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A Prison Psychologist

by Henry F. Tonn

Part 1 appears
in this issue.


One of the most interesting people I evaluate early on is a prisoner who has just gotten a multiple-year sentence for selling drugs. He has been sent in from his unit because of his strange behavior and his lack of cooperation with the authorities. He won’t work and refuses to eat cooked prison food, insisting that he wants his food to be raw. He’s a rather attractive African-American male with a narrow face and thin frame, in his late forties, who interacts in a calm but aloof manner. I ask him why he refuses to eat the prison food.

“It’s all part of the great plan,” he says.

“The great plan?” I ask.

He regards me condescendingly. “You wouldn’t understand.”

“Try me,” I encourage.

He heaves a deep sigh and says, “Sure. I have nothing else to do at the moment. I’m not leaving prison till I’m ready to leave. I’ll tell you all about it.”

He then relates his concern for the plight of the African-American population in America and has decided to intervene and institute some major changes. Over the next hour he outlines a complicated economic plan which involves building factories and hiring African-American workers to produce a product that would be sold to the white population.

The profits, then, would be plowed back into the system until sufficient income is generated to put more African-Americans to work, and so forth, until there is prosperity for all. He is going to oversee this great system and make sure it proceeds efficiently, with an eye on fairness to all.

“What about corruption?” I ask. “Whenever you have a complicated organization like this, you have to guard against corruption.”

“No problem,” he replies. “I’ll be at the helm.”

“But what happens when you die?” I ask. “The whole system you’ve built up could collapse.”

“I’ve thought of that, too,” he replies. “I’m not going to die.”

“How is that?”

“I’m not going to die. I’m going to be immortal.”

“Well, that certainly will do the trick,” I agree. “Could you tell me how exactly you’re going to pull this off? Just for the record, of course.”

“Of course,” he says. “Well, actually, it’s very simple. I’m in the process of making those preparations as we speak. You have to start with a basic understanding of life: when we’re alive we have to breathe air, eat food, and drink water. In other words, we’re dependent on air, food, and water. When we reach the point where we’re no longer dependent on these things, we can live forever. Simple.

“Consequently, I’m gradually weaning myself from air, food, and water. I breathe less, eat less, and drink less. In fact, that’s why I don’t eat cooked food. I eat raw food, natural food, to purify my body. I get closer to nature. I drink pure water — spring water, preferably — although I can’t get it here in prison. Gradually I eat less and less raw food, drink less and less pure water, and breathe less and less air. Eventually I won’t need them at all. Then I’ll be immortal!” He sits back, satisfied with himself.

I pause for a moment before saying, “I hate to tell you this, but I don’t think this idea is going to work.”

“Of course you don’t, Doc. All you people say the same thing. But has anybody ever tried it? It makes sense to me. And that’s what I’m doing. When I’m finished, this prison won’t hold me.” For the first and only time, I see a flicker of contempt pass across his face.

He is a pleasant enough fellow, and we converse a little while longer, and in the end agree to disagree, not that there is any point in our debating his view of things, anyway. I eventually present his case to the psychiatric board, which is neither amused nor impressed. They send him to the hospital, and I never see him again. I assume he either became immortal or stayed in prison for a long time.

The longer I remain at the prison and the better I get to know certain inmates, the more I learn about the inner workings of the institution. I learn that the major topics of conversation are mojos, paroles, and assholes.

Mojos are wallets. In these days Central Prison has an active leather industry where the inmates make beautiful wallets and sell them for profit. Since it’s the only source of income for many of them, a lot of energy goes into this endeavor.

Paroles, of course, mean freedom, Mom, apple pie, and the opportunity to commit more crimes.

The fixation on assholes is obvious. There are no women in the prison and they have to make do with what is available. One prisoner puts it to me succinctly: “We can get anything in this prison that you can get out there, Doc. Except women. And we’ve got something better.”

I don’t pursue the issue.

Not all inmates are devoid of emotion, although the understanding of such concepts as anxiety and depression are foreign to most of them. Once an inmate actually makes an appointment with me to question exactly what this thing called anxiety is. He has been reading a book about the subject and simply cannot understand what it is talking about. I patiently explain that it’s a feeling of nervousness inside and can make you shaky, like when your hands tremble.

“Ah!” he exclaims, suddenly brightening. “Like when the cops are shooting at you and you’ve got to keep your hand steady to shoot back straight and knock a few of ’em off.”

Um, not exactly, Scarface. But, whatever...

I watch the psychiatric staff interviewing a rather notorious inmate who has slashed himself with a razor seventy-three times. When asked why he’s done this to himself, he stares at us with utter disgust.

