Journal of Criminal Justice and Popular Culture Copyright © 1994 Journal of Criminal Justice and Popular Culture
All rights reserved.
ISSN 1070-8286

Journal of Criminal Justice and Popular Culture, 2(6) (1994) 147-155

A Short Story: An Unconventional Way to Teach and Report Prison Research [1]

J Forbes Farmer, Ph.D.
Franklin Pierce College
Chair of the Division of Behavioral Sciences
Professor of Sociology/Social Work

A. Introduction

A year ago after completing an extensive investigation into the effects of "unit management" on inmates and prison staff, I discovered that my students were only politely interested in the formality of the quantitative results and theoretical analyses. They were, however, genuinely excited about, and visibly intrigued by, the unpublished vignettes I offered concerning the lives and circumstances of the people I had interviewed. It was interesting that, through these stories, students began to ask if, and why, some American prisons could really be such bastions of neglect and tradition that advancements in criminal justice policy and modern technology often seemed to pass them by. Did the answer lie in the prison culture? Should prison management be blamed? Or the legal system? Or the American economy? Could the answer be found in some complex combination of many factors? Students also wondered how a social scientist could ever discover the "truth" when so many seemingly different versions of reality, such as those of staff and inmates, could be told. Lively debates ensued in class primarily because the actors and events in the prison setting were humanized in the stories. It was to continue trying to interest students in studying criminal justice that I wrote the following fact-based short story which was inspired by inmate and prison staff accounts collected during the aforementioned project.

B. The Story

"Frozen in Time"

Officer Ben Johnson knew the evening shift was about up as he shivered in the artificial light outside a neglected brick building and then ducked into the guards' room at Colgate State Prison, a medium-security facility in Massachusetts. He shook the snow off his cap, removed his stiff gloves, blew into his aching hands, and inserted two [End page 147] quarters into the coffee machine. Johnson looked up as he sipped from his steaming cup; it was ten by the old brass clock. "Only one and a half hours to go," he sighed and thought of his pregnant wife and two-year-old son sleeping warmly in their duplex apartment twenty minutes away. The guards' room, with its green walls and black linoleum floor, used to be the medical staff's lounge thirty-five years ago when the building overflowed with state mental patients. Although uninviting, the room was clean; inmates mopped and waxed between the eight and eleven o'clock counts every morning. On this frigid January evening the radiators steamed, and the cap and gloves that Johnson had dropped on the oak bench soaked in melted snow. From the window he saw snow swirling around the prison floodlights and a partially decomposed, frozen owl swaying upside down from the razor wire at the top of the perimeter wall.

Deep inside F building three cons whispered in their sweltering cell. George Stockton was commonly referred to by the staff as the state's con because he had been in and out of incarceration since he was thirteen, beginning with several stints in reform schools that were closed in the early 1970s. He was serving a life sentence for two murders committed during a bank robbery twenty-three years ago. By now he was conditioned to prison regularities and resigned to defending himself for life in Colgate - - or a minimum joint if the Massachusetts public ever forgot Willie Horton, whose infamous weekend furlough closed down minimum-security options for all state lifers.

Stockton's cell mate of five years was Corbin Riley, a powerhouse with a large head and long golden-brown hair. He had begun adult life as a well-paid computer programmer, a job he snared while a senior at Holy Cross. Riley had been enjoying the materialistic pleasures of the middle class; he had a $1,200-a-month white colonial four bedroom house on the eighth fairway of the Weston Country Club, a $450-a-month red Porsche and a $50-a-month 52-inch TV. He also had a gorgeous, live-in woman whom he was surprising with a Chinese combination takeout lunch when he found her in their bed with his neighbor and regular racquetball opponent. Convicted of murdering his friend while his woman ran screaming naked onto the fairway, Riley, like Stockton, had bought a life bid without parole. Riley was bitter. His trust in the legal system had taken an icy plunge when his ivy-league lawyer screwed up a temporary insanity plea, took him for $45,000 in fees, and then lived with his woman for a year after the trial.

Moments before Officer Johnson entered the guard's room, Peter Tully completed a transfer from Lenox to Colgate; in handcuffs and leg shackles, he had swayed for three hours in the cold rear compartment of a Department of Corrections van [End page 148] as it skidded over icy routes 90 and 495. He felt hungry, tired, afraid, angry, and marooned as correctional officers startled Stockton and Riley, who were reading on their cots. "Make way for a new roommate," yelled one of the officers.

