By: Henry F. Tonn
Henry F. Tonn is a semi-retired psychologist whose fiction, nonfiction, and poetry has appeared in such print publications as the Gettysburg Review, Fifth Wednesday Journal, and Connecticut Review, and online journals such as Front Porch Journal, Summerset Review, and Eclectica. “The Prison” is an excerpt from his book-length memoir, I Never Met a Paranoid Schizophrenic I Didn’t Like. He is presently editing a war veterans anthology and can be found at henrytonn.com.
October, 1967. There is a shortage of psychologists in the state of North Carolina, creating excellent employment opportunities for anyone with bare minimum qualifications. As a fledgling psychologist searching for new experiences, I decide to apply for positions in the southeastern part of the state. Within two weeks, the head of the mental health department at Central Prison, a maximum security unit in Raleigh, contacts me. “We’d love to talk to you, Henry,” he says. “Why don’t you drive over and see the facility?”
Central Prison houses the most dangerous inmates in the state, and is reputed to be both depressing and ugly. I have already spent a year working part time in Cherry Hospital, a state institution for the mentally ill, and found it as depressing and ugly as I wanted to see. On the other hand, I like Raleigh as a city and feel I should at least check the job out.
The interview goes something like this:
ME: “Stan, I have to admit, this place is somewhat depressing. You drive over the hill to the entrance and you’re confronted with all those guards on the walls with guns. Then you go through all these locked doors in order to get to your office. And there’s this constant screaming and hollering. Pretty grim!”
HIM: (nodding sympathetically) “Yeah. And it gets worse. The criminals here will kill you in a second if they can, or rape you at the very least. It’s not a pleasant place.”
ME: “And there’s no sunlight in here. There are no pictures on the walls. It’s gloomy!”
HIM: (nodding further) “I couldn’t agree more. We need an interior decorator. But we can’t afford one. Remember, we’re financed by the state. There’s no money. Besides, the prisoners would just ruin everything anyway because they riot a lot.”
ME: “And why do you have such a big turnover among the staff? You haven’t been able to keep a full-time psychiatrist here for more than six months.”
HIM: “That’s nothing. We can’t keep psychologists, either. That’s why I’m offering you the job. I can’t get anybody else.”
ME: “This is not reassuring.”
HIM: “At least I’m being honest with you. You have to give me credit for that.”
ME: “I do. Thank you for being honest. But it looks like a terrible job, quite frankly.”
HIM: “It is a terrible job! Who in their right mind wants to be locked up all day with a bunch of murderers, rapists, child molesters, psychopaths, drug addicts, alcoholics, schizophrenics, perverts, and freaks? And I’m just talking about the staff, not the prisoners! But, seriously, Henry, remember, you’re a psychologist. You’re just beginning your career. You need experience. And where else can you find a better assortment of the people you ought to be studying than right here? We’re not asking you to stay forever. Just long enough to be raped and murdered a few times.”
I find his argument irresistible. I accept the job.
And he’s right, of course. It’s everything he says and worse. This is the psychiatric treatment facility for all the prisoners in the state of North Carolina. If a prisoner has problems, he’s shipped to Raleigh and evaluated by us. We diagnose the problem, put him on the proper medication if indicated, and then send him back to his unit with a report to the doctors and guards at the facility. If the prisoner is so mentally ill that we can’t treat him at our facility, we send him to nearby Dorthea Dix Hospital, a mental institution built in the 1880’s, with a locked ward for prisoners.
To treat this constant stream of people we have a constant stream of staff members. The one consistent treatment person is Dr. Owen, a seventy-year-old psychiatrist who had been in the system forever. Dr. Owen has a good sense of humor and a healthy skepticism about anything an inmate tells him. He has heard it all. His favorite expression is, “I don’t see anything wrong with him. I think he’s a psychopathic son-of-a-bitch.” He says this without animosity, more like resignation, as though it is a simple fact of life in the prison world. There are three or four other psychiatrists, part time, who circulate through, most of them retired from other jobs, working there to pick up a little change. There is one other psychologist besides myself, and he and I do most of the initial evaluations and any needed counseling. I hardly ever see Stan, the supervising psychologist who recruited me, because of his administrative duties.
