Don't Try to Understand

"The incomprehensible order or rule is a basic feature of life in prison." - Gresham Sykes, The Society of Captives, Princeton Univeristy Press. 1958.

It was mail call a couple of weeks before my birthday. I got a five-day notice from the property room.  A five-day notice is the prison’s way of telling you it has some piece of your property that you can’t have. You have five days to say whether you want it mailed out, picked up, donated or destroyed.

The notice said, “one book, no invoice enclosed.”

Prisoners can have up to ten books. They can get books by mail, but only directly from vendors and accompanied by an invoice. I was not expecting any books. Maybe a friend who doesn’t know prison rules sent me a book, I thought. Whoever it is might want it returned. On the other hand, if the book is from a vendor, how will the buyer get a refund if it comes back without an invoice?  Maybe I should have my wife pick it up instead.  I needed more information.  I attached the notice to an Inmate Request Form and wrote, “Who is the sender?”

A few days later my answer came. “U.S. Mail.”  I was sure the staff in the property room knew the difference between sender and carrier. I was being toyed with.

There are a thousand ways a guard can toy with a prisoner. In my experience, most guards try to remain professional on the job. But it’s no secret there’s a culture of disdain for prisoners indulged in private. When feelings of contempt turn into a pattern of abusive actions, guards can end up getting assigned places that don’t have much prisoner contact, like perimeter duty, the towers, the mail room, or the property room.

I went to see the unit manager. I explained my dilemma. I showed her the paperwork. She called the property room.

“The book is from Borders,” she told me.

“Okay, tell them my wife will pick it up next time she visits.”

That Saturday in the visiting room, I told my wife about the book. “Oh, that’s too bad,” she said. “I sent it as a surprise for your birthday.”

We ended our visit early so she could get to the property room before it closed. The next time we talked, she said the guard in the property room couldn’t find the book. I went back to the unit manager.  She called the property room again.

“It has been longer than five days,” she said sheepishly. “The book has been donated.”

“But you told them my wife would pick it up.”

She shrugged.

“Look, I’m sure that book cost my wife a lot. Do I have to file a claim against the D.O.C.?”  I knew filing a claim would be useless.  But I was frustrated and figured the claims process might embarrass somebody. She redialed the property room.

“It’s in the bin of books to be donated to the prison library. They need to know the title and they’ll pull it out and hold it for your wife.”

“I don’t know the title. It was a surprise birthday present. I’ll call my wife and let you know." Then I added, "Can I ask you a question?”

She nodded.

“The rule about books having to come from the vendor with a receipt is supposed to prevent contraband, right?”

“That’s right.”

“Well, if they really suspected contraband, why would they donate the book to the library?  I mean, couldn’t I just go there and check it out?”

There was a pause. “Don’t try to understand the rules, Mr. Horner,” she said.