This morning it was foggy. Fog always makes me think of when I used to work in prison. “Why?” you ask. Because every time it was foggy when I drove to the prison where I worked as a psychologist for three years, I knew my day’s schedule would be shot, since I would have to start out the morning on fog watch.
Almost a decade later, and fog still makes me think of fog watch.
During the first few years of my “time” in prison, fog watch annoyed me, because it threw off my carefully planned (though frequently derailed) schedule for the day. I had appointments to keep. Inmates to meet with. Interviews to conduct. Interns to supervise. Rounds to get done.
I didn’t get overtime, and I had a lot I was supposed to accomplish in a 40-hour week. It was stressful, and fog watch messed with my cram-packed calendar.
But after the first few years, I grew to kind of welcome fog watch. Sometimes anyway. Fog watch meant that for that morning, I didn’t have to meet with the inmate who was going to complain about his housing assignment. I didn’t have to see the inmate who was extra needy or the one who was extra angry or the one who was extra demanding. I’d probably have to find time in my over-planned day to meet with those inmates later, but for the morning, until the fog cleared, I had a reprieve.
Many, many times, I’ve been asked what it was like to be a prison psychologist. I have been asked more times than I can count what a typical day was like when I worked in prison. I never had an answer for that question, because there was no such thing as a “typical” day. When I walked onto the compound every day, regardless of what I had written down in my very detailed daily planner, I never really knew what was going to happen.
I’ll give you some examples of things that did happen, with the disclaimer that these are either composites of events or very vague descriptions, not any one specific event in any detail (so I won’t break confidentiality).
In the four different prisons where I worked, I dealt mostly with medium- and high-security inmates. Most days I spent a lot of time just checking in with mentally ill inmates. I assessed mental status and medication compliance and side effects. I handled lots of complaints and requests for changes in housing or job assignments (which I almost never intervened in). I frequently assessed risk for suicide. I did individual and group therapy. I made attempts to make life better for the inmates I worked with in the small ways that I could.
Lots of people have asked me how and where I met with inmates, assuming I always had bars or a door between myself and the offender. In some cases, I did speak to inmates either through the doors of their cells if they were in segregation (the housing unit where inmates are placed in cells alone and locked in for 23 hours per day) or, with especially high security inmates, in a special divided cell with a barred door between him and me. But the vast majority of the time, I simply scheduled an appointment with the inmate and he came to my office. There was a window in my office door and special, well-known procedures in place for me to call for help if I needed to. I never did (other than on one occasion, described below).
I did, however, fairly frequently have to respond to a fellow staff member’s call for help. Whenever another prison employee was in some sort of trouble or if there was a disturbance, all available people in the prison stopped whatever they were doing and ran to the place of the problem to help. I did this many times.
I was often called to segregation to speak to an inmate who wasn’t cooperating with the correctional staff, either by refusing to “cuff up” (place hands in front of the food-tray opening in the door and submit to being placed in handcuffs), refusing to give up some contraband item, or otherwise wreaking havoc. Sometimes the inmate was threatening to hurt himself. Sometimes he was breaking things or flooding his cell. Sometimes I was able to convince an inmate to comply. Sometimes the correctional staff had to “suit up” and go into an inmate’s cell using force (this was rare in the prison where I spent most of my years, though fairly common in some places I worked).
On more than one occasion, I was contacted and asked to come to the segregated housing unit where there was an inmate who had smeared his own feces on the wall of his cell. Sometimes the inmates who did this were mentally ill. Sometimes they weren’t. Often when they weren’t, they were trying to convince someone that they were. Sometimes I could get the inmates to clean up, or at least to come out of the cell so it could be cleaned. Sometimes I couldn’t, and then the officers had to decide whether they wanted to deal with the smell until the inmate couldn’t stand it anymore, or whether they wanted to go into the mess and pull the inmate out. Ew.
Another common question I get is about whether I was ever afraid. The answer is yes, but rarely. On a few occasions I had to speak with very mentally ill inmates or very angry inmates, without the benefit of a locked door to shield myself. Of course, most mentally ill individuals are not violent, but in a few cases I had to deal with guys I knew did have a history of violence when not taking medication. And a couple of times I came face to face with inmates who were very angry with me and ready to show it. Fortunately I was always able to extricate myself safely, in one case calling on an officer who I knew was standing right outside the door, before the inmate could get to me.
Ugh. It makes me feel a little ill just writing about it.
After the first few years, I was burned out on prison. I had been lied to, cursed at, stolen from, and nearly attacked, all by men whom I had sincerely been trying to help. A job I had initially found to be exciting and challenging was no longer the least bit enjoyable. I developed insomnia and lost a ton of weight from being stressed. I nearly wept every Sunday, knowing I had to go back “inside” the next day. After many months of planning, a fellow psychologist and I left to start a private practice, and it truly felt like we were getting out of prison!
Leaving prison work was one of the best career moves I ever made, second only to leaving work entirely to stay home with my kids. I no longer identify myself as a prison psychologist, or a forensic psychologist, or really even as any kind of psychologist anymore. But lots of people still ask me what it was like to work in prison.
I didn’t intend for my answer to the question to be a big downer! I do have some good memories of my years in the “joint.” I think I did really help some inmates, and I met some good people whom I worked with.
That job obviously wasn’t the most enjoyable one I’ve had. It wasn’t even the hardest one. My current job holds both of those distinctions.