A one hour scenic ride northeast of Wilkes-Barre came to asuddenend at a behemoth light grey concrete structure, accented with silver colored concertina wire and a lethal electrical double fence glittering in the early morning Pennsylvania sunlight. It was 7:15am and the sign above the entrance said USP Caanan.

I agreed to conduct mock interviews with prisoners nearing the end of their lengthy sentences at themaximumsecurity federal penitentiary, in the name of workforce development. I said yes when I received the call because... well, I want them to return to society well prepped for a job interview with the hope it will help them gain employment that will help enable them to be productive well integrated members of communities across the country upontheirrelease - don't you?

I submitted the background check paperwork in preparation for the day way ahead of time and was delighted my underwire bra wasn't a deal breaker during theairport like screening to get past the reception desk (unfortunately, someone next to me wasn't so lucky). No dresses/skirts above the knee. No open-toed shoes. No tight, low-cut or revealing clothing, etc.

Black pants, button down shirt, black loafers, ponytail with an elastic hair tie.. a shoe scan and I was in.

The elaboratelabyrinthof thick solid metal doors that opened to a timed rhapsodyof radio commands separated me from 1300+ male humans requiring incarceration - 40% with life sentences, under conditions of maximum security, for what I would later find out to be acacophonyof distinct yet not so different interrelated issues and circumstances.

  • Alcohol
  • Drugs
  • Easy access to weapons
  • No 'good' role models
  • Lots of poor decisions
  • Desperate measures in desperate times

The GED teacher in a black blazer with a bazillion keys on her waist and radio in hand led the way to the grey classroom where injection molded light weight with no sharp edges plastic furniture was staggered about. Dunkin coffee and donuts - NOT for the prisoners, "they're not allowed near them" - to entertain the group of 10 workforce development and HR volunteers as we waited for the prisoners lined up on the other side of the door with typewritten resumes in hand to enter from behind another solid thick metal door.

They filed in and sat quietly until each was called to begin their 10 minute rotating mock interviews.Most inmates had never had civilian employment though their resumes were sometimes lengthy with jobs in upholstery, automotive mechanics, construction, food service, and skills like Microsoft Office Certified. That meant they were incarcerated in their teens, their careers spent institutionalized, 15, 20, 25 years..

A pleasant, well-mannered inmate in his 40's who did have outside work experience was visibly nervous as the prepped textbook answer evaded him.

Have you ever been convicted of afelony?

I used to be a roofer and it was so hot up there doing that job in the summer. We used to keep beer in a cooler for the end of the day, we liked to drink. One day I had a black out and then I learned an argument had got out of control, I had gone to my pickup, got my hunting rifle and killed a man. - Lonnie

Textbook answer for the uninitiated: Yes, I was convicted of a felony but I spent the ensuing years working on being a better person, learning new trades, achieving my GED, taking personal enrichment courses, reflecting on my errors, setting goals and looking forward with enthusiasm to new opportunities to be a productive member of society.

I noted suggestions next to answers on the interview form for each 'candidate' and turned them in at the end of the morning to the black blazer with the radio, after coaching and answering as many questions as I could in each brief 10 minute session. At the end of the morning the inmates came back around one by one, to shake my hand and thank me for my time and advice. I wished each one of them to be well in their future.

I made my way out through a quarter mile walk down a lonely grey corridor marked with timed sliding thick metal doors to the outside. As I drove home my mind reeled with the questions I was asked.

I heard you can apply for jobs on the Internet, is that true?

And I experienced feelings of compassion, anger, frustration, sorrow, pity and pain.


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