by Jerry Alatalo
Before the State of Michigan closed the facility, there used to be a minimum security prison camp in this area. Years ago, while participating in amateur fast-pitch softball, basketball and horseshoes, arrangements came about to allow the minimum security prisoners to play those sports and compete in county leagues.
Our horseshoe team traveled to the prison camp located in the “sticks” miles from anything, and, one memory in particular stood out. While tossing the shoes during one game, where it was two-on-two competition, one of the prisoners told his partner that he “wasn’t throwing too well tonight”. His partner, a white, long-haired fellow in his early thirties who I was competing against, replied with memorable, extremely dry humor: “…must be all that weekend partying”.
Being young and naïve, looking back I regret not having the awareness to see those men as ordinary poor persons from Detroit, Flint or Kalamazoo etc. who’d gotten into legal problems resulting in minimum security punishment. There were never any problems when we went to the camp, it allowed the prisoners some respite from their boring routines, and credit is due to whoever came up with the idea.
In softball, the same applied, as the arrangement probably resulted in positive experiences for prisoners and non-prisoners alike. Two of the prison ball players were even voted to the county All-Star team, their pitcher and catcher, so they were driven by corrections officers “into town” for the annual All-Star game. The pitcher was an older white man who had apparently served time with eventual Detroit Tiger star Ron LaFlore (yes, LaFlore during his Tiger career became famous for his ability to “steal” bases), and helped LaFlore develop his baseball talent to the point where Tiger scouts recommended his signing.
The catcher was a mid-20ish black man (call him Lee) who caught me during the All-Star game for a few innings, as I had practiced enough as a pitcher and was named to the team. During warm-up pitches, he had difficulty adjusting to how my pitches moved/curved, and six out of eight went to the backstop. But he adjusted, and for three innings he and I enjoyed some friendly softball, pitcher-catcher competition. During that same time, I got a manual-labor summer job for young people with the Michigan Department of Natural Resources. The work center was in the same “sticks” as the prison camp, a garage right next to the camp.
At the garage, Lee came by with some of his prisoner “colleagues”, apparently involved with some type of work program. One of the prisoners explained how he needed to feed his family, so that was why he had committed the crime leading him to serve time in the camp. Lee recognized me from the All-Star game and smiled because of the short period of sports enjoyment we had together. I truly regret being so young and naïve that I had an exaggerated fear of those minimum security prisoners, and that I was fearful of even responding to Lee’s friendly acknowledgement. It was a regretful missed opportunity.
The basketball games were, let’s say, a little more competitive. One black fellow on the prison team, whose last name was Hood ironically, was far and away the league’s best player that year. He made the best players in the league look silly trying to defend him, averaged over 40 points a game, and drew crowds from around the area when the prison van with the team drove through snowstorms to either of two high school gymnasiums in the county. He was the best basketball player the area has ever seen. Hood had enough talent to play for any Big Ten team, but he sadly “fought the law, and the law won”.
The minimum security camp has long since closed down, but now the area has a maximum security prison in operation. When the time came after construction was complete and ready to begin operations, the Michigan Department of Corrections held a “Grand Opening” for the community. It seemed at the time that to hold a grand opening at a maximum security prison was the same as having a grand opening for a nuclear weapons manufacturing facility. Hot dogs and sodas seemed, well, odd.
Years later, after a short stint at (badly) selling cars in the western suburbs of Chicago, a classified ad read “Busy uniform store needs help. Clothing experience helpful, but not necessary”. The town where I grew up typically had one police officer because of the small population around 1,000. The store where I applied for work sold public safety uniforms and equipment to police/fire departments, postal workers and security outfits. The firm hired me, and I worked there for over 20 years.
Coming from a town of 1,000 people, going to downtown Chicago by train then walking 10-12 blocks to their main store for training was a new and (unnecessarily) tense experience. Walking daily by the notoriously crime-ridden Cabrini Green high-rise apartment complex had this “rube” looking out in all directions for any signs of danger or assault. Nothing ever happened. The main store served Chicago Police and Cook County Sheriff men and women officers, among many other departments/accounts, with CPD 10,000 times the size of my hometown’s one-man police “crew”.
Now, there were zero African-Americans in my hometown, so my All-Star catcher/teammate Lee and Mr. Hood among other players in the county sports leagues represented my sole life contacts with black men. So, needless to say, it was an experience to meet a lot of black men and women for the first time. Everything went as well as expected during the two weeks of commuting for training, and that began the twenty years at their just-opened western suburbs store. The classified ad mention of “busy store” was an understatement.
As an example, Harry (manager at the newly opened store) and I went one full week taking care of customers, running every minute while the store was open for business, without taking lunch. The situation matched the term “trial by fire” perfectly, and it wasn’t long after that a third sales associate became hired.
As Bob Seger sang in “Like A Rock”, the time flew by and “twenty years now, where’d they go?”
