Opening the heavy metal door to my cement block office the officer asks, "Hey Doc, are you ready for the first one?" With my overcoat still buttoned and heart racing, I nod. The conversation inside my head begins: What have I gotten myself into? Is that my heart? It's racing so fast I think I might faint. Slow down. Think. You can do this. You went to school for 10 years to do this for God's sake. Seconds later he is in front of me, hands clasped behind his back, dressed in an orange jumpsuit and looking unkempt.
"Mam," he says, "may I sit?"
I motion to the chair. He sits, looking me straight in the eye. Silently I assess my escape route: Why is he seated closest to the door? My back is against the wall; the desk, separating us, blocks my quickest exit. I would need to squeeze my self between it and the wall to get out. And what about him? Surely he will stop me.
My thoughts are interrupted. "Mam," he says, "do you need this folder?"
"Yes," a voice that sounds like mine says, "and also your ID."
I begin to leaf through his medical file. Under the mental health section he has written "bipolar schizophrenic manic depressive." What? I am finding it hard to focus on the task at hand and instead my thoughts resume: I cannot believe I am sitting here, alone with this man. What has he done? Steal, murder, rape? How can I tell? Well, I know that whatever it is, it must be bad.
A loud alarm signaling distress elsewhere in the cavernous building interrupts my thoughts. Officers storm the hallway looking for the cause, "Get down!" they all scream. I look for my personal alarm and find it safely secured to my side. "I said get down!" I hear a male officer shout, and the man in front of me smiles and drops to the ground on his stomach, arms and legs spread on the cold and dirty floor.
An officer enters, "All clear Doc," and motions to the patient on the floor to get up. He stands, and, as if nothing had happened, plops himself back into the chair facing my desk. Bewildered, I find my voice and begin my assessment, my voice shaky, "Have you ever been in a psychiatric hospital?"
"Nope," he declares.
Minutes later it is over. He thanked me and left. I was alive! My heart slowed. Only eight hours and fifty short assessments later and my first day is complete.
I have since repeated hundreds of these days, albeit with ever growing self-control and confidence. I am a 28-year-old female psychologist working inside the fence, or better known as prison. Not up front in the shiny offices where the women wear skirts and 3-inch high heels, but inside, amongst the inmates. In case you're wondering, I wear trousers and frumpy shoes.
On that first day I treated the crime. Today, I acknowledge the crime and treat the person. And today, I love my work - working with patients everyone else has given up on.
In this blog, I will write about my unique experiences inside the fence. I hope to share my understanding of criminals, gangs, prison culture and forensic psychology. I hope you find this population as fascinating and perplexing as I do. Maybe you might even be encouraged to identify and help at-risk individuals before everyone gives up on them.