Tuesday, September 27, 2016

Wordcraft – Writings with prison settings, part I

Although the title of this portion of my blog is “Wordcraft,” occasionally I use this format to provide information about characters, settings and procedures of interest to writers. Today I’m exerpting a recent presentation at the Southwest chapter of Mystery Writers of America by a group member who served several years as a guard in the Texas state prison system. Because he left the Texas state prison system after receiving threats against his family, I refer to him only by the initials SB.

image: wikimedia commons
When choosing a prison setting for a story, it’s important to remember that state and federal laws apply to different types of crimes, and therefore to different kinds of prisoners. With certain exceptions, most violent crimes – rape, kidnapping, robbery, and murder – come under the jurisdiction of state law, and these vary from state to state.

Texas, and probably other states, also has two systems of incarceration – prison and jail. In addition to holding prisoners awaiting trial, jails typically hold less violent criminals serving shorter sentences, typically two years or less.

Prisoners in Texas state jails are housed in dormitories with approximately 50 beds per room. State prisons hold more violent offenders serving longer terms, classified in order of perceived risk: general population, administrative segregation; and close custody.

General population prisoners are house in dormitories holding up to 50 beds. (The image embedded in this text is of general population prisoners at a federal prison.) Inmates too violent for general population (or needing to be segregated for other reasons) are held in administrative segregation in single cells. Those deemed especially dangerous to prison personnel or other inmates are held in close custody, which includes hand, foot and waist shackles. They may also wear spit guards. (Because of the possibility of HIV infection, spitting on guards is considered a form of assault.)

So, writers, choose the legal system – state or federal, prison or jail – that best meets your story’s needs.

The first thing to remember, SB told his audience, is that there is no sense of honor in prison. Expect the guards to be corrupt. SB estimated a typical salary during his tenure to be about $23,000. (See the state’s website for current salary, which is slightly higher, with additional pay for someone like SB with a college degree and previous experience.) 

Given the relatively low pay and often horrendous working conditions, he found it hard to blame guards for being tempted to accept $2,000 for providing prisoners with banned cell phones, or looking the other way when friends or family members of prisoners smuggle in cash, phones, drugs or other contraband.

Body cavities are favorite smuggling routes, but at least one woman was known to have attempted to smuggle a cell phone to her boyfriend by concealing it in her bouffant hairdo.

 How bad is it to be in prison? Try this story: during the absence of a guard, a minister counseling death row inmates in Huntsville, Texas, accepted a prisoner’s request to hold his hand while praying. The minister put his hand through the cell door’s narrow “bean slot” used to pass food to inmates in such high security conditions, only to have his hand bound by the inmate with strips of cloth, and the other end of the cloth secured around the cell’s toilet.

The inmate then began to cut off the minister’s arm using a makeshift weapon. The man’s screams and those of the other inmates soon brought guards running and the minister’s arm was saved – although with some loss of function. Amazingly, he continued to minister to inmates, although probably not with any more hand holding.

It’s not possible to say exactly what makes a person, even one already facing a death sentence, commit such an act, but prisons typically house unusually high percentages of inmates with serious personality disorders such as psychopathy as well as many with mental illnesses. (Texas has two institutions reserved for violent inmates with severe mental illnesses such as schizophrenia, but space is at a premium, and the waiting lists for beds is long.)

(Next Tuesday, Wordcraft continues with a discussion of what writers need to know about prison)

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