Stockton and Riley used to have single cells, but pressured by overcrowding the administration risked tipping the delicate balance of prison life and packed them together into a cell built for one. A third cot was in there, too, which left a three-by-six-foot area for cramped pacing. As much as Stockton and Riley hated being doubled or tripled up at all, what they hated worse was sometimes having to share their tiny home with a young drug punk or a "skinner," a con in for sex crimes. Stockton and Riley often laughed about how they could smell the rancid smell of skinners a mile away.

Twelve hours earlier Tully had been sexually assaulted at Lenox State Prison. Cops had rushed him to Lenox immediately after his sentencing for killing a female co-worker at Women's Flats in the Burlington Mall, where he agonized over ill-fitting shoes and impatient women. Three elderly nuns trying on shoes for their first trip to the Vatican and dozens of "mallers" returning Christmas gifts had witnessed Tully's loud argument and subsequent knife jabs to his colleague's stomach. Inexperienced staff at Lenox had foolishly assigned the diminutive, first-time offender to share a cell with a beast who attacked fifteen minutes after the guards had left them alone. Tully's screams saved him from total humiliation. Adding to his abuse tonight was the incessantly talkative female driver who should have kept her moral lecture to herself and paid more attention to the slippery roads and poor visibility than to Tully's well-publicized murder trial.

"No man likes to be talked down to by a woman," Tully angrily whispered to his new cell mates as he made his cot and related selected portions of his crime and the maniacal flight over the icy roads. "Whether women pay now or later, they pay."

Stockton and Riley did not like hearing this. They had rank, reputation, and prison status, and stood up for the "weaker sex," as they insisted on calling women.

"Don't mess with the women here," warned Stockton. "The screws will make YOU pay behind the door, if you get my drift. And they'll deny it, of course."

"They wouldn't dare," announced Tully, taken aback by Stockton's warning and cocky about his lawyer's ability to protect him. Tully listened, though. He was beginning to feel rather fortunate; it was better to be lectured to, or even yelled at, than to be physically attacked. [End page 149]

"George is right," yawned Riley, spooked by this interruption of his peace and caring little for the kid's well-being. "The cops start the fights ninety-nine percent of the time. They do it to get disability you know. And they're all in it together, looking for the time off and the extra dough. The other cops don't even stop it when they see another cop beating you up."

"It's all part of the prison game," continued Stockton. "They treat you like a dog, and if you retaliate, if you come back at them, then Bingo! It's their union-job security."

"You can't even file a grievance against them," agreed Riley. "You've got to stay out of their face. It does no good because they all stick together. They're crooks, too. They stole money from me and I could prove it, but they'd rip up my library card and stop my visits if I tried."

"Filing a grievance is like writing to yourself," said Stockton, who chose not to comment on Riley's financial loss. "Besides, I ain't no snitch. I keep to myself, work a job, and do my own time." Riley sensed a sadness in Stockton's voice. Riley knew that since Stockton had come to Colgate over twenty years ago, he had tried, unsuccessfully, to contact his parents. They had apparently moved away to start a new life after he, their only child, got a life sentence. Stockton's only contact outside of prison was regular correspondence with two teachers, now retired and elderly, who he had in reform school years ago.

Riley was uncomfortable. He got off his cot, stretched his muscular arms out in front of his chest, contracted his hands like a cat sheathing its claws, and then slowly lowered his arms. He adjusted his white boxers and walked to the window that was open just enough that the snow couldn't get in; most inmates on this second floor had their windows similarly open, which was probably why the heat was running so hot. Riley thought of seconding Stockton's warning for this raw kid to do his own time without getting in anyone's space, but instead he just gazed beyond the window bars and out over snowy no-man's land between F building and the wall. He stared at the frozen owl hanging from the razor wire. He and Stockton had seen the bird get caught after lock-up on one of those hot, mosquito nights last July; they had watched it struggle and die. They examined it as closely as they could without entering no-man's land, where they could get shot. All August they watched it bake in a cloud of flies. All fall they watched it turn black. A million times they had talked about the bird and the lazy unionized staff; it wasn't in anyone's job description to take the thing down.

"You're on your own, Kid," said Riley as he poured tepid water from a white plastic pitcher into a blue plastic cup [End page 150]

that he took off the cramped single shelf in the cell. Occupying every inch on the remainder of the shelf were two toothbrushes, a tube of Colgate toothpaste, a hot plate, a small covered pot, a can of LaChoy fried rice, a soap box and a pump bottle of Jergens' Advanced Therapy skin lotion. He returned the pitcher to its place on the floor under the shelf and nestled back on his cot. "It's a jungle in here, and you have to watch your ass. The administration doesn't listen to us and neither do the classification and parole people. No matter how hard you bust your hump to please them, the Boston office and the staff here could care less. We all become a forgotten number."

