I ran across Peter Grant’s Walls, Wires, Bars and Souls while working on the Brings the Lightning review and despite not being published by Castalia House it thoroughly deserves its own review. My only complaint about the book is the long *** title so will abbreviate it to WWB&S.
Peter mentioned he put his heart and soul into writing WWB&S but since it doesn’t sell as well as his other books he believes the subject matter is not popular. I disagree and believe the subject always invokes popular interest and believe an informative and practical book such as this will always find readers. Some may be put off by the sub-title: “A Chaplain Looks at Prison Life” and I admit initial apprehension I was about to read a religious tract. Peter’s faith informs this book but it is not a devotional or exploration of his relationship with God. Instead, Peter’s position as a chaplain gave him “…the advantage of being in a relatively neutral position” which he uses to provide the reader a unique insight into our contemporary prison system.
The book’s format is a series of themes repeated over multiple chapters. The initial chapter describes a busier than usual work day while the next chapter is the first in a series of “Convict to Chaplain” vignettes highlighting a particular convict who serves to represent a subset of the larger prison society.
I found the Convict to Chaplain series intriguing as it is written in the prisoner’s own words. We are first introduced to “The Top Dog”. Real Call of the Wild stuff here. Top Dog is getting older but over the years has enhanced his reputation and leads a relatively secure life. To maintain his position, he’s always on the alert for younger new arrivals looking to make a name for themselves. Top Dog knows he’s not as strong as his potential threats, so he studies them and calls them out publically at the time and place of his choosing. This is when he’s prepared to go all the way and his opponent hasn’t had a chance to work up courage. “Nine times outta ten they crawfish. That’s the end of it – and of their rep”. On the tenth time Top Dog puts them down “…hard and fast and mean. He’s bleeding and screaming on the ground and he’s got some broken bones and he’s missing some teeth and……” The chapter ends with Top Dog knowing he’ll go to the Hole but he’s going with his reputation intact. There are eight other Convict to Chaplain chapters and all of them provide brutal and depressing insight. I started reading but skipped the pedophile chapter so imagine yourself as a prison chaplain having to listen as part of your work.
The last third of the book discusses history of the penal system in the U.S., alternatives as proposed by Peter (he’s not afraid to call out the “Prison-Industrial System”) and ends with useful statistics and notes. No matter what your interest is in the prison system; anyone from an academic to social worker or someone just wanting an informative read, WWB&S has something for you.
For the safety of all involved Peter disguises individual’s true identities while staying factual as possible without revealing information that could cause harm (e.g. detailed descriptions of security procedures). All swearing is removed as, after all, this is a book by a Chaplain, but staying true to the conversation the cussing is replaced by asterisks. I’ll indict myself by revealing I could easily follow the flow of the conversation, quickly replacing asterisks with the actual words.
Walls, Wires, Bars and Souls is essential reading on many different levels as there is something for almost all interests, from those with only the most prurient interest in prison violence, to researchers looking for facts, figures and the references backing them up. Additionally, the law enforcement side is not neglected and many chapters are devoted to describing the various penitentiary departments and work force composition. Even if you are only mildly curious about our contemporary prison system this book is well worth your time. I’ll put WWB&S up there with Ted Connover’s Newjack: Guarding Sing Sing for insight and I enjoyed the read as much as Jimmy Lerner’s You Got Nothing Coming.
Scott Cole: As a Chaplain were you on the GS or Law Enforcement officer pay scale (“Salaried employees who permenantly (sic) work in a correctional setting receive law enforcement pay”)?
Peter Grant: All BOP employees are GS scale, but on the Law Enforcement Officer supplementary scale, because all of them have statutory powers of arrest (the legal definition of a LEO). As a Chaplain I was GS-12.
Scott Cole: The LEO pay scale has special base rates from GS 3 to GS 10, and is about $5k more a year than the regular GS pay. Guessing that most guards in close contact with the inmates are Grade 3 to 10? Maybe there are a few 11 or 12 Supervisors but they don’t make more than a GS?
