Science teaches that evolution is a slow process.
Evolution instructs that a species that cannot adapt to its environment will go the way of the Neanderthal.
The Washington Department of Corrections (WDOC) is slowly evolving, too. It remains to be seen how many prisoners and staff go extinct in the process of bringing more humanity to WDOC facilities.
When I entered prison in 1993, convicts began teaching me how to survive in the midst of inhumanity. WDOC also shaped me by means of compulsion and solitary confinement. When I was physically resistant or noncompliant, brute force was employed by staff.
Eventually, special deterrence kept me in line—most of the time.
Once I became outwardly pacified, my counselors described me to their superiors at my annual reviews as an “easy keeper,” which is a complement that means I rarely if ever bothered them for anything.
Correctional officers also began nodding at me politely when I passed them by, because they saw that I minded my own business, was obedient, and was not rude or obnoxious.
In time, I received a custody “promotion” and was transferred to a hybrid Medium/Minimum Custody facility where I saw a new species of prisoner evolve that is far different than me.
For instance, when these new breed prisoners are given direct orders by correctional officers they whine and ask “why?” as if they’re owed an explanation. When I see them ask questions in the face of direct orders, I want to tell them, “Obey or disobey, just get to it.”
These prisoners run to their counselors to ask questions rather than to just try to figure the answers out for themselves. When I hear them jabbering to their counselors about programs and good-time credit, I often think, “Leave these damn people alone. You’re just going to annoy them, or they’re going to talk down to you and make you regret coming to them for assistance.”
These prisoners readily interact with officers, as if they are “homies” or former classmates. When I see them having frequent, lengthy conversations with officers I suspect the prisoner is either working an angle or has a propensity to snitch.
This is how my mind works: Although I no longer identify myself as a convict I share many of the same sentiments because experience has demonstrated the logic behind the convict perspective.
Frankly, I feel more comfortable living in an environment where everybody knows their place—like on a Mississippi plantation before the Emancipation Proclamation.
Is this a sign that I am institutionalized?
Yet I have plenty of company who wear uniforms and badges rather than prison khakis.
There are scores of correctional officers who share similar views due to their decades of working inside prisons, especially if they spent years employed in Closed Custody facilities—which are one level above solitary confinement and, as a rule, are rife with disciplinary misconduct and acts of violence fueled by drug addiction, greed, and plain old ignorance.
Their disdain for progressive policies and practices—and the new species of prisoners and staff—is captured when these officers use the term “Prisoneyland” to describe a place like Washington State Reformatory (WSR), where counselors exist who actually want to give “counsel” to the prisoners on their caseloads rather than simply be case managers who avoid direct contact.
These old school officers seem just as bemused as me when they witness their new school colleagues taking the time to explain the reasons behind the orders that they give to prisoners.
These new breeds also perceive me quite differently than staff members from the old school. My reticence and stoicism is often disconcerting, even though I politely nod my head in passing, mind my own business, and am not rude or obnoxious.
At best, I seem distant or standoffish.
At worst, they think I have an attitude problem or am potentially dangerous.
Leaving my counselor alone to manage his or her caseload—as I make official public record requests to obtain and verify information told to me because past counselors have made me question their goodwill and integrity—does not make me an “easy keeper.”
Instead, I seem arrogant and potentially malicious.
This is WDOC in the midst of evolution.
In the end, I doubt that I will ever have a less jaundiced view of the new species of prisoners. As for my views on the ever-evolving staff members, things appear to be more promising.
A recent incident at WSR provides a perfect illustration.
Recently, I stood in the gymnasium for 15 minutes, waiting to get some water, watching the following scene unfold in front of the drinking fountain.
A female officer was calmly talking to a prisoner who was obviously upset. A male officer stood off at a distance, close enough to assist his colleague if necessary, but far enough away to not escalate the situation by seeming to be a hostile presence to the prisoner.
I have no idea what was said. But finally, the prisoner was sent back to his unit and I got my water, and as I returned to the gym, I heard the female officer tell someone on the phone that the prisoner had been “agitated” for several days, so unit staff should be cautious around him.
Note that segregation is where prisoners usually go when staff must be “cautious” around them, because any such prisoner arguably threatens the orderly operation of WDOC facilities and solitary confinement provides a remedy that can guarantee everyone’s safety.
Treated as a “Human Being”
Yet this officer talked to the prisoner as if he were a human being rather than just a convicted felon, who is here to obey and be punished. Then she just sent him back to his unit, and her suffered no repercussions.
It was astonishing.
As I had become frustrated at my inability to gain access to the water fountain, I thought, “Why don’t they just handcuff his ass and get this bullshit over with.”
I couldn’t help it.
It is hard to let go of the trauma that was induced by years of imprisonment in facilities where I was treated like an object. There are too many reminders. The ugly truth is that this treatment can occur on any given day inside any correctional facility, even Prisoneyland, and it reinforces the negative sentiments I developed from dealing with staff who act arbitrarily, capriciously, and with unnecessary hostility.
It is two steps forward and one step backwards in WDOC’s mission to become more progressive.
For instance, not long after I witnessed the above incident and felt I had gained enlightenment, a different female officer became aggressive toward me because I stopped to ask the recreation officer a question in the middle of her conversation with him.
I was polite and said, “excuse me,” but no matter; she glared, then made a veiled threat to have me thrown in segregation for purportedly being Out of Bounds, which is a disciplinary violation for being in a restricted area.
I truly regretted my lapse in judgment. In the end, I brought it on myself by thinking I could approach them and be treated with civility.
Her antics reinforced my antiquated views as to why it is best to have as little to do with these people as possible. It is the safest course of action when people like this have the power to destroy you.
It is therefore no surprise why being confined from the age of 14 to 42 has made normal, humane interactions with staff often feel unnatural to me. This is how I have survived amongst predators with badges: I adapted to this dangerous habitat by adopting the ways of a convict.
Fortunately, I’ve been granted parole so I can finally go extinct.
This is the last column for TCR that Jeremiah Bourgeois will write from confinement. On October 28, 2019, he was released after serving 27-1/2 years of a life sentence imposed when he was 14 in Washington State. He welcomes comments from readers.