“I feel like a lot of the Corrections Officers go above and beyond their duty to make your life miserable,” my brother says on one of our weekend phone calls. He’s feeling especially annoyed today, trying his best to stay positive during a weeks-long lockdown. Wildfires rage across the West. Bad air quality makes it dangerous to spend too much time outside, and prisons are shuffling their populations to areas of the state that are less actively burning. Women usually incarcerated at Coffee Creek moved into another part of my brother's home facility last week, and there are extra restrictions on movement to prevent mixing. The men are allowed an hour and a half of yard time every day, but the rest of the time they spend in a large, communal dorm room filled with bunks and dozens of guys hanging around, shooting the shit.
“They don’t just do their job description,” he says about the COs. In the background, I can hear the din of the guys waiting behind him in line and the rest, behind them, hanging around the dorm. There is a constant murmur of conversation, the sounds of shuffling sneakers, the rustle of bodies in motion. At his current residence, Columbia River Correctional Institution, the unit’s 80 guys share three phones and four shower stalls. Sometimes my brother waits an hour and a half to make a phone call.
“They go out of their way to nitpick little things that really have no threat to the safety and security of the facility, or to them personally, even,” he continues.
I am always shocked at his careful and formal vocabulary. He said the COs’ small methods of torture “have no threat the safety and security of the facility.” He says that twice, “the safety and security of the facility,” and it makes me want to protect him by correcting his language. Correcting. You are someone who is wrong at your core, so we are sending you away to be corrected. It is sometimes painful to peel words back, to reveal the cruelty that lurks at their centers.
I want to correct him. I want to say “Don’t say things like that when you get out of prison. You’ll sound institutionalized.” I know the tells from working with so-called youth offenders. Some things the kids said revealed their intimacy with convoluted legal systems and bureaucratic processes. They’d have a mouth full of slang and then say something like “reintegrate into the community,” and I’d want to wash their mouths out with soap. Nobody says facility out here. Nobody says rehabilitation. Instead people say place or building. They say rehab. They say get better. Certain words betray us to our listeners.