"The staff here don't give you good-time earned either," agreed Stockton. "They lie about your moves to minimum and blame someone downtown."

Riley wanted to go back to his reading, but he was both disturbed by Tully's intrusion into his peace and space, and, at the same time, happy to vent at someone new, someone controllable. "Kid, this place is a playpen for snitches, scum-of-the-earth rapists and crazies, and was built to destroy your identity." Riley heard a jailhouse lawyer in the law library come out with that, and he agreed with it. Everyone in the library had laughed, even the cops. Tully did not.

"Ain't no privacy either," complained Stockton. "Cons coughing all over you, inspecting you in the shower, stealing your personal stuff, and wanting to read your mail. Staff videotape your visits and listen in with hidden bugs. There's never enough food, and they overcook the slop anyway. It's hell living in this dirty, roach- and rat-infested, overcrowded hole."

"What's that smell?" asked Tully who had noticed it when he first entered the cell but worried about his safety and new cell mates and feared asking.

"It's our pack-a-potties," grinned Riley. "Look under your bed; you've got one, too. Just keep it there with a cover over it; let it sizzle. As you can see, we don't have any plumbing here in the Colgate Ritz. None of the suites in this hotel have any sinks or toilets. No sink. No throne. We empty the potties into a bin down the hall every morning. We stand in line with the flies and our little stinking treasures and after the dumping the con with the least seniority, that'll be you in a few hours, gets to scrub the bin and mop the corridor floor with Mr. Clean. You're in for the pigpen deluxe, Sweet Treat. We aim to please and serve you with a smile."

"The cops think they can boss you around," said Stockton. [End page 151]

"They're always bringing up your crimes and putting you down for what you did and should have done. What they'd have done if they'd been you, you know."

"And they laugh about your life," added Riley, who thought of the cops riding him about his kind-hearted, unflappable, cellist father. He pictured his seasonally frenetic mother, who had sexually abused him, and finally died of cervical cancer. He thought of the $23,000 his father was helping him pay back to Holy Cross while other cons were getting a free education through college-extension programs.

"Yup. Their job is to guard you, not judge you and punish you," agreed Stockton. "They played with my mail today. I stood in line for an hour in the damn snow, too. `Sorry, Georgie boy, no mail today,' they told me. After chow tonight the screw comes up and says they found a package for me and I can get it tomorrow."

Riley, who was staring at the snow blowing now through the open window, yawned again and reflected, "This place is a disgrace. I slipped in the shower today on the slimy concrete. I even had my flip-flops on." "Do they have TV here?" asked Tully, who wasn't a big talker and wished these guys would shut up. He wondered what he'd said or done to bring on this crap.

"Sure, in the rec room, but you can't hear with all the cons talking," said Stockton. "I'm telling you, we get no peace. Too many skinners, druggies and lazy staff. At least with cons you know where you stand. The staff is totally out of control."

"They suck money from the public till," added Riley as he arched his back and adjusted his twisted boxers again. "They sit around drinking coffee, telling jokes, figuring out ways to get overtime and smuggle steaks out of the kitchen, nosing about our business."

"You ain't never going to get out of here," dropped Stockton with unalterable conviction. Maybe tomorrow Stockton would talk to Tully about how crooked politicians and some rich folk get away with behaviors he believed were far more destructive to the social fabric than robbery and unintended death.

"We could move to minimum," said Tully lacking confidence and sounding rather prematurely connected to these new cell mates. Flushing, he looked first to Riley and then to Stockton for a response and wished he hadn't said "we."

Riley said nothing but sent an icy stare right through [End page 152] Tully. Stockton shook his head and said, "Don't bet on it. They always deny you moves to lower. They're praying for a riot like at Attica or Santa Fe so they can shoot us, gas us, or bus us bare-assed to Oxford, Wisconsin, in the middle of the freezing night. The deputy knows I got enemies here. This place ain't safe. They promised us, me and Riley, a move to the minimum farm, but lied. Two of my friends were assaulted last night. Johnson did it, the new night cop. No record of course. They don't respect us. Another cop stole a $300 leather jacket from me. They don't say nothing or do nothing about it."

