Factory Prisons and the Creation of the Sociopath Society, Pt. III

By: Karla Fetrow

On the Inside Looking Out

Highland is the Hilton of Alaskan correctional facilities.  Of this I have no doubt.  The grounds are wide, the buildings scattered with pleasant, inter-connecting walk-ways.  Beside the pleasant cafeteria, it has a modest library with admittedly very few classics, and a despairingly small sci-fi collection for an avid science fiction reader, but it does have nearly every paperback best-seller a mainstream reader likes to collect.  The newspaper section was abominable.  Most of the newspapers were at least two weeks old and often had articles cut away from the selection, and magazines were apparently out of the question.

It has a wonderful music room.  This, I suspect, was due to the enormous efforts of a woman named Natalie Brooks, who spent the last thirty years of her life voluntarily giving music lessons to the inmates.  There is a wooden placard with her photo commemorating her selfless devotion, and whenever I’d pass it I’d kiss two fingers and touch it, as though paying homage to a shrine.  Natalie had been my music teacher when I was growing up and I can’t think of a kinder, gentler soul.  Her influence could still be felt in this minimum security prison.

It has an uninteresting gym.  The only equipment in it was a sagging net for volleyball; no basketball hoops, no tumbling mats, no rubber balls, rings, balance beam or wooden horse for gymnastics.  There were nearly always two long tables where you could buy hot coffee if you had money on the books, and an assortment of colored paper and drawings you could put together to make cards.  Since the rules were, you could not stand in one spot to talk while in the gym, the girls mainly walked around it in circles if they wanted to converse with a friend from one of the other houses.

It has an incredible crafts room, with looms, bolts of cloth, sewing machines, beads, buttons, thread, quilting frames.  Some of the Native work that came out of it was absolutely gorgeous, but I couldn’t help but wonder if the crafts woman received the price her work deserved.  These crafts women were long-term residents, slipped in and out quietly, so I never learned the mysterious ticket for being part of their crowd.

It has greenhouses with wonderful plants inside, flower beds nestled comfortably in long, wooden boxes, pleasant gazebos, and even playground equipment for the visiting children of long term inmates.

It has dogs of all shapes and sizes.  Inmates took care of these dogs, running or walking them through the yards on leashes, teaching them to heel, to sit, to come, to socialize with other dogs and be polite to strangers.  When the dogs were trained, having completed their sentences, they were put up for adoption to the outside world.

One of the houses even had a pool table.  None of these activities were allowed for people who were going to be there a few weeks, or even a few months.  You had to work your way up to them, and that work took at least a year.  If they only allowed Internet use, I felt I would have been ambitious enough to stay.

I found out quickly enough the pod I was in was considered “the hole”.  The only girls who stayed there were either those waiting to get out on bail, were not expected to be kept long, or who were regimented back as punishment.

The rules were strictest in the first house.  We had “count” four times a day at set hours.  We had to be in our house by then and answer roll call.  We were restricted in where we could go.  We could not visit the other houses, we had limited access to the yard, and could not watch the Saturday night movies on the big screen.  We were locked in our houses by 5:30 in the evening until 6:30 in the morning.  The other houses didn’t lock up until 9:30 p.m., and had much more freedom to roam.

When a girl got busted back to the hole, she did everything she could to be pleasant and entertaining so she could work her way out again.  Laughter was free, and laughter was abundant.  One girl who had been busted back delighted in telling us how she got there.  She said she had gotten tired of being strip searched.  When the guard asked her to spread her cheeks and cough, she farted.  Hiking one leg up on a chair, she grabbed her butt with both hands and demonstrated.  Fortunately, even the guards found her escapade humorous and in a few short days, her advanced house privileges were reinstated.

The guards were liberal with their own jokes.  After one of the girls asked if she could borrow some white-out, he came back a few hours later and told her it was time for her to scrape the white-out off her page as she had only borrowed it.

