This article was published in collaboration with the Marshall Project.
On my birth certificate, my father's occupation is listed as "policeman." Dad was a cop as far back as I can remember, though he later worked in corrections as a medical supervisor for the Texas Department of Criminal Justice.
Being raised in a law enforcement family—and in a military town where minimum-wage jobs in fast-food restaurants are plentiful, but jobs paying a living wage are scarce—it never occurred to me to be afraid of working in a prison.
Then I worked at a GEO Group private prison in Lawton, Oklahoma.
GEO operated a medium-security correctional facility southeast of town, and I knew—from a billboard ad—that they were hiring. They paid a better wage than any other job I'd found, so I applied.
The hiring process took a couple of days. There was an online questionnaire that had a lot of questions about temperament, like, "Should you force an inmate to obey your order, or should you speak to him with a respectful tone?" I had to pass a physical, which consisted of little besides a brief conversation with their contracted doctor.*
My first three weeks at Lawton were spent learning use-of-force submission techniques and becoming chemical-weapons certified. During the training, I remember one of the instructors telling us that what we were learning was not designed to force an inmate to do something against his will, but rather to help him decide for himself that he wanted to drop to the ground, face down.
I came into the process with preconceived notions about prisoners I'd inherited from my own world. I once heard my dad say, "A bullet costs 75 cents—they ought to line them all up and shoot them in the head."
I don't think Dad was being literal, but I know he doesn't think much of people behind bars. Either way, I certainly thought prisoners were different from normal people. They didn't feel pain like I did; being abused wasn't as bad for them as it would be for someone like me, I figured.
But a few weeks into the job, I noticed a good-looking young inmate serving lunch in the staff dining area. He couldn't have been older than 20, and something about him reminded me of my son, Michael, who died when he was 20.
This boy seemed to be enjoying his job, as though he belonged at a high school dance or a football game. I was happy he could to find some joy in such a dreary place.
But then I saw him the next day.
His face was bruised and beaten, his hands swollen like someone twisted them with a corkscrew. I wanted to know what happened, to know who did this to him. But I couldn't ask—that would have been frowned upon—and never found out.
The next day, someone else was working in staff dining. I never saw the young man again.
Everyone who decides to work in prison has to figure out exactly how to interact with the inmates. No one wants to be accused of being "inmate-friendly." At first, I was awkward around the prisoners: I didn't want to be hateful, but I didn't want to be a pushover.
Once I saw a piece of pencil art drawn by an inmate. I wanted to tell him how much I admired his piece, but I didn't. Prisoners were often keen observers of human behavior, opportunists who wouldn't hesitate to use me for their own ends. So I said, "Don't get the idea you can take advantage of me, but I want you to know you're an extraordinary artist."
He was grateful and said he understood that the compliment didn't mean I was going to start slipping him cigarettes.
Another time, a sick inmate was taken to a hospital for a couple of weeks. When he returned, he was post-op with a colostomy bag. I didn't know what this man had done to be in prison, but the only thing worse than being in prison was being there in his condition. These cells were tiny steel walk-in closets with two bunks, a sink/toilet, and a small desk. This was where he'd have to adjust to the traumatic changes in his body.
The waste from the colostomy sometimes leaked onto his body and in the cell. I remember the stench being so strong that it drifted into the pod, making me gag when I was nearby.
An inmate locked in a cell with human waste oozing out of his body—that is prison.
After a couple of years, I took another job helping inmates prepare for reentry into their communities. Those men each had their own backstories about how they became prisoners. But almost all of them grew up believing prison was inevitable.
I felt that, like my father, I had been viewing the world through the wrong lens. And the prisoners I met who were locked away, as well as the ones trying to reemerge on the outside—they were the ones helping me see things as they truly are.
M. LeAnn Skeen is a substitute teacher in Lawton, Oklahoma. She graduated from Cameron University in 2016 with a BA in English Literature, and is in the process of obtaining her certification to be an English teacher and reading specialist.
*In statement, Pablo Paez, vice president of corporate relations at GEO Group, Inc., said, "We train our officers to treat our inmates humanely and with the utmost respect for their rights, we supervise and review our officers to ensure they follow this policy, and we enforce it strongly, including terminating officers who violate our policies. At our Lawton, Okla. facility, our officers must complete training consistent with nationally recognized standards set by the American Correctional Association. This training includes 120 hours of pre-service training, including 16 hours of training on the use of force, chemical agents, and related matters. Our officers then receive 40 hours of additional in-service training each year. Our trainers receive 40 hours of certified training courses developed by the National Institute of Corrections. Our Lawton facility received an accreditation score in excess of 99.7 percent during a recent independent review by the American Correctional Association."
Illustration by Matt Rota