POINCIANA – “Ben” pulls a cigarette out of the pack and pours himself a cup of coffee. It’s 9:30 a.m. and he seems animated. Approaching 60 years old, he doesn’t look it, and he’s too energized to sit down, as I do at his kitchen table. He leans against the sink, taking turns sipping the coffee and puffing on his cigarette.
He proceeds to spend the next hour casually telling me explicit details of extreme humiliation, degredation, rape, stabbings, and beatings. “You can make a weapon out of anything in prison,” he says, as he glances at his kitchen table and spots a pen. He grabs it, stands in front of me with the pen by his side, and then – slam! — pretends to jab it at me.
“The county jails are not so bad,” he says. “The prisons … they’re bad.”
Ben knows a lot about prisons, for two different reasons. A residents of Florida for the past 14 years, now living in Poinciana, he’s worked as a corrections officer for both the county jails and the Florida Department of Corrections. He’s seen quite a bit, and is happy to share what he’s witnessed. I don’t say much. He does almost all the talking.
Ben also has a roommate, a bit older than him, who is now out on work release. He was a manager at one of the local supermarkets when he got arrested – again – for driving under the influence. That landed him a three year prison term. Now Ben is trying to help him put his life back together. He talks about the beers he used to enjoy after work. These days, he says, he needs to get rid of that so it won’t serve as a temptation for his troubled roommate.
In an era when prisoners seem to have no trouble whatsoever breaking out of prison – at least on the television version, in shows like “Prison Break” and “Breakout Kings,” or in movies like “The Shawshank Redemption” – Ben says inmates have a laundry list of compelling reasons to want to get out of prison, or to avoid going there in the first place. It’s a miserable environment, he said.
Imagine you get arrested because, say, you were texting and driving. That text message grabbed your attention, and you took your eyes off the road, and … hit someone, quite seriously. You’re at fault, and end up in prison. Not in a million years did you ever expect to go there. You’re not a career criminal, you haven’t been committing crimes for years, and prison was the last place you envisioned yourself in. And yet, there you are, being transported to jail. What can you expect? You’re scared, maybe terrified. You think this is going to be a harrowing experience.
Well, whatever it is you think is going to happen, Ben said, it likely will be significantly worse.
“When you arrive, you’ll be cuffed and booked,” he said. Your photo is taken and will be put online, either on the county jail’s website or DOC’s. Anyone can look on the site and see your mug shot. Newspapers print them, and online sites like InstantCheckMate.com and www.FloridaArrests.org keep a record of them. Some sites post “funny” mug shots, others do celebrity mugs. If you think that sounds humiliating, it’s only the beginning.
You have to turn over all your possessions – including your clothes. “You get stripped down, and given a full body cavity search,” Ben says, noting that everything – your mouth, the bottom of your feet, between your buttocks – gets checked to be entirely sure you don’t have anything hidden on you. Do some corrections officers purposely make it humiliating for the inmate, I ask? Oh, yes, he says. That’s the whole idea, to make these inmates understand from the very start that they have no rights whatsoever, and if there’s any sense of rebellion left in them, the officers intend to crush it, and fast.
“You get showered down to make sure you’re nice and clean, and then you’re put in a jumpsuit,” he said. “You get taken to your ward and shown to your cell and your bunkmate.”
And from there on, he said, “All your rights will be taken away.” Corrections officers are addressed with “Yes, sir” and “No, sir” only.
I ask Ben how many of the corrections officers he’s worked with are on a power struggle, and enjoy the authority they have over inmates, who get an ego-boost being able to boss them around and control them 24/7. He shrugs.
“About 75 percent,” he says.
I ask how many enjoy physically abusing the inmates, if the inmate shows the slightest sign of disrespect. “A few,” he says. “Not as many.”
But even Ben recalls knocking one inmate to the ground and banging his head against the floor several times before cuffing him. The inmate’s offense: spitting on Ben. Inmates do plenty of that, Ben says.
From day one, there’s an awful lot to dislike about prison, he claims: the complete loss of personal freedom, the fact that officers can search you and your cell at any time – “sometimes at 4 in the morning, for no reason,” he says – and then there’s the food. He grimaces thinking about it and, reaching out to pet one of his dogs, says, “I wouldn’t feed that stuff to my dogs.”
If the inmates don’t like it, he says, “They can starve.”
But that’s probably the least troubling aspect of prison life, he says, claiming prison violence is real, and constant. There are fights, stabbings, beatings.
No inmate wants to be known as a “rat,” he says – one who squeals on other inmates to the corrections officers. If they do, he warns, they can expect the other inmates to retaliate – in painful, brutal ways.
And rape in prison, he insists, is no myth. “When you have four guys holding you down and they take turns …” he notes.
The corrections officers can’t do much to protect them. “They know there are times when no officers will be around,” he says. Then they strike.
Prisons have canteens, where inmates can buy snacks, canned goods, toiletry items, clothes, drinks and a few other things. But they need a member of their family or a loved one to put money into an account for them, which they can use at the canteen. Ben has known plenty of inmates who don’t have that support on the outside, so they have nothing — absolutely nothing. Some of them resort to offering sex in return for money — sex provided to an inmate who has a family member who will put money onto their account, which they can use to buy items for the person they’re sexually abusing. Inmates don’t have a lot to sell or trade, he says. So their dignity gets shoved aside. They risk sexually transmitted diseases, even AIDS, for a can of tuna.
Ben has been on both sides of this situation, having worked as a corrections himself and having been in a position of authority over prison inmates. He’s also spent time listening to his roommate describe what he endured in prison. Being the one in control is the easy part. Listening to a friend you care about describe the indignities and humiliation he suffered isn’t quite as easy.
Ben is hoping he can help his buddy stay out of trouble from now on. They both know that if his buddy fails, it’s crystal clear what he can expect.
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