Prison (Mis)Treatment: An Inside View

Black and white shot of four payphones on dark tiled wall
Eduardo Sánchez / Unsplash

“You are the king of this prison yard,

regal, eternal,

and each morning your greeting

splashes up the shores of my soul,

fills me with rubies and hope,

makes me beam,

make us all forget, even if just for a moment,

these walls that hold us captive”

As I recited my poetry to the two correctional officers standing over me, I heard the words falling out of my mouth and thought about how ironic the moment was. Today I would not be teaching a class on relapse prevention or meeting with one of the twenty prisoner-clients on my caseload to help them find healthier ways to heal the deep wounds in their lives. Instead, the prison’s investigative team had ushered me into a windowless room and insisted that I read three poems they had located on my personal Instagram account and decided to handle like they were toxic substances. A poet dreams of their words being deciphered for hidden meaning, but I never wanted it to happen like this. They were hammering my stanzas of affirmation and light into dark weapons to use against me.

And yet that’s how much of my time working in the Massachusetts Department of Corrections felt like they aimed to depreciate and disparage the best, most authentic work that my fellow counselors and I could provide. They got me. I was terminated from my job as a substance abuse counselor due to poems like the one excerpted above, which celebrates the positive spirit of one of the elder inmates in the system, one revered by inmates and officers alike. Fired from the job I poured my soul into, over creative writing. My judge and jury deemed them proof that I had crossed professional boundaries and banned me from entering all DOC facilities for a year. I loved my job, and it’s ending was abrupt, embarrassing, and painful. But I knew better than to take it personally; it wasn’t just about silencing me. The DOC’s true target was to silence authentic treatment.

In treatment, we say that the first step is to admit that you have a problem, that things have become unmanageable. In the past few years, this country has slowly begun coming to terms with the dire problems present in our criminal justice system. Both public opinion and policy have made slow, long overdue steps towards diversion and rehabilitation. Here is the Northeast, we pride ourselves on being at the forefront of these progressive strides towards reducing recidivism.

And yet within weeks of working in one of the “nicest” prisons in one of the “best” states in which to be incarcerated, I uncovered the ugly truth: treatment in the prison system has been hijacked by corrections and turned into smoke and mirrors at best, and an extension of punishment at its worst.

Prior to my termination, one of my supervisors sat me down for a disciplinary meeting to address some behaviors she saw as concerning. She summarized them by telling me, “You are too passionate, Sarah. You advocate too much for the clients. You’re trying to do real therapy, and we don’t do real therapy here.” At first, I was incredulous. How could my own supervisor make such disheartening statements? And yet I realized she was simply a spokesperson for a contractor’s precarious position. If we tried to do genuine therapy, to provide the inmates with the treatment that they deserved and so desperately needed, we would upset the DOC and lose our contract.

You see, the relationship between contracted treatment programs, like the one I worked for, and the DOC, is like that between a child and their abusive parent. Respect is instilled in the form of fear. We were told to unquestioningly obey all DOC instruction, even cover for their bad behavior, or else there would be consequences. Those who are promoted to supervisory roles are often not the most competent, but the most malleable. They become puppets of the DOC. Dissent is targeted and weeded out.

In my first few days as a counselor, I learned about the stigma surrounding us treatment staff: most officers assumed us to have inappropriate, ulterior motives for working in prison. Genuinely caring about the well-being of inmates seemed unfathomable and suspicious. Simple gestures of humanity, such as sitting down to speak to an inmate in the chow hall, were seen as repulsive and inflammatory. “I can’t believe you sat at their tables; that’s disgusting!” “They’re just stupid inmates.”

I remember my first time being disciplined for compassion. I was a few months into the job and was conducting an individual session with an inmate in a classroom by my office. Most of the desks were old and broken, and so I grabbed us each an office chair from across the hall. As my client began to gingerly open up about some difficulties he was having with his daughter, an officer burst into the room and began to aggressively reprimand us both. He screamed, red in the face, that the inmate couldn’t sit in that chair and threatened to throw him in the SMU (i.e., solitary), as I apologized and took full responsibility. I was flustered, mortified, pained. The inmate was unbothered, used to being berated.

Later my supervisor followed up on the incident. I thought she was going to check in to see if I was okay, apologize for the officer’s rash behavior. Instead, she backed him up, doubled down that I had crossed a boundary by providing my client with a comfortable chair to sit in. When I tried to push back, question why understand something that felt entirely un-therapeutic, she shut me down with, “Listen Sarah. If you don’t want to get in trouble again, whatever is the shittiest chair in the room- that’s the one they should be sitting in.”

I had entered the field because I knew the system was broken, but I thought that working in treatment would provide an avenue for me to work on fixing it from the inside. I began to question if that was possible.

