Taking pictures in the facility is always a gamble. We’re supposed to avoid including doors, windows, building lines, and big pictures of the facility from the inside. It’s a useless exercise, because a simple Google image search on “Coffee Creek Correctional Facility” brings up dozens of images of the inside and outside, including the satellite view. But I’m always careful to frame my pictures to include only the students, or equipment, or whatever.
Staff alone are allowed to freely use cameras (still photos only), the only inmates allowed to use the camera (even under staff supervision) work for LifeSkills. They take photos at events, yard photos, and so on. But my department has a couple of cameras and I take class pictures at the beginning of class and again close to graduation. Recently, I realized I hadn’t taken the first set of class pictures and we’re about a year into class! Long overdue, we scheduled pictures, everyone got dolled up, and we had a lot of fun with getting people to pose and smile. I have to admit, I gave anyone who struck a “prison pose” a hard time, but that only made us all laugh harder.
After we take pictures, but before we can let the women see or purchase them, the captain of the facility has to approve them. She takes the camera and reviews each picture and decides if it’s “ok” or not. She reviews the background, the poses, how close the women are to each other and whether or not they’re touching, their clothing, and anything else that might be suspicious. If this sounds ridiculous to you, I don’t know what to say. I suppose having the top level of management review individual photos taken by staff (who are supposed to know what is appropriate and what isn’t) could be considered an effective use of time, but that’s not my decision to make.
I took the camera to the captain and she started looking through the photos. Almost immediately, she began scolding me because some of the women had their t-shirts untucked. That’s right, she was scolding me because of how they were wearing their clothing. She then pointed at one person and asked her name. I told her and she said, accusingly “her shirt is too tight. Why is she wearing a shirt that tight? She must have modified it. Why is she wearing it?”
I was completely dumbfounded. Did she expect me to have an answer? Did she somehow think I was responsible for my students’ clothing? What the hell was happening right now? I said “Well, do you want to call her unit officer and tell him?” She said “No, she needs to come see me.” She wanted to scold this woman in person. The captain of the facility thinks it’s a good use of her time to individually scold an inmate for wearing a shirt she thinks is too tight. Still incredulous, I ask “do you want me to send her over?” and, of course, the answer was yes.
After all the complaining and scolding, she graciously allows me to keep all the photos and I leave. I’m pissed. Seriously pissed. My students are supposed to know the rules and policies and adhere to them, whether I micro-police them or not. I discreetly send the offending shirt-wearer over to the captain and dismiss everyone else for lunch. When they come back, I give them a fairly stern “I don’t like being scolded for you wearing your clothing the wrong way, what the hell were you thinking?” lecture. Not too stern, not too angry, didn’t call anyone by name, but unhappy enough.
When I finish, J raises her hand and says “In all our other pictures, we’re allowed to untuck our shirts and it’s not a problem. We didn’t know.” And bam – I now feel like a complete a$$hat and someone who speaks before thinking or investigating. I feel like that for a couple of minutes as I re-orient and try to make the best out of a bowl of shit soup. I attempt to spin it as “Okay. Going forward, make sure that you follow the ‘professional’ dress code in any pictures you take that aren’t in a casual environment” but it felt stupid and weak. I knew they understood that I’d been given this information by the captain, but now I was caught between what the captain was saying in this instance, and what they’re allowed to do on a regular, ongoing basis.
Was the captain correct, and the untucked shirts against a largely unenforced policy? Or are untucked shirts a pet peeve and she was acting as if her personal wish were policy when it isn’t? What is true? And who, if not the highest ranking security officer in the facility, could clarify this for me?
The answer is no one, and this extremely minor incident highlights one of the thorniest problems in this institution: The inconsistent and arbitrary nature of rule and policy enforcement. The rules and policies themselves highlight the even bigger issue of balance between maintaining safety and using power/dominance to micro-manage and control every single aspect of people’s already limited lives. I mean, is someone having their socks turned down really a threat to the safety and security of the institution?
The fact that I even tell myself “well, maybe somewhere, something bad could come from that” makes me feel like the insanity of normalizing this environment is only a short distance away. Having to constantly evaluate every piece of information to determine its accuracy and relevance, and not being able to trust the people who should be the authorities is nerve wracking, especially since it’s rarely clear when safety really IS the issue, not just power and control.