“Where’s that little 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 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. For a few awkward seconds he said nothing, his wide tie and beefy forearms radiating blue-collar authority. Finally, he turned on one scuffed heel and shuffled toward the 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, itt's been the reluctant home to tens of thousands of inmates as they worked on road crews, construction projects and the prison farm itself. In the early eighties, the state built a gleaming new facility on that same farmland. Today the concrete fortress of 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 those lowly barracks and barbwire-on my many 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 gathered on the ancient picnic tables out front. I 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 man. As he trudged into the bunkhouse, the inmates stepped aside and eyeballed me and my TV camera. I looked back with sour indifference. I’d not been to a prison before, but the smell of sweat and mothballs reminded me of my time at sea. As for my guide, he never acknowledged the prisoners swarming around us. Not until an older inmate stopped spreading dirty mop-water on a floor long enough to address my guide by his official title did I realize he was indeed the high Warden of this penal outpost. The tie and forearms 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 loose 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 - 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 wise-assery to myself. Following the warden through the gauntlet of steel bunk beds and shitty looks, I could feel the eyeballs upon me. I relaxed a little when the warden led me through a door and...
Into The Yard. A dirt lot with a dozen picnic tables, the tall chain link fence that enclosed it’s southern edge ran alongside one of the lonelier stretches of highway 903. It was the same yard I had driven by hundreds of times, zipping past this miserable spot at sixty plus. Now I was sludging through the yard with Boss Hogg and a gang of increasingly brazen Guests of the State. Not what I envisioned when I first wormed my way into a TV station.
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 an air-conditioned edit bay.. Raising my tripod, I plopped the Panasonic on the tripod plate. As I did the inmates dispersed, some scrambling for cover, others sashaying away while fondling their crotch.. The Warden barely noticed but I smiled inside 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 the crowd, I left one hardened face and landed on another. Some glared back, 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. He answered in an authoritative drawl, bringing to mind an old car salesman I once knew. After a few more questions, I wrapped the interview with an offhand 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, 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 waddling into a guard shack. Looking back, I saw the smirks and heard low laughter as the flock of felons closed in. I could feel my pulse in my temples, but I just stood there, camera hung low and heavy. The inmates stopped at arms’ reach and I squared my shoulders, my heartbeat visible through my station fleece. Curses and cut-downs rang out as I tightened my grip on my twenty-five pound boat anchor of a camera. Glancing from one mean mug to another, I wondered how many I could take out by swinging the camera, and how soon I would soil myself in the process. I looked over my shoulder, but saw no signs of the Warden.. In front of me, the group flashed gold teeth and gang signs as my sphincter twisted into the shape of a seahorse. That’s when a weirdly familiar twang rang out.
I turned toward the voice and saw a squirrelly little inmate staring back at me. Then it hit me - Durwood! Looking closer, I recognized the younger brother of a fellow I had, ahem, once associated with. Even back then, I thought he had the makings of a thug. As I took in the neck tattoo that haxd yet to be completed, I could see that he was well on his way.
“Dur, what are you here for?”
He 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 the kind of aimless chatter you hear at the deli counter. Seems Durwood had bad news about his brother. And as he unspooled the sordid tale , the swarthy clutch of convicts hung on every word like the ladies on Oprah. Out of the corner of my eye, I spotted the Warden in the door of the guard shack. I couldn't see his face, but I have to believe he was enjoying himself.
“And then he WALKED OFF!”
My buddies convulsed in laughter around the bar. I laughed along with them, until a reporter buddy piped up .
“ He did the same thing to me last month!”
With that, the rate of consumption heightened and I spent the evening retelling the account of my prison yard showdown. Of course as the bar tab increased, I worked in new details of a staggering knife fight and daring escape,, but what would you expect from a young cameraman on Dollar Import night, anyway?