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Saturday, March 05, 2005

The Inmate Extraction: Part One

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“We’re doing an inmate extraction today,” Jason says.

He’s excited, wound-up. I would have noticed this anyway, but I knew something was going on the moment he stepped into my office, because he is wearing his Emergency Response gear. A darkened navy-blue uniform. Full body armour. A plastic riot shield, worn on his left arm in Knights of the Round Table style. Batons tucked into Sam Browne weapon belts. Jason and a squad of other guards behind him are carrying their black helmets under their arms like a team of football players before the Big Game.

An inmate extraction means, a bunch of guards have to enter a cell to subdue and remove a problem inmate. Amusingly, it’s usually because they don’t want to leave the prison.

“It’s Roberts, that fucking bastard. They finally transferred him to KP,” Jason says.

Kingston Penitentiary, the maximum-security prison in our system. We’re a high-medium; Roberts has just been promoted. He has been an escalating problem here for months. Everyone at the Institution knows it - information dissemination here travels along the grapevine faster than a group e-mail distribution list. Roberts has been verbally abusting staff since his incarceration a year ago. Last month, he got caught making brew out of Heinz ketchup in his toilet tank, and was punished with a month in solitary confinement. And then, the final straw, he attacked another inmate after he was released from solitary last week.

“He used a shiv he made out of a tin can, folded over and over into a little spike,” Jason says. “He wrapped the handle up in duct tape from the shop, and stabbed the other guy in the kidney. Put 'im in the hospital.” Jason pokes his thumb into his back as he tells me the story I heard five minutes after it happened. “His psychiatrist says that the incident is probably a sexual thing, because he used a stabbing weapon from behind.”

A sexual thing. Seventy percent of the offenders at the Institution are sexual offenders, including our good friend Mr. Roberts. I haven’t read his file, but I know that he’s a serial rapist, having taken his pleasure from women, children, and babies. He’s undiscriminating; an equal-opportunity abuser. As long as it’s got a hole in it, Roberts will fuck it.

“Grease up a knothole in a barn door, and that little scumbag will poke his dick into it,” Jason says. He looks over his shoulder at the rest of the ER team; they’re just about psyched-up enough to go in and get him. “Hey,” Jason whispers. “Hey, do you want to come watch?”

I’m not a guard. I work in the finance office, taking care of exciting things like filing travel claims and processing accounts payable for the prison. My exposure to the inmates is limited pretty much to the old con who empties the garbage in my office. He has tatties running up and down his arms, inked there by an electric needle he made out of an old Walkman motor.

“Call me Cobra,” he told me. “Everybody does.” And yeah – there was the snake, wound lime green and comic-book scary down his sinewy forearm. The open mouth on his hand flexed and rippled as he hung it out to be shaken, which I actually did. This was when I was first hired, before I got to know who I was working with. After a few months of reading inmate records, seeing archived crime scene photographs, and after flipping through multiple victim impact statements, you stop believing in teddy-bear Hollywood ideas like redemption and rehabilitation. I came here thinking that Dead Man Walking was a powerful movie, making an important statement: it is wrong to take a human life. But I stopped thinking about inmates as people years ago.

For instance, are you a man if you abused and sodomized dozens of boys in your Boy Scout troop, humiliating them and scarring them for life to satisfy a Neanderthal pleasure that you express no regrets for possessing?

Do you still qualify as a person if you pour a bottle of 80-proof vodka all over your girlfriend’s head, and try to burn her alive with your cigarette butt? And when that didn’t work so great, you beat her to death with a baseball bat?

Are you a human if you raped a three-month infant so brutally that her tiny, destroyed uterus was surgically removed, and gave her a case of herpes she will carry in her useless genitalia for the rest of her life? And, as a bonus, gave her irreparable brain damage in the bargain?

Better questions might be, can you reform the blue eyes out of a person.

Can you make a person taller, smarter, or Caucasian through the application of bureaucratic process. Can you make a person do anything they don't want to do, or simply can never be.

All I know is, a person can’t be un-raped, un-mutilated, and un-murdered.

The Shawshank Redemption is a fairy tale. At least they executed the criminals in The Green Mile.

Give yourself a prize if you guessed that I don’t shake inmate hands anymore.

“I don’t know if I can go,” I say to Jason. “I have no reason to be in the blocks today.”

But Jason is pushing. It’s no fun unless somebody watches.

The thing is, during an inmate extraction, the only guards in the block are supposed to be the ones extricating the offender. All other administrative staff remain in their offices. The other convicts are locked down in their cells, and they can’t see what’s going on because their cell doors are solid steel, with their little windows all closed off from the outside. This way, none of them can nurse a grudge against the guards by seeing a comrade dragged away by his elbows. The subject is tastefully removed, away from prying eyes, and the only thing left behind is a dirty cell, one of hundreds just like it on the cell block. Administratively, he no longer exists. No inmate will remember him as a martyr for a heroic struggle, because nobody saw anything happen. It’s just like the falling tree in the woods thing.

And Jason wants me to come along for the ride.

The first thing any criminal does once they’re locked up is ask for the newspapers. They want to read about themselves.

Everybody is a closet exhibitionist.

But maybe there’s more than just that. Maybe Jason wants me to see Roberts slammed to the concrete, a knee straining on his neck, writhing in his greens as the chains are wrapped around his ankles. Maybe Roberts will act up, and they’ll get the opportunity to haul out their cans of pepper spray, hosing down his eyes until he cries out for mercy on his knees. And then they can take out their batons and beat Roberts to mush, making him ooze blood from every pore, punishing him for being born and putting us all into this position.

Maybe Jason wants me to see the look on Roberts’ face as he’s taken away to give me the satisfaction that nobody else gets. Because at this Institution, there is no satisfaction. There is no reform, there is no punishment. There is incarceration, and that’s all it is.

Inmates here get satellite television in their cells.

They get to eat three squares a day, and a vegetarian menu is available for the Muslims.

If you have a hankering to see a set of titties, well, you can arrange a subscription to Swank or Hustler through the library.

And if you threaten a staff member with death? All you get is a fifty-dollar fine. How's that for preparation for the outside world?

Employees here, we have to forfeit our rights to a safe work environment when we work in the penal system. It’s all listed in the agreement you sign when you’re hired.

If you even think about touching an inmate in anger, even if you’re a guard, you can lose your job. It’s reported to management, the appropriate documents are signed off, and you are escorted from the premises. The worst part of that is, all the inmates know it. They have their rights, and they have them memorized.

At least there is a pension plan.

But there is the one exception. During an extraction/transfer, you can do anything you want to an inmate short of killing him, because nobody sees it happen. Every single one of these guys, they arrive at their new digs all hangdog and bleeding in the van, their pants soaking and sticking to their legs with pints of angry urine.

There is a long sign-up sheet for Emergency Response duty.

“Call it a perk,” Jason says.

Fuck it. My boss is at the dentist. And the paperwork will still be here when I come back.

Part 2

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