Privileged Class

Working as a carpenter since my release has brought me into contact with all sorts of people. The other day I was on a jobsite with a guy who had done some time in the Vermont State Prison as a habitual offender. 

"I don't know how it is in New Hampshire," he said,” but sex offenders are a privileged class in the Vermont prison system." 

"How so?" I asked. 

"Well, for starters, they get all the good prison jobs." 

Hmm, come to think of it, a lot of the more responsible inmate jobs at the New Hampshire State Prison were held by guys in for sex crimes. I’m sure it wasn't due to any special affinity for sex offenders among prison staff.  

About two weeks after I landed in general population, I got called to the first floor control room in the Hancock Building. The officer in charge gave me a yard pass and told me to report to the Bureau of Programs office at the one o'clock movement. He didn’t know the reason why. 

I was a little nervous about this unexpected summons. At one p.m., after passing through the North Yard gate, I climbed the stairs to the third floor of the steel-clad Prison Industries Building. At the top was a set of plate glass doors emblazoned with the NHSP Bureau of Programs logo. The office was carpeted and air conditioned. Several prisoners sat at computer work stations along with a few civilian employees.  A neatly groomed thirty-something guy dressed in prison greens greeted me.  He had a shock of dark hair graying at the temples and a somewhat formal air. 

"You must be Dr. Horner." 

I was surprised at the honorific. No one called me “doctor” in prison. The title had magically disappeared when I lost my freedom. 

"I am," I said cautiously, shaking his hand. 

"I'm Nick," he smiled. "You're probably wondering why you're here," then added with a twinkle in his eye, "I don't mean here in prison, of course, I mean here at the Bureau of Programs. Let me explain." 

Nick told me the prison had a memorandum of agreement with the New Hampshire Community Technical College. Prisoners could earn college credit for courses taught in prison by approved inmate instructors. 

"We keep our eyes open for new arrivals with advanced degrees - guys who might be interested in teaching for Capitol Branch,” Nick added, “What do you think?"

I felt a glimmer of hope. "I'd like that," I said.

"Good. We'll have to submit your credentials to NHCTC. But, I'm sure there'll be no problem getting you approved.” He lowered his voice. “Frankly, it's no secret the inmate instructors have better credentials than most of the community college staff." 

Within a few months I was teaching both high school biology and college level anatomy and physiology to other prisoners as my prison job. At $1.20 an hour, it was a good gig.

The eight approved Capitol Branch instructors had masters’ degrees or above. Six of us were sex offenders. 

It makes sense.  If a college educated guy is going to prison, it won’t be for breaking and entering, or a drug deal gone bad. 

In 2005, my cellie and I watched the first few episodes of the Fox made-for-television drama Prison Break. The only sex offender in the show, T-Bag, was a violent sociopath. I met a few guys like that in prison. Some were even sex offenders. But this is largely a Hollywood cliché. 

The average guy in prison for a sex offense is, well…average. Many have no prior trouble with the law. Most would say they never intended to hurt anyone, though they did, often badly. It may take time in treatment to break through the denial. But when confronted with the truth, most are dismayed by the harm they caused. I know I was.

So, if you needed to hire a prisoner for a responsible position in your license plate shop, who would you choose? The guy who continues to have substance abuse issues? The guy with a history of dealing and stealing for a living? The guy whose explosive temper got him sent to prison? 

Or would you choose the guy who’s desperately trying to prove to you and to himself that he’s not a monster.