MY KILLER INTERNSHIP
By RJ McDonnell
At the age of 22 I did nine months at a maximum security prison in Northeastern Pennsylvania. My crime: Failure to network a contact at my college internship program. It was hard time, but somebody had to do it.
I experienced a baptism by fire at the catholic university where I attended grad school. Fresh out of Penn State, where I majored in Psychology and minored in keg parties, Marywood University informed me that all students to the School of Social Work would be taking 19 credits while working 8 hour shifts at their designated (unpaid) placements two days per week. I sat in an auditorium and watched while classmates were assigned to grade schools, high schools, outpatient mental health and senior citizen centers. All 364 of my fellow MSW candidates turned their heads and looked at me when my assignment to State Correctional Institute, Dallas was announced.
Some of my new classmates suggested that I try to get it switched. But I was too macho at that point in my life to wimp out at the first sign of adversity. I later came to term it my more balls than brains phase. How bad could it be?
The day I was to start orientation at the prison, my seven-year-old car let me know that it needed another gallon of water poured into the radiator. When I went back into the house to fill a jug, the phone rang and my soon-to-be supervisor from the prison told me to wait until the following day because he had to handle an issue that couldn’t wait.
When I arrived the next day he introduced me to my new coworkers and took me on a tour of the facility. My first indication that I had entered an alternate reality came when we visited Cell Block B. Tom, my supervisor, walked up to a prisoner who was smiling like he had just been granted parole.
“Why are you so happy today,” Tom asked.
“I just won a carton of cigarettes.”
“How did you do that?”
The prisoner held out what appeared to be a hotdog wrapped in a slice of white bread, with a big bite taken out of it. As soon as our facial expression changed, the prisoner walked off with an actual shit-eating grin.
“Welcome to your internship,” Tom said.
I thought that was going to be the low point in my day, but I was wrong. On the way back to the clinic Tom said, “It’s a good thing you weren’t here yesterday. One of the prisoners made a zip gun, took a shot at me, and missed just to my right. You easily could have been standing there.”
Had I not been in my previously identified phase I would have gone to the placement office the following day and demanded a new internship. Instead, I told the story to everyone I knew, and did my best to act like it was no big deal. In retrospect, I think the guy with the free carton of cigarettes demonstrated more common sense.
During my first two weeks I followed and observed one of my supervisor’s most experienced counselors, Ed. The majority of his counseling sessions centered on one of three issues: parole planning, family matters, and check hearings. A check is comparable to a high school detention except, since everyone was already staying after school, other forms of discipline were forthcoming, and prisoners would sometimes ask their counselors to intervene on their behalf.
Ed was instructed to give me a small subset of his caseload so that I could acquire practical experience in my chosen field. I thought I’d be warming up on a jewel thief or maybe a pot dealer with three strikes before working my way up to the hard cases. I soon learned that Ed was into the sink or swim method of guiding interns. The first case file he handed me was for a man who was just a couple of years older than me. He was serving four life sentences, two consecutive and two concurrent. Ed told me that even though the guy was a lifer, he wasn’t a hardened lifer since he just arrived two months earlier. We’ll call him Ted.
I scheduled a meeting at the clinic simply by placing Ted’s name on a “lay-in list.” Ted was in for strangling a four-year-old to death in her sleep while his best friend was doing the same thing to his mother in the next room. They then transported the bodies to a garbage dump across state lines, turned themselves in at a police station, confessed, then pleaded not guilty.
Ted arrived at the clinic in an agitated state. Word had recently gotten around his cell block about the nature of his crime and his fellow inmates were giving him the same warm reception usually reserved for child abuses. I offered him a seat across from my desk. He told me he wouldn’t sit down until I told him why he was called to the clinic. I explained that I was his new counselor and was hoping to set up weekly session to help him deal with the problems he was having at his new home.
Instead of jumping on this wonderful opportunity, Ted became enraged and yelled, “I’m not going anywhere for the rest of my life! If I come across this desk and kill you, I won’t be any worse off than I am right now! The only way they’ll execute me is if I kill a guard!”
At that point my psych degree and full month of grad school did not factor into my reply. My instincts told me that if I didn’t respond in just the right way I was going to be fighting for survival in just seconds. Fortunately, I was in the best shape of my life at that point.
“I don’t think so,” I replied as I stood. “If you come across this desk right now I’m going to put your face through that plate glass window, and I guarantee you’re going to be in a lot worse shape than you are right now.”
Ted balled both fists, pounded them on the desk, sat down and said, “You got that one.”
I never had any problems from Ted or any other prisoners for the remainder of my internship. In spite of the minor victory, that moment marked the beginning of the end of my more balls than brains phase. I quickly came to realize it was that type of attitude that guided the actions of my caseload.
My internship had several more lowlights. I had to give bad news to one of my charges six Mondays in a row. All of the news items were major. I had to tell him his father was diagnosed with cancer; that his sister was shot in a bar fight; and that his wife was pregnant, knowing that he’d been incarcerated for two years without a conjugal visit. The prisoner developed an eye tic somewhere around the fifth Monday and exhibited it at every session thereafter.
My favorite raconteur was a Caucasian pimp who regaled me with some very entertaining stories week after week. It wasn’t until the last few weeks of my internship that he was willing to discuss the murder that landed him in SCI-Dallas. Imagine my surprise when I learned it was committed on my great uncle’s property. I opted not to share that detail with him.
I only worked in the social services field for two years after graduation. Government work just wasn’t for me. By law, my cohorts and I were mandated to spend the vast majority of our time working with hardcore teen repeat offenders and were given almost no time with the kids on our caseloads who still had the potential to turn their lives around. My vociferous objections were treated like a flu bug that I was expected to eventually get over. Instead, I moved to San Diego and soon found work as a full-time writer.
I utilized my bit at SCI-Dallas in my novel Rock & Roll Rip-Off. My protagonist and his assistant take a road trip with a San Diego Police detective to a prison just north of the Mexican border. It helped to have a detailed recollection of the facility in mind while building the description. It also helped when my detective interviewed a prison counselor and three guards, to capture the different speech patterns and priorities. I also think the internship continues to help me develop my bad guys. It may have felt like a brown hotdog on white bread at the time, but it continues to pay dividends today.
In the ’90s, RJ discovered he had a knack for comedy writing. He wrote for a local San Diego cable television show that had a Saturday Night Live-type format. Over its two seasons on the air, 34 of his skits were produced.
He currently has four published novels in his Rock & Roll Mystery series featuring private investigator, Jason Duffy.
You can learn more about RJ and his writing in the following places:
Come back on Monday, February 11, when Julie Clement shares startling statistics about women in prison.
You can see the entire month’s schedule here: Criminal Justice Blog Series
Thanks for reading.
Tags: Counseling Inmates, Criminal Justice, Criminal Justice Stories, Maximum Security Prison, Parole Planning, Prison Counselors, Prison Social Workers, RJ McDonnell, Rock & Roll Mystery Series, Social Worker Degree, Social Worker Stories, Understanding Criminal Justice, Working In Prison