I Worked in a Women’s Prison

It wasn’t as impressive as I though it would be.

Sure, there was a tall fence with barbed wire surrounding the grounds and there were cameras everywhere, but I guess I was assuming that every prison had gates that could rival the ones protecting Mordor and guards to match

I was shown to my office in the main administration building. I had a window that looked out on to the “yard,” and I could see a lot of inmates wandering around. This is when my heart started to beat faster, as it dawned on me that I was actually going to be working with women who had committed every crime imaginable, face to face, every day. Holy crap, I was working in a women’s prison.

From 2006 to 2008, I worked for a company that dealt with inmate calls from prison. Actually, the inmate collect call market must have been pretty fragile because in the time I had this position, I worked for three different companies doing pretty much the same job.

I was stationed at Lowell Correctional Facility in Florida, which is a maximum security prison for women. While at Lowell, I handled everything having to do with the collect call system, aside from the actual repair work. Inmates at a state correctional facility in Florida are allowed to call 10 numbers from an approved list using the collect call system, and I processed those lists. That part of my job was glorified data entry and usually pretty boring.

All the calls were recorded, so I was able to help the inspectors, the “police” of the prison, with all sorts of investigations. You’d be surprised (or maybe not) by how much crime takes place behind bars.

That aside, some of my most interesting experiences came from monitoring the calls and talking with the inmates in their dorms. When I was monitoring the calls, I felt like one of those old-timey operators that could eavesdrop using the switchboard. The official reason I listened to the calls was because I was scanning for violations like three-way calling. With three-way calling, an inmate can call an approved number then have that person three-way another number that isn’t approved. This means that they can call anyone, which is dangerous and also causes the company to lose money.

Listening to call after call is as tedious and awesome as you think it might be.

Phone sex was popular, obviously, but that is pretty gross to listen to after a while. You can only listen to one-sided moaning for so long before it becomes ridiculous. The Jerry Springer-like dramas that unfolded over the phone were way better.

I remember following one inmate’s insane situation involving her ex-husband and the girlfriend she picked up while in Lowell. The girlfriend was released before the inmate and had nowhere to go, so she moved in with the ex-husband and his kids. The girlfriend eventually moved her daughter in, which was a total mess. The inmate started playing the girlfriend against the ex and eventually neither one would talk to her at all. It was months before they would accept her calls again, and even then only the kids talked on the phone. I left before I found out the conclusion to that story.

Visiting the inmates in their dorms was a whole other experience. The first time I went out with the classification officer (like a guidance counselor, only a lot meaner) was totally freaky. I had to carry a Personal Body Alarm, or PBA, on me in case I got attacked. I’d press the button and some alarm would go off somewhere and guards would come running to where I was. It was disturbing, but I secretly hoped I’d get to use it.

I started talking with the inmates and answered questions about their lists and how they could get certain numbers approved. At first I really had my guard up; I didn’t know what these chicks were capable of! After a while, when nothing even remotely threatening happened to me, I got used to it.

Putting faces to these numbers that I was working with was both good and bad. I tried to remain as unbiased and neutral as possible, but some of the stories were heartbreaking. The women would tell you about the kids they couldn’t talk to, or the parents they haven’t spoken to since being locked up. It got to me sometimes, because it was hard not to relate. How would I feel if I couldn’t talk to my mom for months?

I worked my hardest, especially around the holidays, to try and get everyone I could approved without breaking any rules. Because of that, I gained respect from a lot of the inmates. They may have hated the guards or the classification officers, but they really liked The Phone Lady.

That being said, the job was not all sunshine and rainbows. I was threatened with bodily harm twice, and that was enough. I listened to a call where the inmate told her husband that if she saw that “phone bitch” walking around she was going to “beat her ass.”

The other time was through a “request,” which is what the inmates would send to you to ask a question when they couldn’t talk to you face to face. The inmate said that if I didn’t approve one of her numbers that she’d have me fired and then “taken care of.”

The worst was when I’d have family members calling me to ask about why their numbers were blocked or weren’t approved. Usually everyone was civil and I only had one man call me a “fucking whore”, but I started gaining stalkers and that really bothered me. One guy said that I needed a spanking and asked when my lunch hour was, so he could come down and do it himself. (He was married to the inmate he was calling about, by the way).

Another guy kept calling me to ask really stupid questions and eventually started asking if I liked motorcycles and then told me he was in love with me. I’m not above flattery. But when he said he was on his way to the prison, I freaked and told the guards about it. He never showed up, but it totally scared the crap out of me.

I left that job because I was moving back to Chicago, but it got in my blood. I have a new respect for the inmates as well as the people dealing with them. I miss my prison days on occasion. I’ve been known to watch MSNBC’s “Lockup” and long for the days in my concrete office overlooking the yard.I sometimes freak my friends out by saying loudly in public, “This one time, when I was in prison…”.

I’m not sure if I’ll ever work in a prison again, but I can honestly say that it was positive experience. It’s also neat to think that to some inmates, both current and former, I will always be known as The Phone Lady.