JUST THINKING: Going to prison

Just Thinking | Julie Stafford

I went to prison last week.

For a day.

Well, actually only a couple hours. But I saw enough to know I don’t ever want to go back — at least not wearing the scrub-like uniform of an inmate.

I went to prison as part of a tour with a group called Leadership Montcalm. We meet once a month until May and focus each session on learning about a different aspect of the county.

Last week’s class happened to start at the Montcalm County Sheriff’s Office so we could learn about what the sheriff, district attorney, communications and emergency services departments do — things like their day-to-day operations, challenges, goals. We got to talk to our district, circuit and probate judges and I learned I could never do their jobs because I sometimes — well, lots of the time — have a hard time checking my work and emotions at the door, particularly when kids and the underdog are involved.

We also toured the Montcalm County Jail, which is an impressive operation — very structured, strict and clean. But it’s not a place you’d like to spend time on the other side of the glass. Especially if you’re like me and claustrophobic, thrive on daylight and easily spooked. Life is regimented there. You eat at a certain time. Have quiet time at a certain time. Are counted at a certain time. And everything prisoners get — be it sheets, clothing, towels — is numbered. Apparently there’s a tendency to flush these things down the toilet. Numbering them helps guide guards back to the culprit. Pretty smart, if you ask me.

In the afternoon, we were bused to the Carson City Correctional Facility, a cluster of buildings surrounded by chain-link fences topped with a tangle of coiled barbed wire all the way around. First impressions can be deceiving. It looks to be a fairly peaceful setting on a picturesque piece of land on the outskirts of Carson City. Quiet at first.

The grounds were well maintained, lots of open, grassy spaces, basketball courts, wide sidewalks. There’s a building with a small workout room, a gymnasium where basketball and volleyball games are played, classrooms, a library, a commercial kitchen. All designed to teach the men who are prisoners here life skills and provide them an outlet for recreation. A city within a city, of sorts. At least here, I thought, I could breathe.

But then the reality hits. At this facility, everybody is doing time. Some of them will spend the rest of their lives here. Behind chain-link fences and barbed wire. Most of these men — except those who cannot be among the others — work. They shovel and clean and cook and sew. This prison is where all the pajamas and long underwear for the state of Michigan correctional facilities are made. Men — those who have earned a certain level of trust and show promise — sitting at rows and rows of sewing machines.

The authorities here know the game. Many of them have been here a long time and have seen it all. Attempts at making weapons. Violence among prisoners. Even threats against their own well-being. Trust is not something you bring with you to your job at the Carson City Correctional Facility. And I’m sure the inmates here have no idea how good they have it.

I went to prison last week.

And I was impressed with what I saw. But sure was glad to get back on the bus to go back to my car and drive home to my house and family and freedom.

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