“What I Learned in Prison” (by T.J. MacGregor)

Trish MacGregor is the author of forty novels and the winner of an Edgar Allan Poe Award for best paperback original novel. In June 2016, she appeared in EQMM for the first time, with the story “The Unit.” We have another of her riveting stories of suspense coming up in 2017.  The experiences she describes in this post are both inspiring and thought-provoking.—Janet Hutchings

For three years in the late 1970s, I was in prison. Well, actually I was a prison librarian, not an inmate. Thankfully. That probably sounds like something from that old TV show, What’s My Line?

This prison was for male youthful offenders, in South Florida. It was new, run by the state, and I think I got hired because I spoke Spanish, had taught English to students from kindergarten through college, and had a master’s degree in Library Science. And they were looking for a Spanish teacher and a librarian. Plus, I was motivated. I had just finished a couple of years of teaching Spanish to hormonal eighth graders at a private school and knew that if I did it for another year, I probably would lose my mind!

Because the Indian County Correctional Institution was new, the library hadn’t been built yet and they brought in a double-wide trailer that was placed across the sidewalk from the education building, smack in the middle of the compound. I was provided with a generous budget to stock this library with books, music, magazines, and anything that wasn’t “obviously pornographic,” like Playboy, they said, or Penthouse. I remember standing in the middle of this huge, empty double-wide and thinking, Wow, I get to build my dream library.

So one day I drove over to the local independent bookstore in Vero Beach, Florida and started ordering books. Dashiell Hammett, Agatha Christie, Mickey Spillane, Raymond Chandler, Dorothy L. Sayers. You know the list. I also got Fitzgerald, Hemingway, du Maurier, Stephen King, and Dean Koontz. I included some of my favorites—Time and Again, by Jack Finney, and several from by Richard Matheson—The Body Snatchers, The Incredible Shrinking Man.

Nonfiction ran the gamut from memoirs to self-help to New Age titles. Instead of Playboy and Penthouse, I stocked Ellery Queen, Fate, Scientific American, and in 1978 added OMNI Magazine. I’m sure the inmate population wasn’t happy about the absence of porn, but they consumed everything else. And Tom, the bookstore owner, loved seeing me when I came shopping.

Years later, after I’d sold several novels, he hosted a signing for a group of mystery writers and invited me. It was fun and particularly gratifying because I’d made the leap from prison librarian and Spanish teacher to full-time writer.

In terms of daily life on that prison compound, I was one of fifteen women. This was a minimum-security prison, far more relaxed than maximum-security prisons, like the Florida state prison at Raiford, where the electric chair—Old Sparky—was alive and well. As a youthful offender facility, it was meant for kids as young as 15 and young adults up to 21. Never mind that there were inmates much older than that. Most of the crimes were drug-related—pot and cocaine.

Some young men were doing time for serious crimes. One inmate who eventually became an assistant in the library had robbed a convenience store so he could buy drugs. Another of my assistants, whose parents both had doctorates, had gotten high on something and raped a young girl. A man in his late twenties had killed the grandson of the Chicago mayor over a drug deal. His fiancée and I eventually became running partners and I learned a lot about what’s it’s like to live as a professional drug dealer. That inside dope helped me write my first published novel.

I remember one African-American, Ake, an older man in his thirties, who was doing ninety-nine years for murder. He’d been placed in our facility because he never caused trouble. Ake was a voracious reader, one of my most loyal customers.

Several years after I left that job, I was in a grocery store in Fort Lauderdale and heard someone bellowing, “Ms. Trish!” I turned and there was Ake, a giant of a man, rushing toward me with his arms wide open. We hugged in the middle of that grocery store and he told me he’d gotten early release for good behavior. And then he thanked me for all the wonderful books my library had provided, books that had changed his life from the inside out.

The other thing I learned as an employee in this prison is that when you have power over other people, it’s easy to abuse that power. Prison employees sold dope to inmates, no surprise there. Orange Is the New Black has that pegged. Female employees had affairs with inmates. Orange addresses that, too, but not quite in the same way since the prison in Orange is a female federal prison. In the prison where I worked, several female employees seduced the male inmates. At least one of them ended up marrying the inmate when he was released. The difference from Orange, besides the gender of the inmates, was that they didn’t interact with such snappy dialogue. No scriptwriters for those guys.

Then there were other types of abuses. Guards who patted your butt. Way to go, honey. I reported that guy to the superintendent of the prison. Nothing happened to him. After an inmate hung himself in solitary, it was discovered that he’d been on an outside work crew and had been taken to the assistant superintendent’s trailer on the prison grounds. Maybe he’d been expecting a cold glass of iced tea and lunch. Instead, he was raped.

When he reported it, he was tossed into solitary confinement and that was where he’d hung himself. When it was discovered that the assistant superintendent had been raping inmates for some time, he was forced to retire. No charges were ever brought against him.

I left this job in 1979, when the rapist-in-chief himself accused me of making personal copies of my resume in the classification department, the only place at that time that had a copier. Guilty. I did it. He threatened to place me on probation. The resumes were sent to the FBI, where I applied for a job because I couldn’t stand working in the state prison system anymore.

I went through two interviews with the FBI, who had started hiring women as agents, not just secretaries, in 1975. I was offered a job, pending my medical tests. Then I failed the hearing test because I’m ninety-percent deaf in my left ear, the result of a fractured skull when I was five. I quit my job, sold my condo, and moved. Eventually, I was hired by Florida International University to teach English to Cuban refugees.

I look back on those years in prison, though, and understand how much I gained. I used to go into the classification department on my lunch hour and read inmate files. I was curious about who they were, their backgrounds, families, their psyches. They provided plenty of fodder for future novels. The guy who headed that department was a Mormon with seven children. He was just there, filling time, waiting for retirement. The man in charge of the education department was a big teddy bear of a guy who made a difference in that he set up a GED program and then a college-level program where inmates could earn actual college credits for courses they took.

In the late 1990s, Florida’s state prisons were privatized. It meant that the more inmates they have, the more money they received from the state and the federal government. It’s probably why so many minorities are in prison for petty drug crimes, such as using or selling pot.

My three years behind bars—eight hours a day—taught me several indispensable lessons:

  • Nothing is ever what it appears to be, in either life or fiction.
  • That in a prison, the lines between good guys and bad guys are often blurred.
  • Sometimes, crime does pay.
  • There are usually two sides to a story—the wrong side and the right side—and those sides are usually open to interpretation.
  • Books change lives.
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2 Responses to “What I Learned in Prison” (by T.J. MacGregor)

  1. Trish, this is so interesting. Wow, what great research for your career as a mystery writer! Thanks for sharing your memories.

  2. What an interesting experience for you as a writer!

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