The Inmate: A gripping psychological thriller
As the prison doors slam shut behind me, I question every decision I’ve ever made in my life.
This is not where I want to be right now. At all. Who wants to be in a maximum-security penitentiary? I’m going to wager nobody wants that. If you are within these walls, you may have made some poor life choices along the way.
I sure have.
A woman in a blue correctional officer’s uniform is looking up at me from behind the glass partition just inside the entrance to the prison. Her eyes are dull and glassy, and she looks like she doesn’t want to be here any more than I do.
“Brooke Sullivan.” I clear my throat. “I’m supposed to meet with Dorothy Kuntz?”
The woman looks down at a clipboard of papers in front of her. She scans the list, not acknowledging that she heard me or that she knows anything about why I’m here. I glance behind me into the small waiting area, which is empty except for a wrinkled old man sitting in one of the plastic chairs, reading a newspaper like he’s sitting on the bus. Like there isn’t a barbed wire fence surrounding us, dotted with hulking guard towers.
After what feels like several minutes, a buzzing sound echoes through the room—loud enough that I jump and take a step back. A door to my right with the red vertical bars slowly slides open, revealing a long, dimly lit hallway.
I stare down the hallway, my feet frozen to the floor. “Should… should I go in?”
The woman looks up at me with her dull eyes. “Yes—go. You pass through the security check down the hall.”
She nods in the direction of the dark hallway, and a chill goes through me as I walk tentatively through the barred door, which slides closed again and locks with a resounding thud. I’ve never been here before. My job interview was over the phone, and the warden was so desperate to hire me, he didn’t even feel compelled to meet me first—my resume and letters of recommendation were enough. I signed a one-year contract and faxed it over last week.
And now I’m here. For the next year of my life.
This is a mistake. I never should have come here.
I look behind me, at the red metal bars that have already slammed shut behind me. It’s not too late. Even though I signed a contract, I’m sure I could get out of it. I could still turn around and leave this place. Unlike the residents of this prison, I don’t have to be here.
I didn’t want this job. I wanted any other job but this one. But I applied to every single job within a sixty-minute commute of the town of Raker in upstate New York, and this prison was the only place that called me back for an interview. It was my last choice, and I felt lucky to get it.
So I keep walking.
There’s a man at the security check-in all the way down the hall, guarding a second barred door. He’s in his forties with a short, military-style haircut and wearing the same crisp blue uniform as the dead-eyed woman at the front desk. I looked down at the ID badge clipped to his breast pocket: Correctional Officer Steven Benton.
“Hi!” I say, in a voice that I realize is a little too chirpy, but I can’t help myself. “My name is Brooke Sullivan, and it’s my first day working here.”
Benton’s expression doesn’t shift as his dark eyes rake over me. I squirm as I rethink all the fashion choices I made this morning. Working in a men’s maximum-security prison, I figured it was better not to dress in a way that might be construed as suggestive. So I’m wearing a pair of boot-cut black dress pants, paired with a black button-up long-sleeved shirt. It’s almost eighty degrees out, one of the last hot days of the summer, and I’m regretting all the black, but it seemed like the way to call the least attention to myself. My dark hair is pinned back in a simple ponytail. The only makeup I have on is some concealer to hide the dark circles under my eyes, and a scrap of lipstick that’s almost the same color as my lips.
“Next time,” he says, “no high heels.”
“Oh!” I look down at my black pumps. Nobody gave me any guidance whatsoever on the dress code, much less the shoe code. “Well, they’re not very high. And they’re chunky—not sharp or anything. I really don’t think…”
My protests die on my lips as Benton stares at me. No high heels. Got it.
Benton runs my purse through a metal detector, and then I walk through a much larger one myself. I make a nervous joke about how it feels like I’m at the airport, but I’m getting the sense that this guy doesn’t like jokes too much. Next time, no high heels, no jokes.
“I’m supposed to meet Dorothy Kuntz,” I tell him. “She’s a nurse here.”
Benton grunts. “You a nurse too?”
“Nurse practitioner,” I correct him. “I’m going to be working at the clinic here.”
He raises an eyebrow at me. “Good luck with that.”
I’m not sure what that means exactly.
Benton presses a button, and again, that ear-shattering buzzing sound goes off, just before the second set of barred doors slides open. He directs me down a hallway to the medical ward of the prison. There’s a strange chemical smell in the hallway, and the fluorescent lights overhead keep flickering. With every step I take, I’m terrified that some prisoner will appear out of nowhere and bludgeon me to death with one of my high-heeled shoes.
When I turn left at the end of the hallway, a woman is waiting for me. She is roughly in her sixties, with close-cropped gray hair and a sturdy build—there’s something vaguely familiar about her, but I can’t put my finger on what it is. Unlike the guards, she’s dressed in a pair of navy blue scrubs. Like everyone else I’ve met so far at this prison, she isn’t smiling. I wonder if it’s against the rules here. I should check my contract. Employees may be terminated for smiling.
“Brooke Sullivan?” she asks in a clipped voice that’s deeper than I would have expected.
“That’s right. You’re Dorothy?”
