What didn’t make it into the prison story


I got a glimpse of the punitive atmosphere in U.S. prisons when I took my tape machine and camera to record sound and images for the radio feature about the Albion Spiritual Choir. The inmates in the group sing during weekly services at the Albion Correctional Facility, New York State’s largest holding center for female prisoners and home to 40 percent of the state’s incarcerated women.

I arrived on a Sunday afternoon. It was raining.

When I entered the gatehouse for a security check, a uniformed guard stamped my hand, waved a wand over my body, and inspected my equipment.

Out of the blue, he asked, “What about the victim’s families? How are they going to feel about hearing this on the radio?”

“That's not my thing,” I replied vaguely, picking up my stuff.

The guard assigned to escort me from the gatehouse to the chapel was Gary, a trim officer with gray hair and pale blue eyes. He told me he’s worked in the state’s prison system for more than twenty-five years.
As we walked, I looked around, surprised by mounds of vibrant chrysanthemums, lush grass, and ornamental trees. If I’d averted my eyes from the gleaming razor-wire fence, I could have imagined I was on the campus of a state university.

“Albion is nice,” Gary said as we passed a brick dormitory. “I miss these trees at the other prisons.” He led me to the chapel where I met the chaplain and set up for interviews in a basement classroom.

The three inmates I talked to were all about fifty years old with faces like flowers. I didn’t ask them about the unlawful things they’d done. Instead, I asked them about their families, their daily lives, and their experience making music.

Following the interviews, Gary escorted me upstairs to the sanctuary for a Protestant church service. Ushers handed out tambourines. Shouting ensued. The rafters shook with “Hallelujahs!”

Afterward, on the walkway back to the gatehouse, Gary asked me, “You know who you’re dealing with there, don’t you?”

“What do you mean?”

“One of the nice ladies you talked to killed someone.”

I looked at him.

“Haven’t you ever wished someone dead? Haven’t you ever been really, really angry?”

He shrugged.

“It’s all a front, anyway, you know. They only go to church to meet their girlfriends.”

We passed a bed of marigolds. It took me a moment to digest what he’d said.

“You mean, all that joy, all that religious fervor, is a cover for dating?” I asked incredulously.

“Yep. See it all the time.”

We reached the steel doors of the gatehouse.

“What we wanna know is this,” Gary asked, pulling open the heavy door, “What about the victims’ families?”

The door slammed shut.

During my short time at the Albion Correctional Facility, I got the impression that prison guards have the hardest hearts of all. I wondered at their cynicism. I wondered if it’s a protective shell.

Or maybe I'm naive.