Regardless of weather, every morning I walk the four blocks from my apartment to the prison. After ascending a small hill leading to the institution, I am greeted by an awesome sight. Spread below me is something resembling a citadel. Central Prison has stone walls that reach several stories high, topped with barbed wire, and is constantly patrolled by menacing-looking guards with rifles. Although I haven’t done anything wrong, approaching the place makes me feel conspicuous. I’m afraid they’ll shoot me just for being a suspicious-looking character getting close to their gate.
At the first entrance I stand while a guard recognizes me and pushes a button that causes a giant wire gate to creak slowly open. I then proceed to the building entrance, again to be recognized. This also happens to be the waiting area for incoming prisoners, and sometimes making my way to the next locked door is like running a gauntlet. If a new inmate decided to kill me on the spot, there is precious little the guards can do.
Passing through the second locked door, I walk down a long corridor to the cell block where my office is located. A friendly face generally greets me here because most of the people passing through- including inmates- are known to the guards. My office is small, cramped, and without distinction. It does, however, have a window overlooking the yard so during my idle moments I can watch the inmates milling about. Occasionally, I actually walk out on the yard to take in a little sunshine, but the guards frowned upon it. Too dangerous, they say.
I quickly realize I have stepped into a mess. All common elements of humanity have been stripped away in this environment. The inmates, for the most part, are cold-hearted and manipulative. The staff members, particularly the psychiatrists, are arrogant and condescending. Arriving on the scene with only two years of experience, I’ve been hoping to learn much from these people, some who have been in the system as long as twenty-five years. But it’s not working out that way.
An example: One day I’m presenting to the staff a patient I’ve been treating for several months with behavioral problems. One of the psychiatrists, after asking the patient a number of insolent questions, opines, “This is obviously a retarded depression. He needs to be hospitalized.”
I’m aghast. The inmate is doing well in therapy. I’m accomplishing something useful in this difficult environment. I don’t want him going to the hospital where they will fill him with drugs and make him angrier than ever. He is not particularly depressed, and in this situation I feel obliged to offer a differing opinion.
“With all due respect, I don’t think he’s depressed. He just tends to be moody. I’d like to keep him here and continue treating him. He’s making progress.”
“This is a retarded depression,” the psychiatrist replies with thunderous finality. He’s a bald-headed man who speaks with a gravelly Hungarian accent. “I’ve seen hundreds of them in the prison system. He needs to be hospitalized.” He looks around at his colleagues who all nod sagely in agreement. “If you gave him an MMPI you would find the depression scale sharply elevated.”
The MMPI stands for the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory, then and now considered the top personality test in America. I respond, “Well, I gave him an MMPI two months ago and it wasn’t elevated then. I don’t think it is now. I’ll tell you what, I’ll administer another. If the depression scale is as high as you say, we’ll send him to the hospital. If it’s low, we keep him here and I’ll continue treating him.”
He sort of rolls his eyes in exasperation. “Suit yourself. He’s your patient.”
I give him the MMPI and, as expected, his depression scale is quite normal. I ask him the next day, “What was wrong with you in that psychiatric staffing? You acted like you were out of it.”
He’s a tall, thin, proud African American who usually wears a sullen scowl. “They’re a bunch of phonies,” he replies. “They treat us like dogs. I just answered their questions the best I could. I don’t give a damn about them.”
“They thought you were depressed and ought to go to the hospital.”
He snorts. “That’s the least of my worries.”
After that I rely on my own judgment.
One of the most interesting people I evaluate early on is a prisoner who has just gotten a multiple-year sentence for selling drugs. He has been sent in from his unit because of his strange behavior and his lack of cooperation with the authorities. He won’t work and refuses to eat cooked prison food, insisting that he wants his food to be raw. He’s a rather attractive African American male with a narrow face and thin frame, in his late forties, who interacts in a calm but aloof manner. I ask him why he refuses to eat the prison food.
“It’s all part of the great plan,” he says.
“The great plan?” I ask.
He regards me condescendingly. “You wouldn’t understand.”
“Try me,” I encourage.
