“Where’s that purty News Lady? One does the weather in the mornings?”
I didn’t know what to tell the pot-bellied man standing before me. For all I knew our weather bunny was stashed away in the station prop room, gargling dry ice in her cryogenic chamber.
“Oh, she’s back at the lab …watching the Doppler.” I offered. “All they sent was me.”
The man scrunched his eyebrows in response. For a few awkward seconds he said nothing, his wide polyester tie and beefy forearms radiating blue-collar authority. Finally, he turned on one scuffed heel and started shuffling toward the small guard shack.
“All right then, come on in the house.”
The Greene Correctional Institution has had many names and many masters. Originally built as a county prison farm, the state of North Carolina took over the modest facility in 1931. Since then, it has been the reluctant home to tens of thousands of inmates as they served their time working on road crews, construction projects and the prison farm itself. In the early eighties, the state built a gleaming new facility on some of that farmland. Today the concrete fortress of automatic gates and watch towers known as the Eastern Correctional Institution dominates the plot of land, making its country cousin next door look every bit the back-lot for ‘Cool Hand Luke‘. For years, I passed by the one story barracks and barbwire-topped chain link fence on my many illicit jaunts between sleepy Goldsboro and wide-open Greenville. On weekends, I’d let off the gas a little and rubberneck at the throngs of family members and jump suited inmates visiting on the ancient picnic tables out front. I had never planned to visit it myself - but on that chilly March morning in 1993, I walked through the depression-era structure with camera and tripod in tow.
“This here’s minimum-facility, but we got a number of violent offenders servin’ the last of their sentences…”
I nodded and followed the fat man. As he cleared a path through the bunkhouse, the inmates reluctantly stepped aside and eyeballed my shiny news camera and me. I adopted a blank expression and returned a few gazes. I’d never been to a prison before, but the smell of sweat, mothballs reminded me of my time at sea, and I felt oddly at ease in the room full of felons. As for the man giving me the tour, he barely acknowledged the prisoners swarming around us. Not until an older inmate stopped spreading dirty mop-water long enough to address my guide by his official title did I realize he was indeed the high Warden of this southern-fried penal outpost. The scuffed cowboy boots and Haggar action slacks should have tipped me off.
“We provide labor for the state and county - DOT, janitorial, construction,” the Warden said, looking over his shoulder and giving me a good ole boy wink. “We like a busy inmate.”
I believed him, even though dozens of men in lose fitting jumpsuits shuffled around us, each one tracking the path of the warden and the cameraman. Along the way, some gave shout-outs to my station while others slunk past with their heads down. One tall Latino guy stopped long enough to flip me off - in other words, about the same reaction you‘d get from trolling a TV camera through a crowded Friday night food court. But these idlers were a bit more brutish than the average mall rat. As a result, I kept my normal smart-ass remarks to myself. Following the hefty administrator through the shadowy gauntlet of steel bunk beds and sour faces, I could feel the eyeballs upon me. It was with no regret I followed the prattling warden through a door and toward the welcome sunshine…
Into The Yard. A dirt lot with a dozen picnic tables and little else but open space, the tall chain link fence ran that enclosed it’s southern edge ran alongside one of the lonelier stretches of rural highway 903. It was the same yard I had driven by hundreds of times, zipping past the Island of Incarceration at sixty plus. Now I was trudging through the yard with Boss Hogg and a parade of increasingly brazen Guests of the State trailing behind me. Not what I had in mind when I first took up a lens.
But I didn’t come to sightsee. The sooner I could get bag my shots, the sooner I could shake the imprisoned dust off my heels and make a beeline for the Emerald City, a magical place of newlywed apartments and newsroom bureaus. At the end of the yard, I stopped listening as the warden babbled on about rehab programs. Extending my sticks, I plopped the Panasonic on the tripod plate. As I did the convict Congo line behind me quickly dissipated, some inmates scrambling for cover while others pranced away with a good deal more strut and crotch-grab. The Warden barely noticed to notice but I couldn’t help myself but smile as I brandished my weapon. With forced casualness, the throng of inmates paced and glowered as my battered lens swept their ranks. I squinted into the eyepiece, rolled the focal tube under my fingers until the image sharpened to a razor’s hone. Panning along the crowd, I swept from one hardened face to another. Some of the Masters of Bad Decisions glared defiantly, others went about their lack of business. A gust of wind kicked up and swept a hazy brown curtain of dirt between the convicts and my lens. BINGO, I thought.
After a few more shots, I mic’ed up the Warden and asked him a few questions about a new study on prison overcrowding that was making headlines. Looking tired, rumpled and a little bit shady, the head jailer answered in an authoritative drawl, reminding me of an old car salesman I once knew. After a few more inane questions, I concluded the interview with an off hand request.
“Hey, think I can talk to any of the inmates on camera?”
“You bet, “the Warden said, handing my lapel microphone back to me. “Let me get some release forms.”
Wrestling my camera off the finicky tripod head, I twisted a knob and pulled the it back and up, freeing the aging betacam from the stuck plate lock. When it released I looked up only to notice I was standing by myself. A dozen yards away I spotted the Warden’s ample backside waddling the guard shack. Looking back, I saw the smirks and hear the chuckles as the flock of felons ambled toward me. Heart racing, I just stood there by the tripod, camera hung low and heavy. The inmates held up at little over arms’ reach as I squared my shoulders, my heartbeat visible through my station fleece. Curses, challenges and cut-downs rang out as I tightened my grip on my twenty-five pound boat anchor of a camera. Glancing from one mug shot mug to another, I wondered how many I could take out by swinging this baby, and how long it would be before I soiled myself in the process. Glancing left, I saw no signs of the Warden along the fence line. Back in front of me, the group flashed gold teeth and gang signs as my sphincter twisted ever tighter. I didn’t feel threatened exactly, but the number of jumpsuits and prison yard barbs was thumping on my cerebral cortex. Glancing over at the empty fence line, I tussled with the idea of becoming unhinged. That’s when a familiar Down East twang rang out from the crowd.
I turned my head toward the voice and saw a squirrelly little guy whom I did not immediately recognize. Then it hit me - Earl! Looking closer I recognized the younger brother of a fellow I had, ahem, once associated with. Even back then, I thought Earl had the makings of a thug. As I took in chest tattoo and pinched expression, I saw he was still working on that particular thesis.
“Earl, what are you here for?” I stammered as the rest of the inmates watched the exchange.
Earl ran his fingers through his greasy bangs and looked away. “Aw man - you know just some DUI’s and stuff. How you been dude? I saw you on the TeeVee!”
“Well, you know - I’m doing okay, the station‘s letting me do it full-time now….” From there the conversation devolved into that of the aimless chatter heard by the deli counter at the Harris Teeter. But Earl had bad news about Larry. As he updated me on his brother’s troublesome plight, the swarthy clutch of pumped up convicts hung on every sordid word like the camera hogs in an Oprah Winfrey audience. As I spotted the Warden making his slow way toward our impromptu gossip session, I chuckled in relief and wondered where next this crazy TV camera would take me.
“And then he WALKED OFF!”
My buddies convulsed in laughter around the bar, shaking their backwards ball capped heads and banged the countertop. I laughed along with them, until a competing reporter/photographer swallowed his beer and exclaimed,
“You too? He did the same thing to me last month!”
With that, the rate of consumption heightened and I spent the night retelling the account of my latest occupational rite of passage. As the bar tab increased, I worked details of a staggering knife fight and daring escape into the shifting narrative, but what do you expect from a young cameraman on Dollar Import night, anyway?