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. Prologue




Nearly 30 years ago, while a graduate student, I worked a part-time internship at the Chittenden County Correctional Center, which stood in a field set back from a quiet two-lane blacktop just up the hill from the intersection of Route 7 and I-189, in South Burlington, Vermont.

It was a new facility, a complex of one- and two-story brick buildings at the edge of a worn residential neighborhood. At night, with security lights blazing, there was no mistaking the place. But drivers and their passengers who scooted by during the day and didn't catch the gleam of fence or wire might well have thought they were passing a junior high school or a laboratory that conducted medical tests for the nearby hospitals.

I was a shrink-in-training at the time, and the work was to co-lead, with a female classmate, a couple of inmate self-development groups one evening a week, and to spend an afternoon a week interviewing staff and inmates. I remember taking notes on those conversations, so I suppose I produced a paper, but I don't remember what it was about.

I do remember the groups. The participants were men between 18 and 35 years old, minimum or medium security risks: burglars, larcenists, drunk drivers, assaulters of various varieties. Nearly all were repeat offenders, which was why most of them were doing time at all. Some were in for a month, some for years. Those who volunteered to participate in the groups did so for three reasons: It broke the boredom, they believed it gave them an edge with the prison administration or parole board, and they liked the idea of talking about themselves to people who hadn't heard the stories before.

Ah, the stories. Once they got the psychotherapeutic drift (and most arrived with some experience of the talking cure), the inmates were far more forthcoming than the students and university employees with whom I'd previously done internships. In fact, they couldn't seem to provide us with enough expressions of feelings and tales of trauma and abuse experienced at the hands of mothers, fathers, uncles, schools, caseworkers, cops, and systems ranging from the military to feminist consciousness-raising groups. And then one evening, watching a balding young car thief pick his way through a reminiscence about his hardscrabble childhood in the slums of North Burlington, I realized with shaming clarity that he was making it up as he went along, working off of what seemed to please us; and that much, if not most, of what we were being told each Tuesday night was lies created to impress, placate, charm, or, at the very least, divert us.

I remember mentioning this insight while interviewing a senior corrections officer, and he gazing at me as you might at a kitten plopping around in the current a couple of feet off the riverbank, wondering whether to pluck it out or just let it go, and then saying quietly, "It's why they call them cons." His words burned me (and burned me yet again about eight months later when I ran into my internship partner one night outside a restaurant in Burlington, and standing close by her, watching me closely, was the balding car thief with the moving tales of childhood, just paroled.)

All these years later, though, it's the place, not the people, that I seem to have learned by heart: the building did not meet your gaze as you passed on the road; inside, the walls of milky green paint and the walls of milky brown paint; the cigarette smoke swirling; the cameras in the corners; the artificial light that never dimmed; the motor that groaned for a moment each time it was asked to roll back the heavy barred gates on either side of the guard station; the crammed-in mutually hostile kingdoms of men, women, short-timers, long-timers, and staff, each border marked by warning signs and locked steel doors; the perpetual cheerful shine of the vinyl tiles in the large public lobby.

One afternoon, I came by accident into a minimum security unit while the residents were out. I shouldn't have been there, but there I was. A large shared room contained sofas and molded plastic chairs, card tables and a television. I walked along the perimeter, looking into the cells. They were tiny, each with a barred window, a two-tiered steel bed bolted to a wall, and a narrow desk and chair in the remaining space. And every inch of every wall and ceiling in every room I looked into was covered with glossy pages torn from magazines. Corner to corner, floor to ceiling, edge to edge, a lurching, dizzying, butcher's tapestry of naked women and parts of naked women: skin, hair, teeth, tongue, eye, lips, breast, nipple, thigh, genitals, all carefully pieced and sewn with cellophane tape into a low firmament of flayed longing. And I thought, now I know what this place is, it's Hell.

Our story on the woman who has taken charge of Suffolk County's jails begins here.

Ben Birnbaum


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