I became used to getting either sneered at, gossiped about, or completely ignored by the security staff. On top of that, I noticed that treatment professionals were used as scapegoats, convenient distractions from the serious issues within DOC staff, including smuggling in contraband, inmate abuse, and their own boundary issues.

Knowing there was a target already on my back purely for being a counselor, I learned to filter myself and really choose my battles. And yet often I couldn’t help but speak up. I was providing treatment, after all, and it was my professional and ethical duty to ensure that my clients’ freedoms were being protected, their wellbeing advocated for. And so when I felt human rights were being violated, I voiced my concerns. And yet each time I said something, no matter how professionally and politely, the target on my back grew. Some of the issues that my fellow counselors and I respectfully raised included speaking out against Muslim participants being forced to wear their shirts tucked during program hours, (long, untucked shirts are a religious practice done to protect their modesty), referring to our transgender inmates by their preferred pronouns, and changing the wording on our treatment documentation from “offender” to “participant”. I thought these were some of the less controversial, simpler issues to address, no-brainers almost. But each battle was lost. And each time we tried to begin a healthy conversation about compromise, the response of the DOC was laced with the threat to stay silent, or else. My advocacy would get brought up in my supervisions, and my manager would say things like, “We appreciate your honesty! But if you can’t enforce these rules, there will be consequences.” There was a constant tension- stand up for what you believe in, or keep your job- which is more important to you? Many of us walked through the days on eggshells.

Though I was fired over my poetry, I know it was more than that. I felt it coming. They didn’t want me there. My compassion and commitment to rehabilitation, my concerns, and questions made me a big problem.

Do you know what most terrifies the DOC? It’s not the inmates. It’s not the convicted murderers and rapists, the gangs or drugs. No, the most dangerous and threatening thing inside of prison is a person who cares, who sees the humanity of inmates, who recognizes their talent and wit and resourcefulness and resilience. Who realizes the powerful, untapped potential of incarcerated people to reshape themselves.

The DOC is terrified of real treatment because real treatment means we would have to start treating these people like real humans. Dehumanization is a well-worn, deliberate tactic of the DOC. Actively distancing themselves from and demonizing the inmates is seen as a protective measure that helps security staff remain vigilant, suspicious, and strict, thus minimizing the power of inmates to beguile and manipulate. It is seen as a necessary, preventative measure that assures maximum safety and security.

Treatment directly disrupts this carefully crafted infrastructure. It calls for empathy and trauma-informed care, completely inverting the DOC’s long-standing prisoner-staff etiquette. Treatment is a threat to the status quo, peeling back the mask and exposing the fact that even in liberal states like Massachusetts, prisons are full of abuse, oppression, and a criminal lack of resources. The things that I heard and saw in there gnawed at my heart, still do. Injustice continues to prosper in the form of improper and unsuitable living facilities, nourishment, health care, education, and employment opportunities. In Massachusetts’ largest state prison, a new water treatment system was ordered by the Department of Environmental Protection in 2012 due to water supply failure and elevated levels of manganese. Six years later, the inmates are still fighting for clean drinking water.

Don’t get me wrong- there are some incredible treatment programs operating in prisons across the country. The most notable programs in the prison I worked at were education based. It boasted a collegiate level debate team, which gained attention for defeating a prominent Massachusetts University in 2016, as well as a college program, where inmates can earn their bachelor’s and even master’s degrees. These programs are often flaunted as examples of the progressive resources provided to inmates. And while they are in fact powerful programs, the publicity surrounding them is misleading. The spots in these programs are very limited and competitive, meaning that only a small fraction of the nearly 1400 inmates in the prison I worked in even have access to such resources. Publicity surrounding programs like these feels like it is used to placate public interest, rather than advocate for continued and improved rehabilitation.

I am far from alone in fighting this battle. While inside the walls, I had the honor of working alongside many passionate, dedicated people, from teachers and barbers to industry workers and culinary instructors. My fellow counselors were amazing. Despite my many issues with how the DOC operates, the problem is not personal but systemic. There are some incredible officers inside who truly get it, security staff who prioritize both safety and rehabilitation and know that the two are one and the same. They are working for a safer today, inside of the walls; we are working for a safer tomorrow, that extends far beyond the gates. And then there are the inmates- innumerable remarkable souls, building their own programs, chasing their own education and advancement, creating spaces for growth and compassion and change.

Those invested in fixing this broken system need the resources and support to provide real treatment, not threats and termination. We all win when we focus on the long-game: reducing the financial burden we all share and ensuring that the nine out of ten prisoners who rejoin us on the outside become not repeat offenders and safety concerns, but vital contributors to our communities and their families. We don’t just need more treatment in our prisons- we need real treatment. TC mark

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