by Annmarie Throckmorton 2021