Peter Grant: I’m not sure of the current GS grades of Correctional Officer positions. It used to be GS-7 for qualified CO’s, GS-9 for senior CO’s and supervisors. I think Lieutenants (in charge of a shift) were GS-10 or GS-11.
Scott Cole: I have reviewed the BOP job opportunities site and I’m fully qualified to be a Chaplain and plan to apply in USA Jobs. Do you have any advice on how I should prepare (spiritually, mentally, even physically)?
Peter Grant: You should talk to existing chaplains to get a good idea of what they do and how they do it. The prison environment is unique, because you’ll be ministering to anyone and everyone who requests your services, whether they’re from your faith group or not. (As a Christian pastor, I was approached more than once by active Satanists requiring the assistance of a chaplain, and I could not legally refuse to deal with them. It can be tough!) I think you shouldn’t apply at all unless and until you’ve spent some time in part-time prison ministry, working as a member of a team of volunteers visiting a prison or prisons. The prison(s) you visit should be a mixture of levels (i.e. low, medium and high security), to give you an idea of the different kinds of people involved. Remember that as a chaplain, even though you apply for a job at a specific institution, you can be transferred to another. It’s a heck of a change to go from a minimum- to a maximum-security institution! You need to be prepared for whatever the exigencies of the service may demand of you.
Scott Cole: Were there special issues your non-Christian counterparts encountered? Not sure there are many Buddhist or Muslim Chaplains but your perspective would be interesting.
PG. Yes, some of them had ‘interesting’ encounters. Muslim chaplains, for example, have to deal with members of their faith group who are active terrorists, hating anyone and everyone deemed to be ‘Western’ – including chaplains whom they believe may have ‘sold out’ the ‘pure Islam’ they claim to represent. That can be actively dangerous. I had to deal with one character who was a convicted terrorist, and who was constantly trying to ‘convert’ US Muslim inmates to his more radicalized version of the faith. Things got interesting from time to time.
All chaplains, of any and every faith, have to bear in mind that most inmates are out to ‘game the system’. There are, indeed, some genuinely religious inmates, and some who have a genuine, life-changing conversion experience while behind bars. However, they’re relatively few, in my experience. In a low- to medium-security prison, I’d expect such people to be one-in-five to one-in-ten of the inmates coming to my services; in a high- to maximum-security prison, one-in-twenty or lower. The others are there to get whatever privileges they can extract from the chaplains by lying to them, wheedling, blackmailing, or threatening them. It’s an eye-opener to experience it, and one has to be constantly on one’s guard. (It can also affect one’s outlook on one’s ministry, because one can never, ever – I repeat, NEVER, EVER – trust an inmate completely. The odds are overwhelming that you’ll be conned by any and/or all of them, sooner or later.)
Scott Cole: I have decided to start a career as a BOP Law Enforcement Officer. How should I prepare for this new career?
Peter Grant: Again, talk to those already doing the job. The BOP is probably the most professional of all US prison services, so I’d talk to its guards first, and not judge BOP service and conditions by what you hear from state prison and local jail guards. A military or law enforcement background will help; I’d say at least half of the BOP correctional officers I met were military veterans and/or had served in local police or sheriff’s departments. (That was in the early 2000’s, of course – things may be different today.)
You should make sure you understand the challenges of the environment on you as an individual and a human being. I’ve covered many of them in my chapter on ‘Staff’ in WWBS. In particular, note that prison service can put enormous strain on your relationships. Plan ahead for that, discuss it with your relatives (particularly your wife and children), and work out in advance how you’re going to handle it. Of course, you won’t be able to plan for everything, but you must, repeat, MUST have a plan on how to talk about it and work out the practical implications. If you don’t, you’re going to be one of the ‘relationship casualties’ so common in law enforcement.
Get over any physical addictions (e.g. smoking, over-use of prescription drugs, etc.). Get fit and stay fit. Watch your language; if you swear like a prisoner, they won’t have any respect for you. If there’s anything negative at all in your background, make sure you disclose it when being interviewed for the FBI law enforcement background check. If you don’t, they WILL find out about it (they’re very thorough), and that can jeopardize your job. Honesty really is the best policy, even if it makes you feel uncomfortable.
