She discovers quiet strength of life behind bars

By Lynn Moncus

As we look at various chapters of our lives, we are often amazed that we had such unique experiences until we mention one now and then.

Actually, we think that most of our experiences are similar to everyone else’s until we begin to talk about them, and then we learn more about ourselves as individuals.

For instance, I had a flashback to one of those chapters recently and was a bit surprised that no one in my immediate vicinity even knew that I had written such a study, much less that I had done the research for it at a federal penitentiary

One of my degrees demanded that I write a thesis, and my thesis advisor decided to play one more cruel joke on me before seeing that I received that degree. Because he was well aware that I was more than a little weak in the field of statistics, he decided I should write a statistical study in which I compared members of Alcoholics Anonymous to members of Narcotics Anonymous in order to see if we could understand the use of alcohol and drugs as it affected the users.

This was before we had much of a drug problem on campus or even in town, but the two organizations existed at the prison, and members of our department had done much testing to learn more about the strengths and weaknesses of various kinds of inhabitants.
This was also before many women were allowed beyond the gates other than to visit a family member.

The warden agreed that the study should be interesting and promised my advisor that I would be locked in the records room alone when I was there to do my research. That sounded fine to me as I had been around our local jail when we lived in the courthouse and had some experience in knowing what went on behind the bars.

I was my usual scrappy self the first time I entered that prison and was quite calm until gates began to close behind me, and escorts took me by the arm to the records room.

The clang of those gates caught my attention as did some of the remarks from a few of the prisoners we met along the way. Inner calm was right scarce by the time I was seated at a table and was looking at some of the records, but I felt fairly safe because I had seen the guard lock the door.

As weeks passed, I became quite used to the drive but never used to the sound of those clanging gates.

Also, the guards became a little too lax for my comfort. On more than one occasion, I realized the door was unlocked, and that I was not particularly secure. Then, I was more than a bit disturbed when prisoners began to enter to clean the area or to look at some of their records, and they weren’t always accompanied by guards.

A couple of times the guards apologized for their carelessness, but I had the feeling they were just trying to see if they could read my reactions to having been in an unlocked room with prisoners. I still think they were trying to scare me because they didn’t think a woman should be on the premises.

I wouldn’t have argued with them as I wasn’t particularly happy to be there in the first place, but I certainly wasn’t about to let them know that I was less than comfortable.

Fortunately, the research was over before the semester ended, and I could get back to the business of trying to figure out how to apply statistics to all the information I had gathered.

My advisor was pleased with the results, and I was even able to defend my thesis in order to be granted that degree.

Such a chapter really was not experienced by other women students in that area at the time. Now, women are even permitted to attend the meetings and to spend much time interviewing the prisoners.

At least, I was able to get my foot in the door at the time and learned much about self control. What fun!