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Tough Prisons

  • August 16th, 2007

At 5-30 am the noise in the jail is intense. Steel cell doors crash open to great clangs, reverberating with with barked military commands. Four gangs of five men are about to be chained together just for us. Ordinarily they’d have already gone, but they’ll be the last out of the jail this morning.

They’re pleased to be our spectacle. Stopping to suit the TV3 camera crew, and the separate documentary crew, will shorten their actual work time in the searing sun from perhaps 5 hours to 3. 

They’re ordered into line then they hold position, shuffling from foot to foot, chanting the cadence, “left, left, left, right, left,” like a diesel left running because it’s easier than switching if off to chat or buy an icecream. There is an unexplained delay while superiors confer into their microphones.

When theNorth Mountains rubbish collection order “stand” is finally given 20 boots go out to have chains padlocked around each left ankle . 

Then we’re off down echoing passages, the men chanting and stamping one boot to maintain cadence, the other boot avoiding the chain by shuffling  and kicking  it out of the way. The second to last in the last gang is a klutz. He’s irritating the men in front and behind him by stepping on the chain, or stumbling forward and making it tug. I feel for him. The other two guys have sinister tattoos. I wonder if his lack of coordination will cost him later.

As an officer in the Territorials I avoided formal parades whenever possible. I would lose the rythym. But I know that many, if not most soldiers secretly like marching and drill as long as there is not too much. Perhaps it scratches the itch that makes people do aerobics or line dancing. We like watching and doing movement in synchrony. Yet I still find marching chants faintly embarassing. The Vogel bread ad never appealed to me.

I think I can feel horror in the nearest of the three  TV women.

I remember that too, when I first saw army drill practice. The bellowed commands and straining and machine-like movements seemed so demeaning. But then of course it became normal, even pleasurable. I remind myself that Martians might interpret the audience at a rugby match or rave party, as a political elite inflicting cruel punishment on those forced to sweat and strain before them.

 The day before was only 1 degree below Sunday’s Phoenix record temperature, and the guards tell us that last night’s monsoon downpour will add humidity to make 114 feel much worse. If it gets health threatening they tell us, the gangs will be  brought back early.

The gangs load the bus, enjoying the air conditioning because the temperature is already 80 and it is just after dawn. Their prison is not air conditioned. A call at the loading bays of the “food factory” to collect bagged lunches and water, then we’re all off in a convoy of our rental cars.

An hour later we arrive at the North Mountains Park. Each chain gang lines up at the trailed portaloo. As you might imagine orderly queuing is unavoidable.

The loo queue

Today’s job will be to carry black plastic bags along the highway verge picking up rubbish. The first task is to set up boldroadside warning signs. They do not say “road works” or “men working”. They say “Sheriff’s Chain Gang”.

Our liason officer, a short attractive sergeant, wearing pepper spray canisters, a taser and a handgun (loaded she assures the questioning TV crew)  explains that the point is to ensure that the people can see their taxes at work, and parents can say to their kids – “that’s what will happen to you if you dont behave”.

Gangs usually work for 5 hours only, because the procedures for checking in and the strip search when they get back use up the rest of the assigned 8 hours.

The men seem cheerful but respectful, not staunch. Only a very short Mexican is conscientious. He tells me he is a landscape garderer and he loves cleaning up – it makes him feel normal.

After a couple of hours we are off to catch up with some female gangs. 80% of the women on them are genuine volunteers (that is they have chosen the gangs in preference to other work (laundry, kitchen, cleaning etc) and not to cut the time they are on penalty for infractions (the main reason for men participating).

All the guards have emphasized the differences between men and women inmates. Plainly the women enjoy their work. Despite sweat kept at bay only by the pink towels all carry (it is now up to 103 degrees) they’re school working bee cheerful, not Volga boatmen. They’ve impeccably cleared several hundred metres of road verge, and vigorous hoeing and chopping go on throughout our time there.

When cameras from a San Francisco women’s TV channel start running I expect instant hammy dolefulness. The women are too cheerful. It must infuriate the camera crews. 

Overall, the chain gang morning confirmed the impressions of all other visits to Maricopa County facilities. What they do is not especially important. How they do it is the key.

In a tightly disciplined organisation, well run by fully empowered confident leaders, doing work they see as worthwhile, everyone gains. The greatest difference is probably at the bottom, where the alternative could be hellish. The Sheriff’s men and women could be tyrannous, if their culture went septic. Instead there is disingenuous openness and enthusiasm.

Most of the NZ prisons  I’ve visited reek with the sour smell of  resentment and wasted time.  The hopeless cynicism they convey is the true tyranny.  

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