Scott Cole: I have read your book and want to volunteer. I have read your warnings about manipulation by inmates. Do you have any warnings about or have heard of any volunteer, charity, NGO, organizations I should avoid or be leery of?
Peter Grant: Talk to the chaplains at the institution where you want to volunteer. All BOP prisons will offer training to volunteers, which you’ll normally be required to attend before beginning your work there. It’s good training. Take advantage of it. Talk to other volunteers, but bear in mind that you’ve got to be rooted in and grounded on reality when dealing with prisoners. They will, repeat, WILL try to take advantage of you. Never give them personal details such as your full name, address, phone number, etc. If you want to correspond with them, use a church address or a PO box. When their release draws near, DO NOT offer to accommodate them in your home or provide financial assistance. Anything like that should go through your church, and be officially arranged with the BOP and/or the institution(s) concerned. 99% of the time, the inmates really are out to take advantage of you. Never forget that!
I can’t make specific recommendations as to which organizations to support or avoid. They vary all over the country. A branch in one state might be good, while another branch of the same organization in a different state might be less effective. Ask the chaplains at your local prison for their recommendation about the most professional prison ministry organizations in their area.
Scott Cole: Are there Federal prisons with especially good or especially bad reputations?
Peter Grant: Yes, there are, but for obvious reasons I can’t go into that in a general interview or article like this. It involves information that can be discussed face-to-face, but not disseminated more widely for security reasons. Again, ask the chaplains at your local institution. They’re generally up-front about such issues. You can also talk to local law enforcement agencies, to ask them about their experience with the institution(s) concerned.
Scott Cole: You mentioned the food you ate was the same that was served to the prisoners. What were the best dishes and what meals made you wish you brown bagged it?
Peter Grant: I didn’t have particular favorites; I ate what was put in front of us that day (having served in the military for several years, I wasn’t picky – that’s something you learn the hard way!). Others, more gourmet-oriented, didn’t like some dishes. I guess it’s a matter of individual preference.
Scott Cole: There are many accounts of violence and brutality in our prisons. I know one’s experience can be very location dependent but heard some ex-cons say that if one mind’s one’s own business and respects the other inmates, avoids gambling and drugs then the chance of violence is greatly reduced. Understand from your book this is the case of the Federal minimum security facilities but I’ve heard similar accounts from those that did time in such hell holes as Rikers Island.
I’ve been sentenced to a Federal medium or above prison. What should I do to avoid trouble and do my time?
Peter Grant: It’s impossible to give you a short, concise answer. I discuss it at more length in my book, and there are other books dealing with the same issue. Suffice it to say that in a high- to maximum-security unit, you’re the low man on the totem pole, and you’d best walk very carefully and warily until you get a handle on how things are done. There will be introductory classes for new prisoners. Pay attention to them, do as you’re told. Never, ever accept a ‘gift’ or a ‘loan’ as a new prisoner until you know for sure that it doesn’t place you under an obligation to the giver or lender. That can come back to bite you. However, be very polite and diplomatic in refusing it, to avoid more of the same problems. Resign yourself to the fact that you’re going to have to earn your place in the community behind bars, and that will probably involve fighting. Learn how to fight before you go in, if at all possible, and if you have to fight, fight to win, no matter what it takes.
Scott Cole: I have a family member in Federal Prison. I have read your book, especially the parts on reluctance of prisoner’s to “snitch”. I believe my family member is in trouble but s/he is afraid on letting anyone know. In your book you urge the prisoner to tell someone but the guards can’t protect my loved one 24/7. Based on your experience what is the best advice I can give my loved one?
Peter Grant: It’s a cruel world behind the walls and the bars. Your relative is in trouble whatever he or she does. I’d say the best – probably the only realistic – solution is to go to someone in authority for help. I used to do a lot of that as a chaplain, acting as a middleman between the convict and the ‘system’. (I describe one or two incidents of that in my book, as you’ll recall.) If your relative isn’t prepared to do that, then he or she has to handle it on their own. If they can, fine. If they can’t . . . not good.
