April 25, 2015
The only comparable experience I’ve had to prison bureaucracy irrationality is peri Glasnost Soviet Union, where the existence and enforcement of policies were head-spinningly unpredictable, and inconsistencies were adamantly explained and defended against all evidence to the contrary. Does the prison system want to keep volunteers out? Of course I can’t generalize about The Prison System. And I can’t know for sure anything about even the prison I work in. The men in the book group have no doubts whatsoever that the system wants to keep us out. But that is probably to be expected. And while there are wild differences in how particular COs treat the prisoners, and us volunteers, I have to agree that the men’s views are not paranoid.
Here’s the evidence. To get into the education building many things have to happen every time a volunteer shows up: At the minimum: 1. a gate clearance for the volunteer in the lobby guards’ book, 2. call outs for each of the men (in their dorms and a copy of same in the hands of the guards in the education building, 3. successful security clearance in the lobby, and 4. availability of a van and CO driver for safe transport to the education building; all reasonable measures. But the first two often fail to get logged or get lost or not put through in any given week with any given volunteer. Gate clearances are put through for particular volunteers for particular dates, usually covering a four month period. And inquiries about how on earth one month in there is no clearance suddenly are always met with a version of “I KNOW! It makes no sense: I have no idea what happened!” And god forbid you try to reschedule a meeting even weeks in advance and with complete reassurance from the coordinator that all is in place. I have never succeeded in getting in under such circumstances, so now if in spite of making it a high priority I can’t make a particular session I just cancel. Reluctantly, still, no point in trekking out and being turned away, which is all but guaranteed. Then sometimes the gate clearance is in place, but no call out — so you get to the ed building only to find your room empty. And finally there are the security clearance, and transport problems. We can’t bring anything in other than the book, and every once in awhile a particular guard who’s know you for years will insist that he can’t let you in without your drivers license even though we all have security clearance IDs hanging up right behind him in a cabinet. Then there is the hyper sensitive metal detector, and the CO’s latitude in wanding you if you should set it off even though you set it off in spite of having taken your shoes and glasses, etc. off. Some weeks the metal detector machine is not even turned on. Other weeks a guard will send you home invoking a rule that prohibits wanding, even though a few weeks earlier the same guard wanded you. But if you so much as say “Huh.” you risk a heightening of scrutiny for the foreseeable future that will keep you (or — same effect — the men) out. That’s why, deeply contrary to my contrarian nature, I keep my head down and never challenge the lobby CO on, well, anything, including staying silent when they make insulting remarks about the men in the group — the equivalent to solidarity testing racist jokes. So last week when I heard about a volunteer who for the millionth time had been kept from meeting with her group after having complained to a prison administrator about seemingly arbitrarily enforced security procedures I was surprised that several of the men defended her challenge, even though it had resulted in subverting her aims of not being arbitrarily prevented from getting in — her very own goal! When I argued that keeping your head down on an injustice in order to be able to meet a larger moral goal was not selling out your principles for mere expedience, rather it was putting aside some principles to meet a higher pragmatic (and moral, not but moral!) principle, they would have none of it. And they dug their heels in on that support for her: arguing that even if it meant that she never got in to her group again, she was doing the right thing to call him out on his wrongdoing. They do what they can, often at great personal risk, to hold authorities responsible for wrongdoing, and saw her action in solidarity with theirs. And they rejected the pragmatist “higher principle” line of argument. A truly thought provoking discussion, not least in connection with beginning the discussion of our text this week, 1984, a connection they were happy to point out to me.
Am I going to change my obsequious behavior? No. But I now wonder if it is somehow a selfish compromise.