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McCallum: Working Behind Bars

04/12/10 7:55AM By Mary McCallum
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(HOST) Commentator Mary McCallum, who works within Vermont's Department of Corrections, reflects on how life behind bars affects not only those who are sentenced to live there.

(MCCALLUM) I have worked as an educator behind bars for more than six years in one of Vermont's high security prisons.  Over time I've learned that prison changes you, whether you're an inmate or an employee.  I'm not nearly as trusting as I used to be, and my sense of humor has taken on a darker shade.   I've developed a sliding scale for how I view offenses, and things that shocked me as a rookie no longer surprise me - in fact, they seem like  just so much background wallpaper in my workaday world.

But the biggest surprise has been that working with prison inmates is neither scary nor exciting.  And that's what seems to most astonish people who meet me on the outside.  Recently I sat next to a new face at a dinner party and the inevitable question of "What do you do?" came up. When I said that I work in a maximum security prison for men the response was not unusual:  "Aren't you scared?  How can you be safe?"

But in reality, most of us have little idea of what prisons really are like, even though a huge chunk of our tax dollars goes to fund them, and we have more than two million people locked up in this country.  With numbers like that you'd think most of us would know someone in prison, even at six degrees of separation.  But in my experience that's not the case. Most folks don't spend Sundays visiting a relative in jail and prison is more an abstract idea than a part of life.  

What most people know about prison is what they see on TV shows like Prison Break  and Oz. These shows paint prison as high drama, while for most inmates, being locked up is high boredom.  If you were to ask any inmate to describe his or her life inside, I guarantee the words dull, monotonous, crowded, noisy and lonely would come up.

Incarcerated life is not remotely like being a character in a prison movie. It is life in shades of grey, punctuated by metallic sounds, noisy announcements over loudspeakers, endless card games, walking laps around the yard, and carefully rationed servings on plastic trays.  It is the measuring of time, the crossing off of calendar days, the writing of letters.  Small achievements take on importance, like becoming a reader of books and learning how to write poems for a wife or girlfriend.  Or developing tolerance for strangers who are constantly in your face.

Sure, there is strong-arming, fighting, manipulation and lively contraband trade.  There are lockdowns, disciplinary actions and some really, really bad guys in there.  Make no mistake, it's a prison, a place of correction where men and women in uniform enforce rules, and there are plenty of them.  And in the end, that's mostly what it comes
down to - not drama, not prison breaks - but rules, enforcement, and uniformity.  It's what keeps everyone securely behind the razor wire.  But for someone like me who lives on one side of the fence and works on the other, to inhabit both worlds is a challenge.
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