May 10, 2019
If I asked you to describe prison, you’d probably say something along the lines of “cold,” “brutal” or “my uncle’s address.” Contrast that with typical words used to describe Elmhurst: “tranquil,” “friendly” or “blissfully unaware of the rest of the world.” It’s hard to imagine jail and Elmhurst in the same sentence. That’s why when the local head warden reopened the renovated York Penitentiary almost a year ago, he knew he would have to run things a little differently. As the jail nears its first birthday, the team here at Is This York? decided to take a look at the changes made to improve the prison’s security throughout the year.
Instead of the typical orange jumpsuit, prisoners don horribly mismatched outfits, ritzy Airpods and generally positive attitudes. It almost makes the term of prison sound a bit too dramatic. However, seasoned guard Cyndi Cal warns not to let the prisoners’ exteriors fool you.
“Oh trust me, they belong here,” Cal said with a scowl. “These monsters have earned their time here, and they’ll do whatever they can to disrespect authority.”
Similarly, many of the inmates had complaints about their guards. Take student Donna Prima, the well known leader of the prison’s theatre troupe, whose reign gives her the title of “Drama Queen.”
“It’s literally like the guards here are out to get us,” Prima said. “I can’t even take three steps without some privilege being ripped away.”
Despite their opposition, Cal and Prima agreed on one thing: “It’s like we’re living in a high school!” This struck us as a strange comparison for them both to make. After all, many high schools have students that are much more disrespectful and irresponsible than the inmates at York Penitentiary, and unlike the prison, many high schools incorporate metal detectors and bag checks as key parts of their daily routine. However, both sides maintain that they are right and the others are wrong, which, of course, generates only civil discussions and healthy mindsets.
Inmates at York Penitentiary carry identification numbers, a common practice among prisons as it’s important to have a simple system to keep track of prisoners. The ID numbers were the topic of many security discussions over the past year and a key factor in a number of changes made to the old system. Unfortunately, not every one of these changes was successful. For example, after the renovations were complete, the wardens tried to implement a new system to keep track of each prisoner’s privileges. Each prisoner was issued a pouch, later dubbed a “prison wallet”, to hold their ID number and unique stickers associated with every special activity or duty the prisoner was allowed to participate in. While the wardens anticipated support for their new ID and sticker system, the inmates surprisingly weren’t willing to carry items in their prison wallets.
“It all feels a little bit childish and uncomfortable,” convict James Reynolds said. “Forcing people who hope to soon live independently to collect stickers simply seems patronizing. Soon they’ll make us suck on pacifiers and wear diapers everywhere we go!”
The inmates weren’t alone in their displeasure. Some of the guards felt similarly about the new system.
“Trust me, I’m not exactly thrilled to have to check every inmate’s ID number,” guard Laura Jones said. “In fact, it’s quite time-consuming and a little humiliating for us to make sure each inmate has the proper sticker.”
The problems with the sticker system seemed to just worsen when the prisoners found ways to take advantage of its shortcomings. Many convicts would obtain stashes of stickers from their suppliers and hide their contraband in their prison wallets to sell to peers. The bathroom on the third floor turned from a safe-haven for prisoners to relieve themselves into a rotten cesspool of unethical sticker transactions. Eventually, a black market was established, and inmates’ prison wallets were covered with so many different stickers that they became impossible to interpret. Like the prison culinary class made specifically for convicted cannibals, the project was doomed to fail.
However, some of the changes did make a difference, even if they weren’t immediately successful, especially the mess hall policies. After the prison’s initial overhaul, guards vigilantly watched the doors and hardly let anyone out, even when convicts were attempting to leave for their prison-appointed labor. If an inmate tried to leave with food, they had a better chance of Shawshanking their way through the walls than getting past the guards, who forbade any food leaving the mess hall.
While this was part of an effort to reduce garbage around the prison and the amount of prisoners wandering the halls, it presented a problem for those who had to leave for labor shifts. Ironically, the new policies were such a burden that prisoners would avoid going into the mess hall, defeating the purpose of keeping all the inmates in one place. After two fights broke out in the mess hall, the wardens decided to adjust their strategy. Now, they scan ID numbers in order to know where convicts are in case of emergencies. This, combined with more lenient restrictions on leaving the mess hall, has produced much better results. However, some inmates are still skeptical. Whenever prisoners don’t have their ID numbers, they are required to spend five bucks in order to get a new one. Because of this, a few prisoners suspect that this new system is a ploy to make a profit off of these transactions. It’s a valid theory, as receiving funds through five dollar increments is a totally legitimate and practical way to raise money for the prison. Only time will tell if this hypothetical scam will be proven fact or fiction.
That being said, security in the prison has improved over the past year, and many positive changes were implemented. However, if the inmates’ and guards’ attitudes towards each other are any indication, room for growth still exists. This will require not only a change in policy, but a change in how both sides of this interdependent relationship handle these policy changes. The wardens of the prison would benefit from better communication. It’s important to explain to the inmates why certain changes are being made. Otherwise, they’ll often assume that the wardens are just trying to make their sentences miserable. The wardens should also consider asking for input from the convicts. After all, if the goal is cooperation, then the easiest solution is asking the opinion of those that you want to cooperate. Just don’t ask No-Pants Pete. He’s a big promoter of the nudist movement.
As for the convicts, they need to remember why they are in prison: to reform and prepare for life after incarceration. That means being able to compromise in order to reach a mutual goal. That mutual goal was perfectly summed up by inmate Benjamin Crit, or as he’s commonly known in prison, Hippo.
“To be honest, I am sick of all the violence in this prison.” Hippo Crit said, while holding another inmate in a headlock and not wearing his ID. “I just want our prison to feel safer.”
The convicts also must resist the urge to grow apathetic to the situation. After all, ensuring everyone’s safety should be as big of a priority for the prisoners as it is for the wardens.
“Sure, things aren’t perfect, but we have to remember that we all want the same thing: to feel safe,” Canadian inmate Tristoon Contant-eh said. “We have to stop viewing the creation of new policy as inmates versus wardens. There’s no need for a big kerfuffle, eh. We’re all on the same team. It’s kind of like the wardens are french fries, the guards are cheese curds, and the prisoners are the gravy. Separately, we’re all pretty good, eh. But mix us together, and you get a beauty of a poutine.”*
*Unfortunately, other prisoners overheard Contant-eh’s recommendations for solving the inherent issues. They swiftly clobbered him, following the age-old adage, “snitches get stitches”.