Employment as a prison librarian had its challenges. There were the days when the yard was closed for one reason or another. It could be found contraband of a dangerous nature, mass movements, serious medical conditions or quarterly searches that would or could cause the yard to close.
I have been privy to minor as well as major disturbances when the yard closures have lasted for days at a time.
I had an occasion when there was a stabbing in the library I supervised. “Books to die for” I chided after all was said and done. In reality, no one died. It was, however, a frightening experience.
Prior to the actual event, things in the library “just didn’t feel right.” I used the radio and asked for a security presence, specifically someone who spoke Spanish. “Code 20?” came the response, “Code 4” I replied, “I would just like to have someone in here who speaks Spanish for a minute or two.”
Shortly thereafter, two inmates attacked one other then stormed out of the library. I again keyed the radio and initiated the department’s emergency response system. That single act prompted most of the remaining patrons exited (read RAN) out the library door. They knew full well the library would soon be teaming with corrections officers.
I utilized the department’s standard emergency response system to lock down the yard, get medical to respond and then I promptly handed the incident off to the first corrections officer through the door! In short order the entire yard was teaming with corrections officers and the K-9 units.
When the officers arrived and secured the library, they cuffed up the library clerks as well as anyone else who had not run out of the library. They were taken outside to a chain link fence. They were all patted searched and escorted to the detention unit’s recreation pens.
The library books were flying off the shelves. I was surprised to find some of the books had secret cut out areas. One was in the shape of a small floppy disk and the other would have facilitated a syringe. I learned a lot that day. Some were things I never wanted to learn or ever have to witness first hand.
After being interviewed by a security supervisor, I contacted the unit Captain to let him know the library clerks were not involved in the incident. In fact, truth be told, the clerks had immediately jumped up from their desks and surrounded me – as if to protect me. I was astounded and very humbled by their act. One of the clerks was an older inmate who had medical issues. I wanted to ensure security was aware of his condition, his medical needs and that he would not be left in the sun due to the medications he was taking. I wanted to be sure all those in the recreation pens were being provided water and sun screen. No need to worry – my co-workers were taking good care of them all.
A security supervisor explained that it was imperative the library clerks be moved out with the other inmates and treated in like fashion. Otherwise they may have been considered to have been colluding with the ‘enemy’ and then placed in harm’s way.
Indeed, these eyes have witnessed much and they have forgiven much. I have learned to appreciate and heed the gift of fear. When the hair on the nape of my neck stands up, it does so for a reason and it alerts me to be cautious and pay close attention.
Not too long ago, we arrived early at the bus terminal to pick up my mother. She was coming for a weekend visit. I walked around and as is my custom, I observed people. Yes, my number one sporting event – People Watching. This is a leftover habit from the prison years. It is one of hyper vigilance, an enhanced state of sensory sensitivity accompanied by an exaggerated intensity of behaviors whose purpose is to detect threats.
The entire terminal was a village of sorts. What moved me the most was seeing the number of at-risk persons. It appeared to me the bus terminal is to the economically disadvantaged what the airport is to the middle and upper class citizens. I wrote that out, didn’t I? In this land, this country of opportunity where there is purportedly no class distinction, it became abundantly clear there is indeed an unspoken caste system.
There were teenaged males riding low-rider bikes and asking for handouts. There were the drug users, perhaps not identifiable to some, but I recognized them, the Tweakers, especially.
The terminal was a veritable village of tribes and cultures. Spanish was spoken as well as the native tongue of the Tohono O’odham peoples and of course, English. The Tohono O’odham were previously known as the Papago people; however, they have largely rejected this name. It was applied to them by conquistadores who had heard them called this by other Native American bands and it was considered to be derogatory.
As the buses arrived, they would dock at their designated “port” and persons began exiting the vehicle. They invariably would seek out a familiar face and if not found would settle on a bench, pull out a cell phone and call someone to presumably ask them to come and pick them up.
I was amazed to see different cultures and races mingling and sitting with one another. Perhaps it was my years from prison where the inmate population was defined by race and thus divided as such, but it surprised me to see everyone “mixing it up,” so to speak. It was also comforting. As children of God, we are all of the same tribe! “red and yellow, black and white…”
After of bit of downtime and perhaps an exchange of drivers, the buses were boarded with yet another set of travelers for their next destination. There was a lot of activity and conspicuously absent was any sign of security or police. For all appearances, it was as if the people were self-governed and may have taken care of any security issues themselves.
One could gaze upon the groups of people and discern family units. Mothers with small children herded them onto benches and quietly begin nursing infants. No one appeared to be offended as would be the case in a more formal setting. Churches, prison visitations, and restaurants often isolate nursing mothers who are performing a loving, nurturing act of feeding their child.
When the weekend was over, we returned Mother to the bus terminal. It was the same village only with different faces.
Since we now knew where to head for the incoming bus, we found a bench and sat with others. There were some children eating homemade burritos, wrapped in aluminum foil. They promptly disposed of the foil on the ground and I retrieved it for the trash receptacle. The mother chastised her children in Spanish and another young man thanked me for tending to that task. I nodded in the affirmative and offered a smile.
Mother removed the bus fare from her purse so she would have it in hand for the driver – no tickets for this ride, cash only. She sat there while we chatted with the money in her hand. I was observing a man who was rapidly moving from one group to another. I reckoned he was a substance abuser, a tweaker looking for a “mark,” for what he believed to be easy money. I told Mother to put her money in a pocket. She said, “I’m holding it tightly.” I said, “It’s in plain sight, it’s like waving bait.” The man moved from one end of the terminal to the other, not really looking at people, but looking FOR an opportunity. I told mom, “watch him – see how he’s working the crowd?” We observed for a while then lost track of him. Suddenly he appeared and the way he was moving and approaching us at the bench was one of determination. I stood up and looked him in the eye. It was an authoritative challenge, I would suppose. He promptly and immediately left the area. He perceived I was a threat to him. He was correct. Don’t mess with my Momma! In short order, Mother was safely on the bus and headed towards her home, some three hours away.
Even now, when the Husband and I go out for dinner, I try to secure a seat where I can observe the coming and goings. Old habits die hard.