Friday, December 13, 2019

Addictive Recidivism

Cumberland County Jail
Everyone in prison was once in a jail; that’s how the system works. Someone is arrested and arraigned, then is either bailed or left in jail until trial. If found guilty, they may go back to jail if the sentence is short — less than a year, say — or to another correctional facility if it’s longer. The longest sentences are served in state prison, or federal prison as the case may be.

In the Cumberland County jail where I volunteer once a week, I’m assigned to a pod with a capacity of 85. It’s usually full but not always. The inmates wear either orange or blue depending on their level. Blue designates trusty status, which is earned. Trusties can work in the kitchen, the library, or around the grounds either raking or shoveling snow depending on the season. Work reduces their sentences according to a formula.

Those wearing orange in my assigned pod are awaiting trusty status. If they abide by the rules for a designated period they get their blue outfits, but they can also lose them by mouthing off to a corrections officer or some other violation. If it’s severe enough, they’re moved to a more restrictive pod to start all over again. Be careful not to “lose the blues” as inmates put it.

Chaplain Jeff McIlwain workin with female inmates

There are women in the jail but I don’t work with them. Sometimes I see individuals or groups of women in the corridors dressed in blue or orange and escorted by a corrections officer (CO). Once in a while, I recognize a former student, either male or female. If he or she looks away I don’t say anything. If they maintain eye contact, I’ll greet them. I’ve never conversed with a female inmate though because the opportunity never arises.

Every Thursday afternoon I arrive at the jail, empty my pockets into a locker, go through the metal detector, don my badge, sign in, and wait for 3:30 when I walk through the first of many sally ports and corridors to my assigned pod. All movements are monitored at all times by cameras wired to banks of monitors in a central location. Heavy steel doors unlock ahead of me with a metallic clang and lock again as they close behind me with another clang. You can never forget where you are or who is in charge — and it’s not you.

Each week there is about a 20% turnover on my oval-shaped, two-tier pod. I’ll report to the control center in the middle where there’s almost always a different corrections officer on duty. Sometimes it’s a woman in charge of 85 guys. On Thursdays and Sundays inmates can shave and razors are distributed while inmates are in their cells. Sometimes that cuts into the hour I have for Bible study because I have to wait for the CO to collect all the razors, one cell at a time. Then cells are unlocked and inmates flood the common area where they play cards, make phone calls, do pull-ups, or just walk around.

After my arrival, the CO announces Bible study in the small classroom and anywhere from three to twenty stroll in. Usually, about two or three are repeats from previous weeks, but sometimes they’re all first-timers. That makes it hard to plan a lesson. Some will come in with little knowledge of what the Bible is beyond that it’s some kind of holy book. Others will have studied the Bible for decades and know more than I do. Usually the latter are from the south and are often black. 

I never ask why they’re in jail but they often tell me. Once I had only two guys, one white and covered with tattoos, the other black and strong-looking. Both were addicts in their late thirties and had been incarcerated since sixteen on drug charges. They knew each other at the Maine State Prison and were together again at the Cumberland County Jail awaiting trial on drug charges. The black man knew his Bible very well. His mother taught him, he said.

They were afraid of being released and going back on drugs. Both wanted to get clean but were critical of rehab programs. Neither knew how to turn on a computer or use a cell phone and needed to learn those skills and others. “We’ve been away so long we’re out of touch,” said one as the other nodded. Rehab has to teach us those things and whatever else has changed out there. Then we need a transition house or we’re likely to use again, they said. Both were easy to like.

At least 75% of inmates I’ve encountered over three and a half years were addicted to drugs or alcohol. Many were in and out of jail or prison for most of their adult lives. Many had co-occurring mental illness of some kind as well.


rhondajo said...

Bless you for visiting them and bringing the Word of God to them!

Brian said...

I agree that you should be thanked for giving your time to the inmates. You are doing a good thing.