September 9, 2001

Behind Bars With 1,000 Male Convicts

IN MAY, Sgt. Sarah Lehane was overseeing evening chow in the mess hall at Souza-Baranowski, a large Massachusetts maximum-security prison for men, when an inmate hit another officer in the face with a tray. Fights in a prison mess hall are like sparks in a powder keg: officers know they can lead to full-scale riots unless they are quickly contained. As officers (there were 10 in the room and a few more just outside) rushed to subdue the inmate and inmates (there were more than 200 in the mess hall) rushed to his defense, Lehane, standing across from the gates that computers had begun to close automatically, chose not freedom but the fight — she ran to the defense of a young officer who was down and getting kicked. After three minutes, the melee was over, and Lehane extricated herself from what she describes as “a pig pile.” Nine officers had been injured, including her (a twisted knee and a banged-up shoulder); the one most badly hurt is still out with a fractured skull and swelling of the brain. Though the knee quickly healed, Lehane now admits that the incident rattled her. As it did her husband, Capt. Tom Lehane, who happened to be watching the mess hall on a video monitor as the incident took place. “That was about as ugly a jump-off as I’ve ever seen,” he says. And while at the time he extolled her bravery to friends, privately he felt she should quit. “The incident really put a strain on our marriage,” Sarah Lehane says.

Souza-Baranowski, located in Shirley, was named to memorialize a corrections officer and an industrial-arts instructor who were killed by an inmate at Norfolk state prison in 1972. Bitterness at the new prison, which has the bland, linoleum-and-fluorescent aesthetics of a hospital or high school, clearly runs both ways. “It’s been open three years, and this is like the third incident,” Sarah Lehane says. “They’re just testing us. One of them even stabbed our superintendent. Inmates want to do things their way, especially since the place is new. It’s a thing of who’s got the power to do what.”

Exactly how much power does a 42-year-old female officer wield at a max for men? In certain ways, a lot. ”Seniority is everything, and inmates respect officers who’ve put in time — they’ll pull stuff on a rookie they wouldn’t with me,” Lehane says. Inmates also respect consistency and the balance between harshness and sympathy that most officers develop over the years. And when push comes to shove, as it did in May, physical strength isn’t everything. Even if she had been male, 23 years old and weighed 300 pounds, Lehane says, it wouldn’t have helped her in the mini-riot: ”When there’s 12 inmates on you, it’s not a strength issue. You just lose because of the numbers.”

A typical workday for Lehane begins at 3 p.m. She supervises the work of line officers (she was one at the beginning of her career), but the job involves a lot of contact with prisoners too. She oversees ”inmate movements” from one part of the prison to another, directs searches for contraband, assists in applying and removing restraints and, in the inmates’ ”pods” (their living quarters), helps to enforce the rules regarding cell cleanliness. ”I’m a clean nut; I drive people crazy. I said to him, ‘You can’t have it like this: no dirty dishes; put the food away; you’re gonna get bugs.’ They come from prisons that are roach city. He said: ‘The cell’s clean! It’s just my lunch stuff.’ I’m like, I don’t care. Every excuse in the book.” Once in a great while, she says, an angry inmate will toss an epithet her way, but most are respectful. Still, it is the contact with inmates that makes the job wearing. ”It’s constant communication all day long, to the point where sometimes you don’t want to answer.” Her shift usually ends at 11 p.m., and she is home asleep by 1 a.m.

Divorced from her first husband when her children were teenagers, Lehane went on to raise two sons, now 21 and 23, and a daughter, 25, mainly by herself. Only last year did she marry Tom, who is two years her senior. (The tattoo on her right shoulder, which she gave herself as a 40th-birthday present, is a rose with the name Sarah inscribed below on a banner.) She bought the bathrobe with the ”Princess” applique because that is Tom’s nickname for her around the house.

Despite her husband’s wish, Sarah wasn’t ready to quit. But she understood Tom’s fear, admitted her own and in July transferred back to Framingham, the state prison for women, where she had spent most of her career. Fear is something that corrections officers are practiced in denying, but the melee forced Sarah to confront it. ”You tell yourself you’re safe, and you wouldn’t walk in the door if you didn’t think so, but deep down — logically — you know it’s not true, that if you’ve got guys doing triple life, nobody’s safe in there.”

It is better at Framingham — I’ve never seen a shank” there, she says, whereas at Souza she found them constantly — but this facility presents a different kind of challenge. ”The thing with females is they’re more emotional. You actually have to be even more people-oriented. They question everything. They cry and — omigod, not more crying! You think of their crimes, and then you think, Now she’s crying because I told her to clean her room? If a man hasn’t seen his son, they keep it inside, but then get in a fistfight every couple months. Whereas the female will cry for 20 years.”

She and Tom both plan on retiring next year: she after 20 years of state service; he after 25. They are not sure what they will do next. Sarah notes ruefully that corrections doesn’t really leave you qualified to do much of anything besides security, and you sense a hint of nostalgia for the factory job that preceded her state time. ”It’s hard working with people,” she has concluded. ”My next job will be machinery, something that doesn’t talk back.”