25 Stories About Work – Working In a Maximum Security Prison (Part I)

I was recently on a plane doodling and thought of some funny / interesting stories from 25+ years of working and traveling. So I decided to write them up as short, random chapters of a non-book with the title of this post. Hope you enjoy them and / or find them interesting. Certainly the value will be at least equal to the marginal cost of the book (zero)…

Joliet Illinois, 1992, at a Maximum Security Prison

When I was an auditor I worked with utilities and governmental entities. These were the least popular clients because they often required a lot of travel and if you left the public accounting firm you generally worked for a client (or a different firm in the same industry) and this would pigeonhole you into working in regulated industries.

When I thought I’d seen the least appealing clients possible, a new low occurred – I was assigned to a maximum security prison. The Joliet Correctional Center in Joliet, Illinois. The prison hired an accounting firm to do an audit of their property records and my job was to inventory the physical assets deployed throughout the facility.

The only guards with weapons were in the towers or overlooking the prison walls. Once you were inside the facility the guards had nightsticks but no guns. This was to prevent the prisoners from overpowering the guards and taking their weapons. The prisoners could seize control of the facility at any time and hold the guards hostage but they could not exit the facility because the guards in the towers had rifles and would be able to fire back and would be difficult for the prisoners to overcome.

You entered the facility and went into the armory. From the armory you could take tunnels under the facility and then you could go up into the tower via a ladder. Only within the armory and up the tunnels were the guards armed. This facility was built in the 1860s and it was disgusting in the tunnels underneath with standing water and rats. I would go through the tunnel and yell up and then they would let me into the tower via a ladder and I would climb up a couple stories in my suit with my briefcase. I remember distinctly that the guards seemed somnolent and they had a picture of the warden with a hand drawn mustache and graffiti on it; probably because there was no way he could sneak up there for a “sneak” audit. The guards in the tower always knew that you were coming.

I took an initial tour of the prison with an assistant warden. She was an African-American woman perhaps in her 50s and the predominantly African-American prisoners treated her with great respect. They spoke to her politely and stayed out of our way rather than glaring and intimidating you to move out of their path, which would happen to me later when I walked alone throughout the facility.

The first thing you noticed in the prison was how LOUD it was; everyone was screaming the word “motherf&cker” in about 250 variants. It was a cacophony of yelling and noise and very disconcerting. The prison cells were very small with 2 inmates each; one stood menacingly at the bars and one was usually on a bunk bed (there wasn’t really enough room for both of them to stand). If you walked too closely to the cell they might spit on you; if you walked below the high tiers they might throw urine down on you.

The prison was very hot and stifling. The prison was built in the 1860s long before the concept of air conditioning even existed in practical terms. There was little air flow and the whole place stunk. This audit was conducted during a long, humid summer.

When you think of a jail you assume people are “locked up” all day; this wasn’t the case at the Joliet Correctional Center. During the day likely half the prisoners were walking around, either going to the yard or going from place to place for one reason or another. Guards and prisoners were intermixed and this was likely how they kept the whole place from exploding in the summer heat. I just walked around them intermixed too, in a suit. After a while they just checked me in and I would do my work independently without a guard escorting me as I found my way around the facility.

For me it was odd because everywhere I walked people would scream something unique in my direction which I couldn’t understand. It sounded something like “yoalwr” in one syllable. After a couple weeks I finally figured it out. The prisoners were very street smart; they knew I wasn’t a cop because the police strut in a certain confident manner and act like they own the place (which they do). They also figured I wasn’t a state employee (like an accountant or manager) because they didn’t wear suits and also acted with an air of quiet resignation. To them – I was someone else. A lawyer! That’s the only guy who would walk around the prison in their universe. After I thought about it a bit I realized they were asking “Are you a lawyer” which seemed like a positive thing to pretend to be because a lawyer could be seen as a friend to an inmate should they decide to take the place over and take everyone hostage which from my perspective could occur at any time (although it didn’t).

If you watch “Cool Hand Luke” or other movies you think that the guards own the facility and that they push around the prisoners. I didn’t get that vibe at all at the Joliet Correctional Center. The guards and the prisoners in a way were both serving their sentences in that ancient, broken down, hot hell. Both sides seemed to have a wary detente and likely the prison gangs kept the place in line, since an orderly confinement was best for their businesses. While I was there they busted a guard for drugs and assisting inmates and I wasn’t surprised; it seemed like many of them were from the same neighborhoods and being an entry level guard was a low paid, dangerous job that you probably didn’t want to make even more desperate by mixing it up with maximum security prisoners who are mostly gang members and hardened criminals, many in for very long sentences.

Part II of this will describe my audit and what I found as I walked around the facility.

Cross posted at LITGM

7 thoughts on “25 Stories About Work – Working In a Maximum Security Prison (Part I)”

  1. Did you come away with any insights about how prisoners should be housed?

    From what I’ve seen, prisoners are the exact population that can’t handle confinement and idle time.

  2. “prisoners are the exact population that can’t handle confinement and idle time.” They should be required to watch endless reruns of The Sound of Music.

  3. “Yoalwr” If it weren’t for dark humor, we’d have no humor at all. My cousin did twenty years as a CO in our local maximum security facility. He moved out of state after he retired. A schoolmate also worked as a guard in the same facility for a time. I clearly remember being at the local bar one afternoon when he came in with his uniform shirt all ripped up. He’d been sent home for “going in the closet” with one of the inmates. Over libations he explained that this was a practice that occurred when staff and residents did not see eye to eye.

    Thank you for your service.

  4. “If you watch “Cool Hand Luke”…”

    I don’t know Carl, but I’ve got a mental image of Dr. Hartley (the character Bob Newhart played in the 70’s sit-com, an inoffensive, quiet, buttoned-down psychiatrist) walking through the inmates at Joliet. I know that’s the zen I’d be into.

  5. I’ve got a mental image of Carl as Richard Pryor or Gene Wilder strolling though the yard saying “that’s right – I’m bad! I’m bad”

    Of all of your stories this takes first prize.

    Have you ever taken the tour at Alcatraz?

    That place was unique – the worst of the worst hold up and every day they could see San Francisco across the bay.

    At night it was said that they could hear laughter across the water. People in boats?

  6. Great story. We’re going to call you Joliet Carl from now on.

    “If you watch “Cool Hand Luke” or other movies you think that the guards own the facility and that they push around the prisoners. I didn’t get that vibe at all at the Joliet Correctional Center”

    That reminds me of the story of Larry Hoover, the leader of the Gangster Disciples. He was serving life in Statesville and then later down in Southern Illinois, and he continued to run the whole criminal enterprise from his prison cell.

    He boasted that he had the key to every door in the jail except the front door.

    Eventually they had to send him to the Supermax in Colorado because Illinois couldn’t (or wouldn’t) control him.

  7. I once heard the president of the California prison guard union stand up at a public meeting and remind the audience that young boys don’t dream of becoming prison guards when they grow up. Hence the need for high salaries and pensions.

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