A Prison Psychologist

by Henry F. Tonn

part 1


October 1967. There is a shortage of psychologists in the state of North Carolina, creating excellent employment opportunities for anyone with bare-minimum qualifications. As a fledgling psychologist searching for new experiences, I decide to apply for positions in the southeastern part of the state.

Within two weeks, the head of the Mental Health Department at Central Prison, a maximum-security unit in Raleigh, contacts me. “We’d love to talk to you, Henry,” he says. “Why don’t you drive over and see the facility?”

Central Prison houses the most dangerous inmates in the state and is reputed to be both depressing and ugly. I have already spent a year working part time in Cherry Hospital, a state institution for the mentally ill, and found it as depressing and ugly as I wanted to see. On the other hand, I like Raleigh as a city and feel I should at least check the job out.

* * *

The interview goes something like this:

HENRY: “Stan, I have to admit, this place is somewhat depressing. You drive over the hill to the entrance and you’re confronted with all those guards on the walls, with guns. Then you go through all these locked doors in order to get to your office. And there’s this constant screaming and hollering. Pretty grim!”

STAN: (nodding sympathetically) “Yeah. And it gets worse. The criminals here will kill you in a second if they can, or rape you at the very least. It’s not a pleasant place.”

HENRY: “And there’s no sunlight in here. There are no pictures on the walls. It’s gloomy!”

STAN: (nodding further) “I couldn’t agree more. We need an interior decorator. But we can’t afford one. Remember, we’re financed by the state. There’s no money. Besides, the prisoners would just ruin everything anyway, because they riot a lot.”

HENRY: “And why do you have such a big turnover among the staff? You haven’t been able to keep a full-time psychiatrist here for more than six months.”

STAN: “That’s nothing. We can’t keep psychologists, either. That’s why I’m offering you the job. I can’t get anybody else.”

HENRY: “This is not reassuring.”

STAN: “At least I’m being honest with you. You have to give me credit for that.”

HENRY: “I do. Thank you for being honest. But it looks like a terrible job, quite frankly.”

STAN: “It is a terrible job! Who in their right mind wants to be locked up all day with a bunch of murderers, rapists, child molesters, psychopaths, drug addicts, alcoholics, schizophrenics, perverts, and freaks? And I’m just talking about the staff, not the prisoners!

“But, seriously, Henry, remember, you’re a psychologist. You’re just beginning your career. You need experience. And where else can you find a better assortment of the people you ought to be studying than right here? We’re not asking you to stay forever. Just long enough to be raped and murdered a few times.”

I find his argument irresistible. I accept the job.

* * *

And he’s right, of course. It’s everything he says and worse. This is the psychiatric treatment facility for all the prisoners in the state of North Carolina. If a prisoner has problems, he’s shipped to Raleigh and evaluated by us.

We diagnose the problem, put him on the proper medication, if any is indicated, and then send him back to his unit with a report to the doctors and guards at the facility.

If the prisoner is so mentally ill that we can’t treat him at our facility, we send him to nearby Dorthea Dix Hospital, a mental institution built in the 1850’s, with a locked ward for prisoners.

To treat this constant stream of people, we have a constant stream of staff members. The one consistent treatment person is Dr. Owen, a seventy-year-old psychiatrist who has been in the system forever.

Dr. Owen has a good sense of humor and a healthy skepticism about anything an inmate tells him. He has heard it all. His favorite expression is: “I don’t see anything wrong with him. I think he’s a psychopathic son-of-a-bitch.” He says this without animosity, more like resignation, as though it is a simple fact of life in the prison world.

There are three or four other psychiatrists, part-time, who circulate through, most of them retired from other jobs, working there to pick up a little change. There is one other psychologist besides myself, and he and I do most of the initial evaluations and any needed counseling.

I hardly ever see Stan, the supervising psychologist who recruited me, because of his administrative duties.

Regardless of weather, every morning I walk the four blocks from my apartment to the prison. After ascending a small hill leading to the institution, I am greeted by an awesome sight. Spread below me is something resembling a citadel.

Central Prison has stone walls that reach several stories high, topped with barbed wire. It is constantly patrolled by menacing-looking guards with rifles. Although I haven’t done anything wrong, approaching the place makes me feel conspicuous. I’m afraid they’ll shoot me just for being a suspicious-looking character getting close to their gate.

At the first entrance I stand while a guard recognizes me and pushes a button that causes a giant wire gate to creak slowly open. I then proceed to the building entrance, again to be recognized. This also happens to be the waiting area for incoming prisoners, and sometimes making my way to the next locked door is like running a gauntlet. If a new inmate decides to kill me on the spot, there is precious little the guards could do.

Passing through the second locked door, I walk down a long corridor to the cell block where my office is located. A friendly face generally greets me here, because most of the people passing through — including inmates — are known to the guards.

My office is small, cramped, and without distinction. It does, however, have a window overlooking the yard. During my idle moments, I can watch the inmates milling about. Occasionally, I actually walk out on the yard to take in a little sunshine, but the guards frown upon it. Too dangerous, they say.

I quickly realize I have stepped into a mess. All common elements of humanity have been stripped away in this environment. The inmates, for the most part, are cold-hearted and manipulative. The staff members, particularly the psychiatrists, are arrogant and condescending.

Arriving on the scene with only two years of experience, I’ve been hoping to learn much from these people, some who have been in the system as long as twenty-five years. But it’s not working out that way.

An example: One day I’m presenting to the staff a patient I’ve been treating for several months for behavioral problems. One of the psychiatrists, after asking the patient a number of insolent questions, opines, “This is obviously a retarded depression. He needs to be hospitalized.”

I’m aghast. The inmate is doing well in therapy. I’m accomplishing something useful in this difficult environment. I don’t want him going to the hospital where they will fill him with drugs and make him angrier than ever. He is not particularly depressed, and in this situation I feel obliged to offer a differing opinion.

“With all due respect, I don’t think he’s depressed. He just tends to be moody. I’d like to keep him here and continue treating him. He’s making progress.”

“This is a retarded depression,” the psychiatrist replies with thunderous finality. He’s a bald-headed man who speaks with a gravelly Hungarian accent. “I’ve seen hundreds of them in the prison system. He needs to be hospitalized.” He looks around at his colleagues who all nod sagely in agreement. “If you gave him an MMPI, you would find the depression scale sharply elevated.”

MMPI stands for the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory, then and now considered the top personality test in America. I respond, “Well, I gave him an MMPI two months ago, and it wasn’t elevated then. I don’t think it is now. I’ll tell you what: I’ll administer another. If the depression scale is as high as you say, we’ll send him to the hospital. If it’s low, we keep him here, and I’ll continue treating him.”

He sort of rolls his eyes in exasperation. “Suit yourself. He’s your patient.”

I give him the MMPI and, as expected, his depression scale is quite normal. I ask him the next day, “What was wrong with you in that psychiatric staffing? You acted like you were out of it.”

He’s a tall, thin, proud African-American who usually wears a sullen scowl. “They’re a bunch of phonies,” he replies. “They treat us like dogs. I just answered their questions the best I could. I don’t give a damn about them.”

“They thought you were depressed and ought to go to the hospital.”

He snorts, “That’s the least of my worries.”

After that I rely on my own judgment.


Proceed to part 2...

Copyright © 2015 by Henry F. Tonn

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