He heaves a deep sigh and says, “Sure. I have nothing else to do at the moment. I’m not leaving prison till I’m ready to leave. I’ll tell you all about it.”
He then relates his concern for the plight of the African American population in America and has decided to intervene and institute some major changes. Over the next hour he outlines a complicated economic plan which involves building factories and hiring African American workers to produce a product that would be sold to the white population. The profits, then, would be plowed back into the system until sufficient income is generated to put more African Americans to work, and so forth, until there is prosperity for all. He is going to oversee this great system and make sure it proceeds efficiently, with an eye on fairness to all.
“What about corruption?” I ask. “Whenever you have a complicated organization like this, you have to guard against corruption.”
“No problem,” he replies. “I’ll be at the helm.”
“But what happens when you die?” I ask. “The whole system you’ve built up could collapse.”
“I’ve thought of that, too,” he replies. “I’m not going to die.”
“How is that?”
“I’m not going to die. I’m going to be immortal.”
“Well, that certainly will do the trick,” I agree. “Could you tell me how exactly you’re going to pull this off? Just for the record, of course.”
“Of course,” he says. “Well, actually, it’s very simple. I’m in the process of making those preparations as we speak. You have to start with a basic understanding of life: when we’re alive we have to breathe air, eat food, and drink water. In other words, we’re dependent on air, food, and water. So when we reach the point where we’re no longer dependent on these things, we can live forever. Simple. Consequently, I’m gradually weaning myself from air, food, and water. I breathe less, eat less, and drink less. In fact, that’s why I don’t eat cooked food. I eat raw food, natural food, to purify my body. I get closer to nature. I drink pure water- spring water, preferably- although I can’t get it here in prison. Gradually I eat less and less raw food, drink less and less pure water, and breathe less and less air. Eventually I won’t need them at all. Then I’ll be immortal!”
He sits back satisfied with himself.
I pause for a moment before saying, “I hate to tell you this, but I don‘t think this idea is going to work.”
“Of course you don‘t, Doc. All you people say the same thing. But has anybody ever tried it? It makes sense to me. And that’s what I’m doing. When I’m finished, this prison won’t hold me.” For the first and only time, I see a flicker of contempt pass across his face.
He is a pleasant enough fellow, and we converse a little while longer, and in the end agreed to disagree- not that there is any point in our debating his view of things, anyway. I eventually present his case to the psychiatric board which is neither amused nor impressed. They send him to the hospital and I never see him again. I assume he either became immortal or stayed in prison for a long time.
The longer I remain at the prison and the better I get to know certain inmates, the more I learn about the inner workings of the institution. I learn that the major topics of conversation are mojos, paroles, and assholes. Mojos are wallets. In these days Central Prison has an active leather industry where the inmates make beautiful wallets and sell them for profit. Since it’s the only source of income for many of them, a lot of energy goes into this endeavor. Paroles, of course, mean freedom, mom, apple pie, and the opportunity to create more crimes. The fixation on assholes is obvious. There are no women in the prison and they have to make do with what is available. One prisoner puts it to me succinctly: “We can get anything in this prison that you can get out there, Doc. Except women. And we’ve got something better.”
I don’t pursue the issue.
Not all inmates are devoid of emotion, although the understanding of such concepts as anxiety and depression are foreign to most of them. Once an inmate actually makes an appointment with me to question exactly what this thing called anxiety is. He has been reading a book about the subject and simply cannot understand what they are talking about. I patiently explain that it’s a feeling of nervousness inside and can make you shaky, like when your hands tremble.
“Ah!” he exclaims, suddenly brightening. “Like when the cops are shooting at you and you’ve got to keep you hand steady to shoot back straight and knock a few of ‘em off.”
Um, not exactly, Scarface. But, whatever . . .
I watch the psychiatric staff interviewing a rather notorious inmate who has slashed himself with a razor seventy-three times. When asked why he’s done this to himself, he stares at us with utter disgust.
“Slashing myself is the only way I can get out of that damn cell,” he says. “How would you like to stare at nothing but bars all day?”
Well, he has a point. But this man had murdered two people in cold blood on the outside and is a constant menace on the inside. What sort of accommodations does he expect?
