Things I Learned at the Jail!

I was the Matron at the Jail for four years.  It was one of the most unique, interesting experiences of my life.  And Marie was the most important reason why I enjoyed it. 

My main responsibility was to run the Commissary, which sells things like snacks, candy, underwear, gym shoes, toiletries, writing supplies and games, like playing cards and find-a-word,  to the prisoners.  The profit from those sales (a significant amount of money) was then used by the Sheriff’s Department for expenses that would otherwise have to be paid for with tax dollars.  I always said that it was a great example of a win/win — the prisoners got to spice up and supplement the very bland jail food with Commissary foods and to purchase other things to help pass their time, and, in turn, the profits helped relieve some of the taxpayers’ burden associated with law enforcement.

Many people have the misconception that the Commissary makes the prisoners’ meals.  Not so.  The actual jail kitchen, along with the preparation of all the meals served in the jail, is contracted out to one of several companies that do inmate meal preparation in jails all over the country.

I became the Matron because Marie didn’t want the job.  Marie had been working in the Commissary for almost 20 years and was, hands down, the most qualified for the job.  She had started filling the prisoners’ Commissary orders 20 years earlier when she was the only Commissary employee and filled the orders (for only a couple hundred prisoners, then) out of a room not much bigger than a closet, with a Trusty (a trustworthy prisoner status) helping her.  At that time, she  just sold candy bars and cigarettes, long before the jail went smoke-free.  In comparison, the Commissary is now a huge room, employs about a dozen people, and sells hundreds of products.

The reason I had the opportunity to be Matron was because Marie was a salaried employee, who wanted to continue working in a job where she could build toward her retirement.  The Matron, being an appointed position, would have taken her out of that loop.    Because I had already retired from my long-time employer, that wasn’t a concern for me.  So, I had the unique chance to go in as the boss, but to work with Marie, who I liked to refer to as the Queen of Commissary.  I always said, “If Marie doesn’t know something about the Commissary, it’s not worth knowing.”  So, in truth, we co-managed.

When Hubby and I go somewhere, sometimes he drops me off at the door and then goes to park the car.  When we come out, without thinking, I will lead the way out into the parking lot, and then realize I don’t know where the car is.  Sometimes when this happens, I will turn around and Hubby is still standing on the curb,  smiling, waiting for me to realize I’m leading, without a clue where I’m going.

I have told Marie that story, and told her that I felt she used the same technique on me when we worked in the Commissary.  She was such a wonderful mentor.  Because I was supposedly the boss (but she was the experience and the brains), there were lots of decisions I had to make that she could have made much more easily because of her experience.  And, if I asked her, she was always willing to share her experience and help me make the right decision.  But, sometimes I would wander off into the “parking lot of  Decision-Mart,” without knowing where I was going.  In those cases, she would just wait on the proverbial curb and let me wander around looking for the right answer, until I realized I didn’t have a clue where I was going, and asked for help.  What a wonderful teacher.  I learned alot from my wanderings that I might not have learned if she had immediately volunteered to help me every time.  And, of course, she was always willing to help when I realized I needed it.  God gave me a wonderful opportunity to be the Matron, but He knew I couldn’t do it on my own, so He also gave me Marie.

I usually answered the written correspondence we received from inmates.  And when I would answer a question, I tended to go into great detail and explain not only the answer, but why it had to be that way, and that I was sorry that we couldn’t do it the way they had requested . . . etc . . . etc.  But, sometimes Marie would answer and I immediately saw a difference in our style.  She would just write “No” or “We’ll check.” or “Adjustment made.” or some equally short answer across the form.  And, if the inmate decided an answer wasn’t the one he or she wanted and wrote back again, she would just write “Answered previously” across that form and send it back.  A woman of few words.  When I mentioned the difference is our “technique,” Marie gave me one of her great pieces of advice, “Don’t become an inmate’s pen pal.  They have nothing better to do than write to us, as long as we will answer.”

She also told me to think before writing a pithy reply to an inmate who started his request to us with (and it happened frequently), “The law says you have to . . . . .”   When the inmates wrote things like that in a snotty way, it was very tempting to write back in the same vein.  But, another piece of excellent advice from Marie was, “Don’t write anything to an inmate that you would be embarrassed to have read by a judge, out loud, in a courtroom.”  I always had that in the back of my mind, and it kept me from writing alot of things that were the first “snappy comeback” to pop into my head (like, “Yeah, and people in hell want ice water too!” — soooo not PC).

Every morning we would receive stacks of order forms from each block, that then those of us who were auditing, usually Marie, Linda and I, would audit, i.e., check their math and that they hadn’t ordered more of something than they were allowed, and then subtract the money from their account.  Or, reduce their order to fit the amount they had in their account.  They regularly “over-estimated” how much they had. The forms were then given to the fillers who filled bags with the orders and put them in rolling bins that were then used by the officers to take them to the blocks.

Anyway, who knew where those forms had been while in the blocks and the cells.  So, we had several rules in regard to them.  To the prisoners: “We will not deal with any form that is damp, or sticky.” and  to ourselves: “Don’t E.V.E.R lick your fingers to aid you in going through a stack of forms.”  We had bottles of hand sanitizer everywhere.  It gives you renewed zeal for cleanliness when you work in a jail.

That was the most interesting job I have ever had.  And, I could never, ever have done it, or enjoyed it as much as I did, without the help and support and wisdom of Marie.

Thank you, Marie, for not just being my mentor but also becoming my friend.

You can find new friends in some of the strangest places — like jail!

2 Responses to Things I Learned at the Jail!

  1. tz says:

    OMG…don’t lick you fingers…I’m still gagging…

    I never thought there’d be a similarity between hospitals and prison…but I’ll struggle through paperwork before I’ll like my fingers now! thankfully most of the stuff is on computers now.

  2. Sandra says:

    Yes, tz, I can see that there would be similarities. Because most people in jail have not taken care of their health AT ALL, they are a very at-risk group, and keep the medical department very busy!

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