Behind Bars: Different backgrounds often equalized in prison setting

Monday , November 13, 2017 - 6:00 AM1 comment

BRIAN WOOD, Behind Bars columnist

The other day, a fellow prisoner asked me if there was a way a friend of his could send a message to someone if he knew that someone’s cell phone number. It took me a second before I realized why he would need to ask this. He has been locked up so long he has never used the internet or a cell phone. When I told him that his friend would definitely be able to do so, he asked if I was sure and then followed up by asking if that message would be called an e-mail or text. I was aware of how long he’d been here, but his innocent query prompted some thought.

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Because of the shared experience of being a prisoner, I don’t always fully appreciate all the countless backgrounds and experiences that are represented in here. We all dress the same and share the title of prisoner and the experience that comes with it, but it’s hard to think of another situation in which people from such different walks of life – socioeconomic, religion, heritage, etc. – are forced to interact in such an intimate setting. It’s a recipe for conflict – of which there’s plenty.

Over time prisoners, have collectively made unwritten rules that govern the population. Some prisoners are either unable or unwilling to make things work in this highly social environment and have a tough time, but most conform and find a niche. Prisoners are constantly in close proximity to one another. Those who live in a dorm setting might go months without being more than 10 feet from another human being. It’s definitely a unique experience.

Different backgrounds, experiences, and abilities seem to be highlighted the most when it comes to employment. In the outside world people often find their place according to their abilities. It doesn’t quite work like that here. Here’s an example. There’s a prisoner who had been a veterinary surgeon on the outside and another who would probably have trouble holding down a fast food job due to his lack of social skills. In here, they basically do the same job.

Prisoners can either be extremely overqualified for the jobs they do while some prisoners are not qualified for the simplest jobs. Often the latter is a lack of work ethic, but in some cases basic skills are assumed and they shouldn’t be. There was a prisoner who applied for a maintenance job, got the job, and then was fired from the job because he didn’t know how to read a tape measure. Prison is a good place to give some guys the opportunity to hold a job for the first time in their life, but you can only work with so much or so little.

There’s a comment I’ve heard a number of times here in prison with some truth behind it: “The prison isn’t picky; it’ll take any idiot wearing white or blue.” Many prisoners lack education, but there are a few I’ve met and thought they don’t belong here due to competency issues, and that’s always sad to see (the backhand part of the comment is about the officers). Prisoners love to point out they cannot get a job even as a janitor with just a GED. Prisoners must have a high school diploma; however, to become a correction officer, a GED is good enough.

I can’t imagine another situation in which I would have had dealings with such a wide variety of people. I probably have more sympathy for some people and their circumstances than I did before this experience and have gathered tools to deal with some difficult personalities, but I can’t put a positive spin on all of it. It’s rare, but I have met a few prisoners who aren’t a product of their environment nor a sum of their experiences — they are just evil and this is where they belong.

Brian Wood, formerly of Layton, is an inmate at the Utah Correctional Facility in Gunnison. He pleaded guilty to nine felony charges for offenses from 2011 to 2014, including counts of burglary, drug possession and prescription fraud. He could spend up to 25 years in prison, depending on parole hearings.

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