All of the inmates, of course, are not like this. Some are fine human beings who have simply taken a wrong turn somewhere. Drugs or alcohol are usually involved. I treat one inmate who has received twenty-five years for manslaughter. He and his fiancée were having an argument one evening while drinking wine and preparing a turkey, and in a sudden fit of anger he slashed at her with the carving knife. He severed an artery and she died before his eyes. Four years into his sentence he is still inconsolable.
The inmates I find most interesting are the ones who work in the processing department where they administer tests, type reports, and so forth. These inmates usually have some education and some literary skills and tend to read books during their off hours rather than hang around biding their time. They are generally analytical, thoughtful, and opinionated. Each had squandered his potential at an early age by doing something stupid while inebriated- like murder or rape. “In one minute my entire life changed,” they often say, shaking their heads.
The senior of the group is sixty-five and has been in prison forty of those years for one murder and numerous escapes. He’s near the end of his sentence and the fire of his youth is now burned out. He is quiet, resigned, and passive. “I’d just like to walk down a shady lane without worrying about the police chasing me,” he confides in me.
I spend hours chatting with these people and the biggest problem for both of us is not getting too close. They seem to genuinely miss me when I eventually leave.
The end comes quickly. In the summer of 1968 Central Prison has a prison riot. Inmates take over the yard and refuse to return to their cells. They build bonfires, make weapons, and produce a list of demands. The warden refuses to negotiate and soon has the walls filled with the National Guard. The entire prison goes into lockdown and no one is allowed to leave. I’m scared to death, as are my colleagues, and no doubt we would have remained in the prison indefinitely had it not been for seventy-year-old Dr. Owen, who informs the warden that his health will not permit remaining on the premises. When they let him through the gate we all quickly follow.
During the night, the Guard opens fire, killing eight inmates and wounding around seventy-five. I return to work the next afternoon to find the prison hospital filled with the wounded. They all whine about how unfairly they’ve been treated. “Psychopathic sons-a-bitches,” Dr. Owen mutters as he pokes his head in from room to room. “They never learn.”
I discover later that many inmates were caught in a loyalty trap. If they did not join the rioters, they were considered traitors. But joining could have led to their demise. So they were forced into a very difficult decision.
Prison life changed dramatically after this. Security is at a higher level, prisoners remain in their cells, and thus there is not much for the psychologists to do. I find myself becoming restless. For months I’ve been contemplating returning to graduate school. I have a master’s degree, but my ultimate goal is to earn a doctorate. Eventually, I want to teach psychology in a university and have a private practice on the side. Already I’ve explored the possibilities of several graduate schools, but getting into one has proven difficult.
Suddenly a rumor comes that North Carolina State University, in Raleigh, is developing a doctoral clinical psychology program. It is still in its infancy, but the plan is to have it going at full throttle in one to two years. Perfect for me. The university is two miles from my apartment. I have a chat with the head of the department and he invites me to apply. Two months later I am accepted.
I visit Stan, the chief psychologist, and officially tender my resignation. Stan has short gray hair and a flushed face from years of overindulging in alcohol. Due to kidney problems, he is now permanently on the wagon.
“So soon?” he queries, scrunching his face up in disappointment.
“I’ve been here ten months.”
“Has it been that long?” he says. “Time passes fast when you’re having fun, doesn’t it? Well, I guess you’ve been here long enough. If they couldn’t kill you in a prison riot, they’re probably not going to get you.” He throws his head back and laughs at his own humor.
“And for this I am deeply grateful.”
“Now you can get a cushy job, like teaching in a university or something. Have nice, curvaceous, nubile coeds wandering through your office all day looking at you with their big eyes.”
“Sounds great after having psychopathic killers relating their sordid deeds to me every day.”
“Yeah. This life isn’t for everybody.”
“I like your idea of the nubile coeds, though.”
“Well, best of luck with your career, Henry. I’m too old to leave the prison system now. It’s part of my life.”
“Best of luck with your career, too, Stan. Maybe some day you’ll make warden.”
“God, I hope not. That’s a job nobody should have. ”
Several years later the chief psychologist becomes warden of the prison.