Friday, September 29, 2023

2020 pandemic road trip to from Wisconsin to Montana: Chapter 8

Photos by Retiring Guy

Going to Work at the Montana State Prison

Monday, September 28, 2020

Within a week, I found a small house to rent — living room, kitchen, bedroom. I think two of the hotel rooms where we stayed on our recent trip provided nearly as much room as I had in Deer Lodge. During the summer of 1975, I trailer-sat for friends, a married couple, both teachers – a great money-saving proposition. (Sandy Heffelfinger probably introduced them to me.) The two of them spent the summer biking around the Northwest. 

The mattress in the above photo is a later addition, and it serves to mark the space in the front yard where I parked the VW -- where, in fact, it sat for more than two months in February a siege of 24/7 subzero weather, the engine refusing to turn over until the temperature rose above zero. Moreover, I don’t remember mowing the lawn, let alone there being any grass when I lived there. 

The black-and-white photo is a view from the living room couch, looking into the kitchen. During my year in Deer Lodge, I wrote many letters to friends – not so many to Mom and Dad, I suspect, much to Mom’s disappointment, I’m suspect -- and transcribed the journals I wrote starting in 9th grade. 

As the house was just six blocks from the prison, I walked to work each day, the final stretch along an imposing sandstone prison wall. Before entering the facility, I made a side trip to the administration building across the street where I picked up the day’s mail, which typically filled a large canvas carrying bag. It includes magazines, newspapers, and books inmates requested that were sent from other libraries. 

The arched and compact entrance framing a steel door created a forbidding atmosphere, no doubt the effect the architect designed into the plan. In order to get inside the prison, a guard lowered a key on a rope from the tower he occupied so I could unlock the door. From this point, I stepped into one of two small rooms separated by the grill gate, which the guard ‘buzzed’ open to allow me to proceed. This step was repeated in order to reach the prison yard, where I continued along a short stretch of sidewalk and up a concrete set of stairs to the administration building. It was here where the guard on duty inspected day’s library mail contained in my oversized canvas bag. The books sent from other libraries were delivered in mailing boxes or insulated envelopes, the kind of packaging that could just as easily be used for smuggling contraband into the prison. Every once in a while, a guard would open a package or two, but on most days I was waved through after a perfunctory pawing through the bag. 

The stairs at the right of the above photo is where I exited the administration building and entered the prison yard as I made my way to the library. At this point, I had already been buzzed through 4 grill gates, with two more to go, the last set through the entrance to the maximum-security cell block entrance at left. The library was located behind the two windows on the second level of the administration building, immediately to the right of the brick tower. In spite of the bars covering them, the windows provided a panoramic view of Mount Powell. 

The entrance to the library is shown in the photo at left, although I am probably one of the few visitors who knows this. For the price of admission, JoAnna and I received a black-and-white newsprint brochure, “A Self-Guided Tour of the Old Montana Prison”. It contains a few passing references to a library, but none of the 30 numbered stops along the designated tour route are devoted exclusively to a prison library. Hyperbolically speaking, I felt as though a year of my life had been erased. 

The space the library occupied is unrecognizable from how it looked in 1974-75., remodeled to create smaller exhibit rooms. The walls are covered with faux wood paneling that would be right at home in a finished basement of a house in a 1950s suburban development. All four large windows are covered up, giving the space a closed-in, claustrophobic feel. 

During the year I worked there, the library was a bright, open space, the windows providing abundant natural light, with shelving along 3 walls and an abundance of table and chairs. The busiest time was late afternoon, when inmates finished their work assignments and allowed recreation time before dinner. 

Without a work assignment, you spent the day in your shared cell, though not in a zebra-striped uniform. By the mid-1970s, the regulation uniform for inmates was blue jeans and a blue work shirt, not that much different from some of the streetwear you’d see then. 

The library subscribed to all Montana’s daily newspapers, as well as numerous weeklies. These were a big draw. Inmates liked to keep up with the news in their hometowns, and back then newspapers actually covered local news in depth. I also maintained deposit libraries at the Compound Dormitory (an open space at the southern edge of the prison with 30 bunk beds lining the walls for 60 medium-security inmates) and prison ranch located in the grounds 5 miles west.

Read about the entire trip

And check out "Covid Chronicles" here.

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