“Slashing myself is the only way I can get out of that damn cell,” he says. “How would you like to stare at nothing but bars all day?”

Well, he has a point. But this man has murdered two people in cold blood on the outside and is a constant menace on the inside. What sort of accommodations does he expect?

Not all of the inmates, of course, are like this. Some are fine human beings who have simply taken a wrong turn somewhere. Drugs or alcohol are usually involved.

I treat one inmate who has received twenty-five years for manslaughter. He and his fiancée were having an argument one evening while drinking wine and preparing a turkey, and in a sudden fit of anger he slashed at her with the carving knife. He severed an artery and she died before his eyes. Four years into his sentence, he is still inconsolable.

The inmates I find most interesting are the ones who work in the Processing Department, where they administer tests, type reports, and so forth. These inmates usually have some education and some literary skills and tend to read books during their off hours rather than hang around, biding their time. They are generally analytical, thoughtful, and opinionated. Each has squandered his potential at an early age by doing something stupid while inebriated, like murder or rape. “In one minute my entire life changed,” they often say, shaking their heads.

The senior of the group is sixty-five and has been in prison forty of those years for one murder and numerous escapes. He’s near the end of his sentence, and the fire of his youth is now burned out. He is quiet, resigned, and passive. “I’d just like to walk down a shady lane without worrying about the police chasing me,” he confides in me.

I spend hours chatting with these people, and the biggest problem for both of us is to avoid getting too close. They seem genuinely to miss me when I eventually leave.

The end comes quickly. In the summer of 1968, Central Prison has a prison riot. Inmates take over the yard and refuse to return to their cells. They build bonfires, make weapons, and produce a list of demands.

The warden refuses to negotiate and soon has the walls filled with the National Guard. The entire prison goes into lockdown and no one is allowed to leave. I’m scared to death, as are my colleagues. No doubt, we would have remained in the prison indefinitely had it not been for seventy-year-old Dr. Owen, who informs the warden that his health will not permit remaining on the premises. When they let him through the gate, we all quickly follow.

During the night, the Guard opens fire, killing eight inmates and wounding around seventy-five. I return to work the next afternoon to find the prison hospital filled with the wounded. They all whine about how unfairly they’ve been treated. “Psychopathic sons-a-bitches,” Dr. Owen mutters as he pokes his head in from room to room. “They never learn.”

I discover later that many inmates were caught in a loyalty trap. If they did not join the rioters, they were considered traitors. But joining could have led to their demise. So they were forced into a very difficult decision.

Prison life changes dramatically after this. Security is at a higher level, prisoners remain in their cells, and thus there is not much for the psychologists to do. I find myself becoming restless.

For months I’ve been contemplating returning to graduate school. I have a master’s degree, but my ultimate goal is to earn a doctorate. Eventually, I want to teach psychology in a university and have a private practice on the side. Already I’ve explored the possibilities of several graduate schools, but getting into one has proven difficult.

Suddenly a rumor comes that North Carolina State University, in Raleigh, is developing a doctoral program in Clinical Psychology. It is still in its infancy, but the plan is to have it going at full throttle in one to two years. Perfect for me. The University is two miles from my apartment. I have a chat with the head of the department and he invites me to apply. Two months later I am accepted.


I visit Stan, the chief psychologist, and officially tender my resignation. Stan has short gray hair and a flushed face from years of overindulging in alcohol. Due to kidney problems, he is now permanently on the wagon.

“So soon?” he queries, scrunching his face up in disappointment.

“I’ve been here ten months.”

“Has it been that long?” he says. “Time passes fast when you’re having fun, doesn’t it? Well, I guess you’ve been here long enough. If they couldn’t kill you in a prison riot, they’re probably not going to get you.” He throws his head back and laughs at his own humor.

“And for this I am deeply grateful.”

“Now you can get a cushy job, like teaching in a university or something. Have nice, curvaceous, nubile coeds wandering through your office all day looking at you with their big eyes.”

“Sounds great, after having psychopathic killers relating their sordid deeds to me every day.”

“Yeah. This life isn’t for everybody.”

“I like your idea of the nubile coeds, though.”

“Well, best of luck with your career, Henry. I’m too old to leave the prison system now. It’s part of my life.”

“Best of luck with your career, too, Stan. Maybe some day you’ll make warden.”

“God, I hope not. That’s a job nobody should have.”

Several years later, the chief psychologist becomes warden of the prison.

Copyright © 2015 by Henry F. Tonn

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