The Time I Went to Trenton State Prison

prison1I was reminded today of the time I applied for a job as corrections officer at the Trenton State Prison. What reminded me was the news that people who had done well on certain written tests in the early 1960s were less likely to be suffering from dementia today than those who had done badly. “That’s a good thing,” I thought to myself. “I’ve always done well on tests. Probably I’m safe from losing my wits in my rapidly approaching old age.”

Of course, doing well on tests didn’t always mean that I had good sense. There was one test I took that I hadn’t any business taking to begin with, and the fact that I did well on it caused a lot of trouble.

It was 1974. I was a single mother of two boys, making $4750 a year as a clerk in a stationery store in Trenton, New Jersey, weighing in at 107 pounds due to poverty, misery, and general lack of appetite. Meanwhile the State, that source of infinite bounty, issued a fat book every month filled with remunerative jobs. All one had to do was qualify for them.

I didn’t have a bachelor’s degree then, nor was I proficient in typing and shorthand. But I was good at taking tests. So when the State employment book announced a walk-in test for Corrections Officer, no qualifications needed, salary $8500 a year, I hustled right down to the old Arnold Constable building and took the test.

I forget what the questions were, something along the lines of, “When an inmate gets out of line, should you hit him? how hard? or should you try reasoning sweetly with him?” It seemed easy enough, and indeed I aced it, as we used to say, coming in third of all the people—let’s face it, most of them were men—who took the test. Mired as I was in my own troubles, I did not realize that this was the first time the position of Corrections Officer had been offered to women, that it had been offered to women because a new law said it had to be, and that the people who hired Corrections Officers did not want women. Civil Service regulations mandated that whenever a new employee was hired, the first three candidates to place well on the test had to be considered.

As a result the post card arrived at my door, the one that the State used to send out for job interviews. Report to the Trenton State Prison on Saturday morning, it said. Oh, boy! $8500 a year!

The prison atmosphere seemed curiously familiar. It smelled like the gym at North Plainfield High School. So I sort of felt at home. I entered a large room full of tables and chairs with a ladder running up the middle into a opening in the ceiling. On the left was a counter behind thick bulletproof glass, and behind the glass was the only woman in sight. She greeted me and gave me some papers to fill out, sliding them through the slot under the glass. I found a seat at one of the tables among a sea of young men and began to fill them out. $8500 a year. Whoopee.

As I labored on my papers I was dimly aware of an officer announcing that the first group of men must line up and go downstairs for a physical. I thought, “You don’t suppose I’m going to have to—nah.” But before I could start worrying about that, three uniformed Corrections Officers came running into the room carrying shotguns and swarmed up the ladder that led to the roof. I was alarmed to see the way they carried their shotguns as they followed each other up the ladder. It seemed to me that the slightest jostling might cause them to blow each other’s behinds off. Careless. Would I really be safe, working with these people?

A murmur went around the room. “Molloy is out.” “Oh, Christ. Molloy.” “He killed a guard last year.” The officers disappeared through the hole.

“Well, that’s interesting,” I thought, and turned my attention back to the employment form. About then a little red-headed fellow in uniform came over and addressed me by name, inviting me to come with him to a desk in the corner. Ah. Special treatment.

“I wonder,” he said, addressing me by name again, “whether you understand what this job actually involves.”

I smiled and nodded. $8500 a year.

“This is the Trenton State Prison. The worst bad guys in the state of New Jersey are locked up here.”

Well, I thought, they could hardly be any worse-behaved than my boys.

“You would have to strip search them. You would have to take them to the showers.”

At last the penny dropped. “You don’t think I would be right for this job,” I said.

“I would never say that,” he said. “But if you think that’s true, would you mind signing this release?” and he handed me a pen.

So there went my dream of wealth and prosperity. Fortunately I was able to land another State job a few months later as a clerk-bookkeeper, saving us all from starvation. A story for another day.

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