Some personal experiences contrasting with those about the prison camp athletes may help provide some positive insight regarding law enforcement officers male and female, especially with recent news coverage of police violence, Ferguson, “hands up” and nationwide protests. For what it’s worth, I met thousands of men and women cops while working in that retail uniform business. It’s probably a strong bet to say that most police officers would have chosen another profession had their parents/families possessed great wealth.
Many officers come from service in the military. In my job, oftentimes officers would come in for uniforms one or twice a year, so after a several years a sort of business-related friendship became developed. One veteran cop in particular comes to mind. Keep in mind Chicago’s western suburbs are where wealthier conservative residents live, so police duty isn’t as stressful. He was a friendly fellow and we had baseball in common, as he was a high-school coach eager to talk about his team’s chances when their season started. He always seemed upbeat and optimistic when he walked through the front door, and we shared some normal, sometimes humorous conversations as time went by.
He apparently was in a military reserve unit, and his absence from the store for some time became known: his deployment to Afghanistan. After returning from Afghanistan to the police department, he was a different person the next time he entered the store. The positive, upbeat, ready-to-joke personality was gone, and replaced with what can only have been one suffering from post traumatic stress syndrome (PTSD).
Trying to describe my perception of his personality change leads to the movie “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest”. Those who viewed the film will remember toward the conclusion when the Jack Nicholson character receives a lobotomy. That’s the image which first came to mind upon seeing the officer for the first time after his return from Afghanistan. It was like someone had stolen his life force or soul.
Another veteran cop, “Nic”, who came into the store at least once a year and I shared something in common as he would regularly take vacations in the north country near to where I grew up. Like the officer who went to Afghanistan, Nic was always upbeat and personable. After twenty-eight years on the department, he was one week away from retirement and died of a heart attack while spending time up north.
An older cousin who I never met was in the Michigan State Police. He died in a crash while in a high-speed chase. A customer/young woman aspiring to become a police officer shot herself to death at the training academy. A customer/veteran police officer drove his car into a local forest preserve and took his own life. A customer/veteran officer responded to a false report in the bank next door, became violently assaulted from behind by a deranged man holding a knife to his neck, and the incident resulted in bank employees becoming held hostage. The deranged man eventually shot himself to death. Fortunately he only harmed himself, leaving the hostages and the officer with psychological scars.
One Saturday summer night, to break up the routine I went to watch a ballgame and drink a few beers at the nearby sports bar/restaurant. Eventually, I was sitting next to a lieutenant on the police department of one of the largest, and most violent, cities in Chicago’s western suburbs, along with a man who made his living designing prisons. What are the odds? A cop, a prison architect and a uniform salesperson sitting on three adjacent bar stools. If only a prison-for-profit corporate manager had bellied up to the bar.
Exactly why I decided to share these personal experiences is hard to put a precise finger on. The point is that men and women who enter the field of law enforcement share to some extent circumstances with those men and women whose illegal actions lead to run-ins with the law. Economic/financial status plays a large part in life decisions for both. A former police chief at some of the nation’s largest cities wrote a book where he described the average police officer’s work as mostly dealing with the “underclass”, or the people who have come into poverty, and that the most important tool for crime reduction is jobs.
In that sense, pointing the finger of blame at either police officers or criminals driven by poverty for the nation’s problems largely misses the source and steps toward resolution of the friction generated by too many police-citizen encounters. On the one hand, police officers aren’t trained to create jobs in America. On the other hand, people without jobs become desperate, and desperate people are prone to do desperate things.
This is not meant to disregard criminal acts carried out by law enforcement officers; all criminal acts need to become punished. Raising the issue to the higher level, many of those serving as police officers around America came out of the military, which they enlisted in because of lack of opportunity – jobs – in their communities around the country. The former police chief/author (name escapes) mentioned earlier used words in his book that I had never seen before, was obviously an intellectual, and he zeroed in on the issue. Elected politicians in Washington, D.C. need to focus on creating jobs for Americans.
Raising the issue higher yet, desperate, poverty-stricken young men and women from around the world are taking the desperate decision of joining terrorist organizations like ISIS for paychecks. Wealth inequality is a factor in both America and nations around the Earth which, when seriously and successfully grappled with, will diminish small to major crimes in regions across the world.
Tilted-toward-the-wealthy, major trade agreements such as the super-secret Trans-Pacific Partnership and Trans-Atlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, if allowed to pass, have the real potential to increase wealth inequality, poverty and crime.
Creative, intriguing concepts such as alternative economic and monetary systems, guaranteed jobs and basic income for all, an international military organization reducing global expenditure on weapons and war, making war a crime, elimination of tax havens/evasion, and other new, reform-focused proposals should become encouraged, studied, discussed and implemented when their society-improving, beneficial features become perceived clearly.
It’s not nearly enough to accept – but necessary to firmly reject – the status-quo, “dog eat dog”, “winner takes all”, “survival of the fittest”, “die with the most toys” philosophy.
Because this world was made for all men.
(Thank you to Nathon Jones at YouTube)