This week my script Guarded got submitted for jury selection at the Austin Film Festival and this got me thinking about two years ago, when I toured Millhaven Maximum Security.
See a lot of people live their whole lives without thinking about doing a day trip to maximum security but this script was about guards. Female guards to be precise.
I got interested in female guards because I am in comedy. In the world of comedy, men outnumber women about ten to one and I was interested to see how women coped in another primarily male-dominated system.
As I started doing research, I quickly found not only is there s a high percentage of females working in corrections, but that a good deal of them guard men. We all guard men in one way or another, especially after a few cocktails.
I thought about going into Quinte Detention Centre, in Napanee Ontario, but there would’ve been too many of my relatives in there wanting me to bring them smokes.
So I booked a tour of Millhaven Corrections. Booking is a very simple process really. Like five degrees of separation kind of simple. I must admit, I had no idea what to expect. There wasn’t a brochure. No pictures. In my imagination, I thought it would likely be worse than a Kimmett family reunion, but not as bad as when my hometown lost a hockey game .
Yes, I am joking. I use humour to deflect fear. The more freaked out I am, the more jokes I make, then three days later, I feel my real feelings and freak out. So the day I went in to The Clink, I was hilarious, cracking jokes about what I should wear. Sporting a rack like I do, I don’t want to set anybody off, having the boys overcome by an avalanche of lust. (Yes, they were bad jokes.)
In the end, I opted for a loose sweater and jeans with a gel bra (because the underwire one could be used as a shiv). And then, to top it off, I put on four pairs of underwear, which I know logically wouldn’t have saved me, but it might have slowed things down while the big-necked officers came to save me.
As I drove up the driveway, the first thing I saw was a sign that said “Trespassers will be prosecuted and can spend up to five years in jail.” This is when I hoped they had received my request for the tour. When I got to reception, I was greeted by my tour guide — a former female guard. She didn’t have a thick neck. In fact she was kind of, well … short. And very pretty. So I said, “Boy, you’re short,” which went over as well as you can imagine. And that was just the beginning of the stupid things I did and said that afternoon.
There are so many dos and don’ts when touring a maximum-security facility. Don’t wave at the guys with the guns in the tower. It makes them nervous. At security, don’t ask if they can check your IUD while they’re doing that body search. Don’t pet the drug dog. Just smile and let him sniff your crotch. Don’t be worried that he’ll bite you. He’s a drug dog, so he’s probably getting off on the smell of your J’Adore cologne. In fact, don’t wear J’Adore cologne to a correctional institution, because it won’t be just the dog sniffing you.
Don’t make small talk with the guys in jeans and T-shirts. They are inmates. They don’t wear carrot suits in federal. Yes, I said “carrot suits.” I know the lingo. And don’t say “carrot suits.” You sound like an idiot. When you see inmates wearing jeans that hang low like plumber’s butt, don’t say, “For God’s sake, pull your drawers up and get a belt,” because cons can’t have belts. And don’t call them cons. They might just be murderers or bank robbers, not con artists. And speaking of art, when you see ink drawings of Medusa all over a guy’s arm, don’t say, “Hey, love your ‘too. What gang are you from?” And don’t ask, “Are you holding?” Not even as a joke, because some chicks might suitcase drugs up their woohoo, but you’re not that kind of gal. Besides, you’re old enough to be their mother. Or grandmother. The inmates at Millhaven are younger than you’d expect. A lot younger.
When you see the cells, which are painted pale pink, blue, and green, don’t say “Who the hell picked out these paint colours? Did Martha Stewart get loose in here and make them paint it the colours of Whoville?”
When I go anywhere, I develop an accent. Two days south of the Mason-Dixon Line, and I’m saying “Y’all want some grits, y’all?” Within sixty minutes of being in Millhaven, I was developing a swagger and spouting lines like “Guard or cons, we’re all doing time. The only difference is I get to go home at night.”
And then I started comparing my job as a humorist to theirs. “Oh, you were part of a hostage-taking? That’s nothing. I worked with Mike Bullard.”
Just because I “died” on Mike’s show, it’s not the same thing. That metaphor won’t fly because being a woman in corrections is front-line feminism. Some psychologists claim women are a calming influence on men. The concept is that a tough guy sees a woman, he’ll just be struck peaceful. He’ll fall into some estrogen-induced form of narcolepsy. (And if she has PMS, he’ll voluntarily put himself in solitary confinement.) I don’t know how it works. I do know that anyone in a uniform is seen as an authority figure. And authority is what everybody in there is bucking against. So, everybody has to find a unique way to survive. To be seen as human or not to be seen at all. It’s a delicate balance for women. And the ladies I met were tough, funny, and very serious about doing their jobs well. But here’s the thing: Working in corrections, whether female or male, is not an easy job. It makes that gig I did for the Buffalo Tow Truck Operators look like a picnic.
After my hour-and-a-half tour, I was released. As the gates opened, I yelled, “Live comic walking!” and everybody thought I was a riot.
But three days later the jokes stopped. I heard on the news that a guard had shot one inmate for trying to kill another. I finally got that I don’t have a clue how you walk off a day like that. I don’t know how pending violence plays on a psyche day after day, year after year, because I am not a guard. I am a comic who gets to go home at night. And hopefully, never go back in.