Remember that if they end up in a no-win situation, it’s best for their own survival to make a clean breast of it to the guards. Ask to see the Operations Lieutenant, tell him or her what’s going on, and ask for protective custody. As soon as you’re safely locked up, where no-one can get at you, put in a formal request to be transferred to another institution for your own safety. If the threat is real, you will be. If it’s not clear, you’ll have to provide more information – and yes, that can mean functioning as a ‘snitch’. It’s sometimes dangerous to live among criminals. They’re almost all predators; and if they’re deprived of their normal prey, they’ll prey on each other. That’s just the way it is.
Scott Cole: Is there any prison fiction that resonates with you after your experience in the prison system?
Peter Grant: The problem with many (perhaps most) books about the prison system, both factual and fiction, is that their authors have an ax to grind. They have their own preconceived opinions about the prison system, and they write through that ‘filter’, so that what comes out tends to support their particular perspective. In some cases, that’s very clearly a deliberate choice on their part. In others, it’s the inevitable result of their experiences (e.g. a former convict who hated his time behind bars, and wants to emphasize all the negatives about it, even though he was responsible for putting himself there).
I haven’t found any prison fiction that gives an accurate, unbiased perspective on life behind bars. In my experience, it’s all either sensationalized, or slanted, or just plain made up. It’s astonishing how many fiction writers simply read a few newspaper articles, assume they know the subject, and write the most awful dreck about it. That’s not how any professional should work.
On the other hand, I’ve so far had three authors let me know that they greatly enjoyed and valued WWBS precisely because it gives an accurate, unvarnished picture of life in a high-security penitentiary, and they plan to use it as a primary resource when they write about a fictional prison. That pleases me. It’s one of the reasons I wrote it – to put an accurate account out there.
Scott Cole: Any prison based movies or popular television series that you recommend viewing, or at least seem plausible? If not, what does popular culture get wrong about our prisons?
Peter Grant No, for the same reasons as described above about fiction. Sensation sells. Dry-as-dust facts don’t. Tell viewers that 90% of prison life is just plain flat-out boredom for most inmates, and they’ll watch something more entertaining. Spice it up with sex, drugs, violence and rock-‘n-roll, and they’ll line up in front of their TV’s. Movies and TV, like fiction, don’t write truth – they write entertainment, and most entertainment has very little to do with the facts. (The same criticism applies to, for example, Westerns and war movies. The reality of those genres was very different to the popular imagination, but people don’t want to hear that; and after a diet of decades of Hollywood and authorial fantasy, they wouldn’t believe the reality anyway. Talk to an authentic combat veteran about the portrayal of combat in the movies, and he’s likely to get very rude. I’ve mentioned this in relation to my own combat experience in a blog article.
I’m not much of a movie-goer. I dislike (intensely) the way Hollywood so often screws up their plots, expects us to not merely suspend dis…
Go read that. It’ll help explain what I mean. (Particular offenders in movies are ‘The Shawshank Redemption’, ‘The Longest Yard’, ‘Cool Hand Luke’, etc. They’re bull – but they’re written/scripted to be immensely popular with the viewing public, and they are. As for a TV series like ‘Orange Is the New Black’, any prison run like that would see the warden and senior staff behind bars themselves before very long! Factual, it ain’t.)
Scott Cole: Jeffro linked to this article about gaming in prison in one of his Sensor Sweeps. Did you notice any role playing gaming amongst the prisoners while you served? I always figured cards and dominoes are the only option. I think D&D is safe enough for prison, safer than dominoes and cards but I’ve seen some bad feelings over games of Risk and afraid in a prison environment those feelings and a sense of betrayal could be deadly!
Peter Grant: No, not at all. That may be because in the prisons where I served, it wasn’t a factor; or, perhaps, it was going on, but ‘below the surface’ and I didn’t notice it. I saw plenty of games being played, but they involved cards, or dominoes, or something like that – and the players usually exhibited a careful respect for one another, even in the midst of banter and profanity, because if they pissed off someone who was ready, willing and able to defend his standing in the prison hierarchy, the consequences would be at best painful, at worst . . . let’s not go there.