25 Stories About Work – Working in a Maximum Security Prison (Part II)

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. Here is Part I of the story. This prison is where the Blues Brothers movie was filmed along with “Prison Break”.

After I got acclimated to the prison, it was time to select the assets that I would audit during the summer. Typically you “randomly select” assets from the asset listing, take a statistically significant sample (perhaps 20-50 items), and draw conclusions about the whole pool of assets based on whether you were able to find the selected assets in the location where they were said to reside. I did this at first and the results came up with many assets titled “XXX-780” and I asked the accountants working for the facility what they were. The accountants said that these were individual prisoner beds and that was the cell number and the way to audit those assets would be to go in and unlock the cells and I could flip up the bed and check the number. I thought about this for a few minutes and then said “f&ck this” and decided that I would use “judgement” to select my assets instead of the random method and I selected 30 assets myself for my project.

The quest to find the assets took me throughout the facility. If it was a gun that I selected, I would go past the guard into the armory, through the tunnels under the building, and up the ladder into the tower to manually check the serial number of the rifle or other weapon that was picked to be audited against the building records.

I selected what turned out to be a sniper rifle. These guns were kept in storage at the armory, and they brought out the sniper to show me the weapon himself because they didn’t let other people touch it after he had calibrated the scope. The sniper asked me a question:

Do you know why they pick snipers out of the staff in the prison?

No, I said.

Because in Attica there was an uprising and the prisoners took over the yard and then the prison brought in outside marksmen to ensure they could not escape. During the melee the marksmen shot many prisoners but it turns out that the prisoners had changed clothes with the civilian hostages, so some of the individuals gunned down were actual guards or workers. Thus the snipers were prison guards from that facility because they could pick out the inmates from the guards and workers.

I said that if he ever saw me in his scope wearing an orange outfit, please don’t shoot. It wasn’t a joke.

One of the items I picked was a carpentry tool. I found the carpenter’s building where they had drawings of all the tools on the wall so that you could see instantly if something was missing (for instance there would be a painted outline of a handsaw on the wall and the handsaw wouldn’t be there). This was clever and obvious in hindsight. I hung around and talked to the officer in that building and he said that he’d been through a couple of hostage situations but hadn’t been seriously hurt.

Another item was in the prison library. I remember as a kid my grandmother who ran a part-time mission said that they dropped off western novels at the prison in Montana for the prisoners to read while they were incarcerated. The library didn’t have much, some law books and was in dilapidated condition. I was astonished when I met the librarian, however – she was a very attractive white woman in a pretty un-secure area of the facility where the vast majority of the prisoners were African American (I only saw a few white prisoners when they were playing basketball in a group in the yard). I spoke with her a bit and checked my asset and then later asked a different guard why none of the prisoners, many of whom had life sentences, roughed her up. The guard said that the gang bosses in the prison apparently liked her for whatever reason and put out the word not to mess with her and that was that.

An asset was in the “segregated” unit. Apparently this is where they put the most difficult prisoners. Their hands and feet were manacled together and they were screaming and obviously in a bad way. I wouldn’t even go into the area where they were housed. I had them drag the air compressor over to the edge where I could write down the serial number through the bars.

One of the worst choices was in the prison hospital. In prison they limit walls so you can’t hide behind them. I went into the hospital and they were working on people who were bleeding out in the open without curtains and it was like something out of Dante’s inferno. I had no idea of this and quickly checked whatever I needed to check and got the hell out of there.

At the commissary you could buy packs of cigarettes for super-low prices because they were purchased at cost and without any taxes. I don’t remember the exact price but think it was about 25 cents. The commissary was the famous area in the Blues Brothers where you had to stand behind the line to get your clothes back when you were released (it didn’t really house clothes and prisoners’ intake possessions, they just made it that way for the movie), and they still had that line painted on the ground.

Right at the end I picked a shotgun. It was up in the tower in the mess hall. This is the same mess hall where they all danced on tables during the Blues Brothers movie. This tower, however, was not like the others. It wasn’t connected to the armory and tunnels. The only time they changed shifts daily was when the prison was on lockdown because they had weapons in there. Thus the guard yelled down and said that if I wanted to see the serial number, they would lock down the facility for me so that I could come up. I looked around on a stifling, humid day, with prisoners everywhere at classes, the yard, eating, and milling around, and imagined them all being herded back to their packed cells in the middle of summer, with the possibility of a riot eating at my mind. I just shouted up “tell me the serial number”. He yelled it back to me and it matched and I was done. If someone else wanted to risk getting killed to verify it face to face they were welcome to come take my job.

Cross posted at LITGM

5 thoughts on “25 Stories About Work – Working in a Maximum Security Prison (Part II)”

  1. Excellent piece, Carl.

    Good call on not making the entire prison population want to kill you.

    You have a lot more stories to go, and now you have to top the prison visit … .

  2. “I had them drag the air compressor over to the edge where I could write down the serial number through the bars.”

    Imagine the yucks the staff had about this later.

    You’re a braver soul than I.

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