One charmed me the first day he appeared.  With his bushy eyebrows and twinkling eyes, he looked just like a leprechaun.  He opened the door to our house, stuck his head inside and asked, “got pot?”

After he left, the veteran girls whispered to me, “don’t let him fool you.  We call him the cutter.”

“Why do you call him the cutter?”  I asked.

“Because his handcuffs are especially sharp.  If he uses them on you, your wrists will turn all black and blue.”

Now I was scared, and shrank away from him when he came in for count.  Finally one of the girls said, “McCarthy, show Karla your handcuffs.”  They had been especially made, alright.  The edges were the smooth and wide.  The clips were limited so they could not squeeze down on tiny, delicate wrists.  The “cutter” had taken the extra step to make sure he had the most humane handcuffs around.

However, this is not to say vacationland was completely perfect.  Contact with the outside world was practically impossible.  Although we were allowed two fifteen minute phone calls a day, we often spent the first ten minutes trying to connect, with the operator telling us each time, “I’m sorry.  All the lines are busy,” so that often times, the call only lasted five minutes.  Nor could the person answering on the other line switch the phone to the person you wanted to talk with.  If you were dialing your sister and her boyfriend answered, then handed it to the person you wanted to speak with, you were immediately cut off, with the operator announcing, “I’m sorry.  We do not accept third party calls.”

In order to receive visitors, the inmate had to fill out a request form to gain approval.  The request form wanted you to not only state the name of the person, but the street address, social security number, state identification and relationship to you.  The visitor had a two hour wait for a fifteen minute visit.

Over half the girls who came in sported new bruises around the wrists and forearms.  Some were bruised on the neck, upper arms, ribs and legs.  Some were bandaged and told they had sprains, but were never x-rayed to see if there was a break.

It’s the general opinion that if you’re in prison, you’ll receive free medical and dental care.  This isn’t completely true.  If you have two or three hundred dollars in your books, you can buy a new set of teeth or use it for commissary items.  The commissary offers a wide variety of products; refreshments, chips, cookies, microwave popcorn, coffee, cosmetics, stationary and pens, all at Walmart prices.  If you don’t have money on the books, the only way you’ll get these privileges is to work for thirty-five cents an hour.

If you’re in the hole, you can get a job mopping floors, doing laundry or working in the kitchen, but you don’t get one of the cushy jobs like dog training or working in the green houses the girls in the other houses are offered.  Still, when a job comes open, the girls line up like shopping day at the mall for it?  Is it to get their teeth fixed?  For commissary privileges?  No.  It’s for a four hour nightly pop of meds.

The meds are apparently so good, there are professional jail hoppers who come in and out on a regular basis for a thee day crash on meds.  They are called blue jackets because they always get busted for misdemeanors. Crazy Kelley was one of them. I had known Crazy Kelley for quite a few years, but I had not known she was a jail hopper, only as someone who routinely got into trouble.  The first time I saw her on the inside, she was in a separate house, but part of the same pod.  When I asked her what she was doing there, she told me she had gone to her ex-boyfriend’s house and burned some clothes she had given him.  He called the police and they busted her for destruction of property.

Her stay lasted three days, then she was out.  About a week later, she was not only back, she was sharing my room.  This was a little discomforting because Crazy Kelley was…well, crazy.  The first thing she did was demand her phone call, which disconcerted the house mouse.  The house mouse is the one who oversee’s and keeps order in the house; sort of the mama.  The house mouse was very unhappy because Kelley’s demand meant someone else would lose their phone call for the evening.  She finally sacrificed her own, but was very unhappy about it.  “The bitch,” she said, throwing herself in a chair.  “She can have her damned phone call, but I’m not doing her anymore favors”.

I sat next to her.  “I know that girl,” I told her.  “We call her Crazy Kelley for a reason.”

Her eyes lit up.  “Hey girls, did you hear that?  She’s Crazy Kelley and she’s called that for a reason.”

