Before I started my job at the prison, I was under the impression that I would be working in a secure office with a personal guard - one who would escort my inmate patients to and from their cells, all the while attending to my security. I was wrong. Looking back, I don't know how I came upon this vision. After all, I had seen Silence of the Lambs. I still recall the unsettling scene with FBI student Clarice walking alone in the cell-blocks on her way to see Hannibal Lecter. Though I'm not Clarice, my work environment is more similar to hers than the one I had imagined.
I have two offices: one for seeing inmate patients and another for paperwork. Although both are located inside the fence, one is "on the yard" and the other is not. So, like Clarice, I see inmates where they live - in the cell-blocks.
To reach the cells, I enter a series of gates operated by an officer who must correctly identify me as staff at each pass. Each gate opens in front of me, I enter, then wait for the gate to close behind me. I feel like a caged animal, trapped in chain-link.
Once inside the cell-blocks, I give an officer my patient appointment list. In return, I receive a personal alarm for emergencies. I scan the dayroom - a large open space in the center of the building - and the T-Bunks or bunk beds.
Several inmates try to approach me or shout questions or concerns. I hear many voices yelling, "Dr. Mauro! I don't have my meds!" "Dr. Mauro! When is my appointment?" The commotion in the dayroom draws the attention of inmates living in the cells. As a result, I hear more muffled shouts, whistles, cat-calls, and "quack, quack" mocking (the universal phrase used to tease shrinks).
I walk the 10 steps to my office, unlock the door, flip on the lights, and take my seat. Within seconds I have a line at my door - inmates without appointments, I observe. They have questions, "Just a moment of your time," or requests "I'm just passing a kite" - a note from one of my patients living in the cells. Unless it's an emergency I shoo them away - it poses a security concern to have so many inmates near my office door. I settle in.
In the winter there's a bone chilling cold, and in the summer there's an uncomfortable blanket of humidity and heat. There is always the smell of prison in the air - bodies that shower only every other day, old cleaner and sweat . In the summer the smell is so intense that I feel it on my teeth. And I can't help but wonder, for those who have the opportunity on parole, why they continue to fail, why they continue to come back. Isn't the fear of prison, even the living conditions and smells alone, enough to deter recidivism? But for many inmates, there is no fear of prison. Instead, it has become oddly like home.