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Naked Power Play

Yesterday, I got a phone call from the litigation coordinator at Pleasant Valley State Prison saying that if I take off my pants one more time at check-in, I won’t be allowed to visit again. As I told him, if this happens, we can hash it out with the Attorney General: refusing to allow an attorney to see his client is theoretically a misdemeanor. And the guard responsible has to pay $500 out of his own pocket to the client.

I say “theoretically” because the government routinely breaks its own laws with impunity. Frankly, I don’t know why we make laws saying the government has to do this, or cannot do that; when it suits them, they simply ignore those laws.

What’s happening is a power play between myself and the guards at visitor’s receiving there. They won’t wand me, but insist that I get through the metal detector without setting it off. The suspenders I wear take longer to remove and replace than just sliding them off my shoulders and dropping my drawers. I’ve done this more than once, at more than one prison and it always disturbs the guards. They don’t mind performing illegal strip searches, but the sight of an attorney in his underwear apparently just completely freaks them out. It’s a control thing: I guess I look so good without my pants that those guys are afraid they’ll be unable to resist me.

I tell them they can avoid that by wanding me, but they refuse. You see, the guard would actually have to pick up a wand, walk up to me and move his arms up and down with that heavy one-to-two pounds of weight in his hand.

That would result in real security, because if I had any metal that didn’t trip the walk-through scanner, the wand would catch it. (And I know this because I routinely go through with metal in my clothing that doesn’t trip the walk-through scanner, but does trip the wand if anyone deigns to use it.)

Anyway, that – and the case that I’m at Pleasant Valley to handle – already have caused me to do a lot more thinking about the need for reform. Correctional officers, parole agents and other law enforcement individuals already have too much power. And they think nothing of abusing it, wielding it for their own personal purposes and pleasures.

I know that ultimately, the guards will prevail. They are, after all, state sanctioned criminals capable of and quite willing to ignore laws, procedures, principles of fairness and common human decency. I might be able to convince the Attorney General to step in and fix things — the law still has persuasive power sometimes — but he’s part of the same system, so it’s a gamble. Even if he followed the law, my client would suffer because I could not work his case until the guards were forced to do the same.

This does, however, help me understand why people in prison might like to screw with the guards. Because when it comes right down to it, they aren’t there to enforce the law. They are there because they know that, one way or another, they were going to end up in prison. You know the old saying, right? If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em? By becoming correctional officers, they sometimes get to do both: they join ’em and then, because they really don’t give a damn about the law, they beat ’em. Small wonder, then, that some of us come to resent this illicit authority and occasionally strike back.

In any event, it’s not about security. If it were, the guards wouldn’t smuggle so much crap in to the inmates themselves.

It’s about power. And the abuse thereof.

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