I was mortified.  I was afraid of what they would say when Kelley returned.  Sure enough, as soon as Kelley walked through the door, the house mouse exclaimed, “Hey Kelley, do you know what Karla said about you?”  She looked at me a moment while I cringed.  “She says she loves you!”

“Well, I love her too,” said Kelley complacently.  She had just made her phone call and had gotten her meds and went to her room to pop them.

I did love her enough to be concerned about her.  When they had brought her in this time, one of her hands was swollen and so bruised, it was turning black.  “What happened,” I asked.  “You just got out.”  She gave me an incoherent story; something to do with having called an ambulance because she was suffering a heart attack.  Instead of the ambulance coming, the police had showed up and stepped on her hand.

“I think you have two broken fingers.  When you get out, I want you to have them photographed and file a complaint against the police.”

“Uh huh,” she said, yawned, and went to sleep.  Three days later, she bailed out, although it’s doubtful she made her complaint.  As she was leaving, we all shouted, “remember, this isn’t a hotel!”  She nodded and waved cheerfully.

To Be Contd.

About karlsie

Some great perversity of nature decided to give me a tune completely out of keeping with the general symphony; possibly from the moment of conception. I learned to read and speak almost simultaneously. The blurred and muffled world I heard through my first five years of random nerve loss deafness suddenly came alive with the clarity of how those words sounded on paper. I had been liberated for communications. I decided there was nothing more wonderful than writing. It was easier to write than carefully modulate my speech for correct pronunciation, and it was easier to read than patiently follow the movements of people’s lips to learn what they were saying. It was during that dawning time period, while I slowly made the connection that there weren’t that many other people who heard the way I did, halfway between sound and music, half in deafness, that I began to understand that the tune I was following wasn’t quite the same as that of my classmates. I was just a little different. General education taught me not only was I just a little isolated from my classmates, my home was just a little isolated from the outside world. I was born in Alaska, making me part of one of the smallest, quietest minorities on earth. I decided I could live with this. What I couldn’t live with was discovering a few years later, in the opening up of the pipeline, which coincided with my first year of junior college, that there were entire communities of people; more than I could possibly imagine; living impossibly one on top of another in vast cities. It wasn’t even the magnitude of this vision that inspired me so much as the visitors who came from these populous regions and seemed to possess a knowledge so great and secretive I could never learn it in any book. I became at once, very conscious of how rural I was and how little I knew beyond the scope of my environment. I decided it was time to travel. The rest is history; or at least, the content of my stories. I traveled... often to college campuses, dropping in and out of school until one fine day by chance I’d fashioned a bachelor of arts degree in psychology. I’ve worked a couple of newspapers, had a few poems and stories tossed around in various small presses, never receiving a great deal of money, which I’m assured is the norm for a writer. I spent ten years in Mexico, watching the peso crash. There is some obscure reason why I did this, tightening up my belt and facing hunger, but I believe at the time I said it was for love. Here I am, back home, in my beloved Alaska. I’ve learned somewhat of a worldly viewpoint; at least I like to flatter myself that way. I’ve also learned my rural roots aren’t so bad after all. I work in a small, country store. Every day I greet the same group of local customers, but make no mistake. My store isn’t a scene out of Andy Griffith. The people who enter the establishment, which also includes showers, laundry and movie rentals, are miners, oil workers, truck drivers, construction engineers, dog sled racers and carpenters. Sometimes, on the liquor side, the conversations became adult only in vocabulary. It’s a good thing, on the opposite side of the store is a candy aisle filled with the most astonishing collection, it will keep a kid occupied with just wishing for hours. If you tell your kids they can have just one, you have an instant baby sitter; better than television; as they agonize over their choice while you catch up on the gossip with your neighbor. We also receive a lot of tourists, a lot of foreign visitors. They are usually amazed at this first sign of Alaskan rural life style beyond the insulating hub of the Anchorage bowl. Many of them like to hang around and chat. They gawk at our thieves wanted posters. They laugh at our jokes and camaraderie with our customers. I’ve learned another lesson while working there. You don’t have to go out and find the world. If you wait long enough, it comes to you.