Two or three minutes passed in silence. Some snow still blew through the open window and the cell radiator kept pounding out the heat. Riley lay quietly on his cot and watched Tully figure out where on the cramped shelf he could put the newly issued unwrapped soap that he held in his left hand. Tully had his right hand on the skin lotion when Riley eased off his cot and with one silent spring stood poised and glaring at him. "Hey!" he yelled in Tully's ear. Tully chilled and focused his frightened eyes on Riley's broad nose just inches away. "Don't mess with our stuff."

The snow swirled faster now around the floodlights, and the frozen owl knocked against the razor wire. Officer Johnson stood over the wastebasket in the guards' room and, like a bombardier, dropped his paper coffee cup dead center; he adjusted his wet cap and soggy gloves, tightened his coat collar, and braced through the wind and five inches of new snow towards G building, his next to last security stop. The second floor was nothing but locked offices and a central space full of secretarial desks, typewriters, Xerox and shredding machines. The first floor was just storage rooms crammed with old bureaus, cot springs and mattresses that he figured the mental patients had used. When he got to the basement, Johnson held the guard's massive key ring tightly in his hand and smashed it against a steel door that had "KITCHEN" stenciled on it in dark green paint. In the three months that he had worked at Colgate, he learned that this key-smashing ritual usually scared away the large rats that came out to play when all was quiet. The kitchen cons, with cop approval, brought cats in once, but the rats ate them. He opened the door and paused. In the warm basement kitchen, lit only by a bare light bulb hanging from the ceiling, Johnson watched two rats scamper through a stainless steel dishwasher, drop to the concrete floor, and disappear through a gnawed hole in the wooden door to the potato bin. "Damn!"

Officer Johnson retreated from the basement and locked the kitchen and G building doors behind him. He squinted to keep out the piercing snow as he strode into the yard and fresh cold air towards F building. He hoped he'd find the cons in this building quiet tonight. Last night he had to [End page 153] confiscate some homemade hooch and break up a fight between two drunken cell mates. Johnson wished he had time during his security rounds to get to know the cons. He heard, above the wind, a rhythmic knocking and slowly turned until the frozen owl came into focus. "Someone ought to take that down," he thought as he turned back towards F building, where he had to count ninety-three living bodies before he could card out, go home, take a hot shower, and snuggle up to his sleeping wife.

C. Concluding Remarks

I know of no scholarly and professional criminal justice journal, except this one, which is open to publishing the kind of fact-based fictional account represented by the preceding story. The unfortunate result is that criminologists often miss out on resources that really pique the interest and imagination of students. Many questions, such as those that follow, can be asked about the story; the questions are useful in stimulating focused discussion and debate on several criminal justice issues.

How would you respond to Stockton's and Riley's complaints about prison life? If their complaints were true, how would you explain why they occur and what would you do about them if you were the prison superintendent? If you were Officer Johnson? Do you think Stockton and Riley have lied to Tully? To what extent does prison life, as depicted in this story, reflect American values? What are Tully's chances of psychological and physical survival? Do you agree with Stockton's belief that "crooked politicians and some rich folk get away with behaviors far more destructive to the social fabric than robbery and unintended death?" Why might some murderers, like Stockton and Riley, think they are better people than rapists and other sex offenders? Do you think they are? What factors seem to contribute to the inmate social structure? What elements of the prison structure contribute to the inmate culture? Explain any symbolism you see in the frozen owl. How realistic is the situation described in this story? How can a prison in the mid-1990s get away with having rats in the kitchen and no plumbing in inmate cells? Explain how prison life may, indeed, be delicately balanced. How should prison officials deal with overcrowding? Do you think correctional officers are as unaffected by inmates as Stockton and Riley would have us believe? If so, why?

There are certainly no simple answers to any of these questions, but the questions represent a broad range of criminal justice issues that always need to be addressed. Additionally, I believe that social scientists occasionally, through research, leave the seeds for the research sites to become better off than when they were entered. I hope this [End page 154] was the case with the prisons where I interviewed and surveyed 149 staff and 442 inmates who, for the most part, spoke out without fear of retaliation. The prison superintendents have already seen the quantitative results of my study. I await word that permission was granted by the Department of Corrections for the prison librarians to share my short story with the courageous respondents. In any event, it may even be that my particular story informs and supports a larger generalization.


1. Special thanks to the Florence and Daniel Guggenheim Foundation for funding the prison research project that inspired this story. [End page 155]