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Featured Article

Supply Room Boss
by Robert McCanless

Featured Article

    I had finally weaseled my way out of the field work and into an inside job at the furniture factory on the Ramsey One Unit. They came by the cell block one day asking if anyone knew how to operate a sewing machine. I figured that I could learn pretty quick and if all failed, I would at least be sweeping floors or back out in the hoe squad. It only took a couple of days to find out I wasn't suitable for the sewing machine, so I was moved to the foam shop to make padding for chairs. Back on the wing it became evident that I was smarter than average, in that I was enrolled in college classes and was earning extra money writing theses for others. Word got around to one of the bookkeepers. 

   The bookkeeper approached me on the cellblock and asked if I was interested in taking on a job in the furniture shop supply room. Seems that someone had made parole, and they were looking for someone to replace them. You bet I was! I told him of my bookkeeping job in the military and after an interview with the warden, I moved up the ladder.

   I had been forewarned of the boss who was over this job. He was touted to be belittling, insulting, and verbally abusive to the inmates who worked under him. He treated them like dogs and called them names. He was extremely overweight and about 32 years old (4 years older than I at the time.) I had not seen him smile even in the days I had worked other jobs in the furniture factory. I went along pretty well the first few days, learning the card inventory system, typing new cards and changing quantities as things went in and out. I was always cautious to do the best I could, not only to protect my new job so I wouldn't have to go back to the fields, but so I wouldn't get on the wrong side of this guy. 

    I can't say what caused me to respond the way I did when it happened. It may have been the feeling of helplessness and fear of having just gotten out of the solitary confinement a few weeks earlier for fighting. It may have been the fear of not making it out of this place alive or just no longer caring. This is a state of mind that has always and probably always will plague me. I'm an anxiety neurotic. It could have also been that I had seen a man burned to death only a few days before. Whatever it was, it was not the appropriate response an inmate gives an official of the prison system. 

    I had done something minutely wrong in organizing a shelf of items and he decided to make a big deal of it.  "You stupid son of a bitch" were his words. I turned and looked him straight in the eyes and told him he knew nothing about my mother, and he was never to call me stupid again. He froze for a moment that seemed like eternity as my fear of what I had said began to grow as he mumbled something and told me to get back to work. The other inmates who heard me were in shock. They, as well as I, knew that this was an infraction in which the officer now held the keys to my life. Any one of the inmates could have told the authorities and thereby held the same set of keys. I don't think anyone wanted to add to the warden's woes after the burning death, and if it were mentioned among the inmates, it never reached high enough to have any impact. 

    The boss had seemed so quiet the rest of the day and almost seemed hurt. I knew I had overstepped my boundaries, but I was ready to face the consequences. I sort of equate it as an expanded version of my response to my father when he tried to give me advice one..."If you don't like the way I'm doing it, do it yourself."

    I expected to be called out at any time that evening to see the major or the warden, but nothing happened. I even expected the building tenders (inmate guards) to come into my cell in the middle of the night and beat me to the point of hospitalization. In the cell later that night I became acutely aware that I had done something wrong in response to something wrong. It was a sleepless thoughtful night.

    The next morning, from the time I got up till I got to work, a feeling of guilt grew in me. I don't know if it was born of fear or just knowledge of wrongdoing, but I really felt bad about speaking to this guard in such a way. I had undermined his authority. Something put it on my heart, as soon as I got to the supply room, to rectify the situation. Do I just work harder, start saying sir instead of calling this guy boss? No! After about thirty minutes of silence, I turned to him within earshot of everyone else in the office and said, "Boss, I'm sorry for the way I reacted yesterday. I was out of place in doing so." I realized then that I was not saying it out of fear or reprise but from realizing that I was wrong and had hurt this man's authority and he was too weak to fight back. I had jeopardized his job at the prison by showing the other inmates, inmates who would take advantage of him, that he had no real authority other than those he may tell. After I said it, he looked at me and said it was okay and that he too had gone too far. We took the conversation no further for the sake of those listening.

    Later, we began to actually talk to one another. I found that he was from Dallas, had gone to the same high school at the same time (he a senior and I a freshman), had many of the same teachers and knew many of the same people. We became as close as our situation would allow us without jeopardizing my standing with my peers and him with his. He was my "homie." I really learned to like the guy. I was transferred to a job shortly afterward with civilian clad bosses that I became so close with that today I still am in contact with them.


    I hope the response served the boss as well as it did me. I have grown, over the years, to realize that none of us are cops or convicts. Each of us are both, depending on the situation and each of us need to see the other in a different light so that we can change for the better. 

    The boss said nothing unkind to anyone the rest of my short tenure there. 


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