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6 Comments on “Factory Prisons and the Creation of the Sociopath Society, Pt. III”

  1. I’ve heard of the institutionals before – while the reasons tend to vary, certain people become so accustomed to life behind bars that they can no longer function outside the prison: these people will purposefully get themselves arrested so that they can go back to what’s familiar to them (i.e. life in a cage). Personally, I suspect it’s a form of Stockholm syndrome: the former inmate becomes totally dependent upon the institution that represses him and forgets how to live without it…

  2. Crazy Kelley sounds more like an informant to me, than a person with Stockholm Syndrome. Her sense of entitlement tells me she knows she has certain law enforcement types watching out for her; not a sense of fear that most Stockholm Syndrome people demonstrate.

    My husband had Stockholm Syndrome after being held in CCA for three years in isolation. He had no inclination to ever go back. That’s not part of the symptoms.

    The symptoms range more along the lines of pulling away from the people who care about you out of fear fed to you by your jailers. And the distrustful acceptance of those who are alternating kindness with threats to you. For instance, the guards at CCA would tell my husband stories of those deported who were murdered; explain the dangers he faced when deported; insist I was against him; and then offer him some promise of kindness, such as medical treatment for pain he was enduring. They used isolation and denial of medical treatment for a painful condition in his mouth that was under dental treatment at the type he was detained, against him. They used a number of psychological practices to torture him. And the extreme conditions along with they psychological torture sent him into Stockholm Syndrome…which in turn, they used to additionally torture him.

    The result is that the inmate becomes both fearful and grateful (temporarily — until they are free and safe). Once they become safe, the rage sets in and their mind clears. They realize what has happened and never want to be near those circumstances again. Once my husband’s mind cleared, he was more accepting of me. But what left it’s indelible mark on his personality was the rage from all of that. Institutionalism is a different concept. It is a form of hopelessness and acceptance, but the victim doesn’t shun their family and friends. The victim of Stockholm Syndrome does, which makes it even more difficult to treat.

  3. Crazy Kelley could have an institutionalized mind, but i don’t really see it that way. I think she was in there for the meds. Even before insisting on her phone call to arrange bail, she was filling out the medical application for pharmaceuticals. Four bucks a day for prescription drugs? How much cheaper can you get?

    I think law enforcement figured out a nifty racket. At least 70% of the girls lined up for daily medications. They were willing to work at 35cents an hour to receive them. That’s over ten hours a day! I suppose you could call it a type of institutionalization. After all, they’re in a clean room, have a nice “living” room and decent treatment. For many of the girls, this was probably a better life than they had on the outside. However, it’s still ingenuous. What drug lord has ever thought of locking all their clients into a facility to make sure the only drugs they bought came straight from them?

    Jennifer, it’s possible the motivation for placing Crazy Kelley in the same room as myself was in the hopes she would inform, but if so, it was a very slim hope. In the three days she was there, all she did was sleep. I’d wake her for her meals, but as soon as she had eaten, she’d go straight back to her room and fall asleep again. The twenty or so minutes at a time she was awake, her speech was very incoherent. The things she said made so little sense, most of the girls listened to her a couple of minutes, then shake their heads and wander off, wondering why i wasted time with her.

    I would like to emphasize this facility was not the norm. It probably rates among the best that jail houses have to offer. I was extremely fortunate. Next week i’ll be covering why i think they bother with these revolving door facilities at all.

  4. Excellent! Thanks for sharing this episode in your life. A riveting account, worthy of a screenplay some day 😉

    I’m very glad you’re out and have come away from this with a news reporter’s perspective. You got guts, that’s for sure.

  5. I suspect that people like Kelly are neither informants (purposfully) nor have Stockholm’s or something like it.

    I think they are of the many fringe folks who do not get their mental health needs met by our society. Prison provides what a place that we no longer do.

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