Much like the guard at the front, she looks me up and down. And much like him, she looks utterly disappointed by what she sees. “No high heels,” she tells me.
“I know. I—”
“If you know, why did you wear them?”
“I mean…” My face burns. “I know now.”
She reluctantly accepts this answer and decides not to force me to spend my orientation barefoot. She waves a hand, and I obediently trot after her down the hallway. The whole outside of the medical ward has the same chemical smell as the rest of the prison and the same flickering fluorescent lights. There’s a set of plastic chairs lined up against the wall, but they’re empty. She wrenches open the door of one of the rooms.
“This will be your exam room,” she tells me.
I peer inside. The room is about half the size of the ones at the urgent care clinic where I used to work in Queens. But other than that, it looks the same. An examining table in the center of the room, a stool for me to sit on, and a small desk.
“Will I have an office?” I ask.
Dorothy shakes her head. “There’s a desk in there. Don’t you see it?”
So I’m supposed to document with the patients looking over my shoulder? “What about a computer?”
“Medical records are all on paper.”
I am stunned to hear that. I’ve never worked in a place with paper medical records. I didn’t even know it was allowed anymore. But I suppose the rules are a little different in prison.
She points to a room next to the examining room. “That’s the records room. Your ID badge will open it up. We’ll get you one of those before you leave.”
She holds her ID badge up to the scanner on the wall and there’s a loud click. She throws open the door to reveal a small dusty room filled with file cabinets. Tons and tons of file cabinets. This is going to be agony.
“Is there a doctor here supervising?” I ask.
She hesitates. “Dr. Wittenburg covers about half a dozen prisons. You won’t see him much, but he’s available by phone.”
That makes me uneasy. At the urgent care, I was never alone. But I suppose the issues there were more acute than what I’ll see here. At least, that’s what I’m hoping.
Our next stop on the tour is the supply room. It’s about the same as the room at the urgent care clinic, but of course, smaller—also with ID badge access. There are bandages, suture materials, and various bins and tubes and chemicals.
“Only I can dispense medications,” Dorothy tells me. “You write the order and I’ll dispense the medication to the patient. If there’s something we don’t have, we can put it on order.”
I rub my sweaty hands against my black dress pants. “Right, okay.”
Dorothy gives me a long look. “I know you’re anxious working in a maximum-security prison, but you have to know that a lot of these men will be grateful for your care. As long as you’re professional, you won’t have any problems.”
“Do not share any personal information.” Her lips set into a straight line. “Do not tell them where you live. Don’t tell them anything about your life. Don’t put up any photos. Do you have children?”
“I have a son.”
Dorothy regards me in surprise. She expected me to say no. Most people are surprised when I tell them I have a child. Even though I’m twenty-eight, I look much younger. Although I feel a lot older.
I look like I’m in college, and I feel like I’m fifty. Story of my life.
“Well,” Dorothy says, “don’t talk about your kid. Keep it professional. Always. I don’t know what you’re used to in your old job, but these men are not your friends. These are criminals who have committed extremely serious offenses, and a lot of them are here for life.”
“I know.” Boy, do I know.
“And most of all…” Dorothy’s icy blue eyes bore into me. “You need to remember that while most of these men will see you for legitimate reasons, some of them are here to get drugs. We have a small quantity of narcotics in the pharmacy, but those are reserved for rare occasions. Do not let these men trick you into prescribing narcotics for them to abuse or sell.”
“Also,” she adds, “never accept any sort of payment in exchange for narcotics. If anyone makes an offer like that to you, you come straight to me.”
I suck in a breath. “I would never do that.”
Dorothy gives me a pointed look. “Yes, well, that’s what the last one said. Now she’s gonna end up in a place like this herself.”
For a moment, I am speechless. When the warden interviewed me, I had asked about the last person working here, and he said that she had left for “personal reasons.” He didn’t happen to mention that she was arrested for selling narcotics to prisoners.
It’s sobering to think that the last person who had this job before me is now incarcerated. I’ve heard that once you’re in the prison system, it’s hard to get out of it. Maybe the same is true for people who work here.
Dorothy notices the look on my face and her expression softens just the tiniest bit. “Don’t worry,” she says. “It’s not as scary as you think. Really, it’s just like any other medical job. You see patients, you make them better, then you send them back to their lives.”
“Yes…” I rub the back of my neck. “I was just wondering… Am I going to be responsible for seeing all the prisoners in the penitentiary? Like, do I just cover a segment or…?”
Her lips curl. “No, you’re it, girlie. You’re seeing everyone. Any problem with that?”
“No, not at all,” I say.
But that’s a lie.
The real reason I was reluctant to take this job isn’t that I’m scared a prisoner will murder me with my own shoe. It’s because of one of the inmates in this prison. Someone I knew a long time ago, who I am not eager to see ever again.
But I can’t tell that to Dorothy. I can’t reveal to her that the man who was my very first boyfriend is an inmate at Raker Maximum Security Penitentiary, currently serving life without the possibility of parole.
And I’m the one who put him here.
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|Epub, PDF||July 4, 2022|
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