“Ma’am, we can’t let you in!” These words rang like a loud tocsin as I was told that I had worn a forbidden color, a chambray blue denim ensemble. On my first day at work at the correctional facility, I quickly learned that orange and neon green were also among the many prohibited colors of clothing. Contraband included personal cell phones, earbuds, smart watches, an extra pair of shoes and anything made of glass and personal decorations for my cubicle. While I always knew that practicing psychiatry was never going to be boring, this took the novelty to an unexpected level.
In retrospect, it is notable that I was fascinated by the Australian television crime series Halifax f.p. as a teenager, where the protagonist was a female forensic psychiatrist. Though it was never my intention to become a correctional psychiatrist, work visa needs and geographical preference had brought me to this place. I was ready to start my practice as a trained geriatric psychiatrist…in an all-male prison.
To acquaint myself with the culture, I binge-watched Wentworth and Orange is the New Black on Netflix while awaiting my new assignment to begin. However, except for knowing that SHU meant Solitary Housing Unit, I was a complete novice when it came to correctional procedures.
Now feeling slightly more prepared, my first day began. As soon as I tentatively entered the premises, I heard the mandatory alarm, which I began to call my ‘posture-correction-device’ as it seemed to beep whenever I slouched or leaned back in my chair. Also mandatory were the multiple identity card and personal bag checks which would later serve to make my experiences with TSA more pleasant.
When I spotted the watch-towers above, I realized that my blue denim outfit made me difficult to differentiate from an inmate. Since it was technically shift change, there were groups of various types of staff members walking out to freedom after having spent the previous eight hours at work overnight. I smiled inwardly as I caught the sound of my mother-tongue while watching two staff members, who were dressed in scrubs try to finalize a shift swap. We ended up on the same unit a couple of years later and would often have lunch together.
Since I had been assigned to the acute inpatient unit, I showed up for the morning huddle and noticed the bulky, armless blue chairs in the room. They were difficult to lift, clearly resistant to punctures, tear and ligature tying. All of a sudden, the unit was swarmed by a group of custody officers who were responding to an alarm generated by a suicide-watch sitter as the patient had “boarded up” using his mattress. He was refusing to be discharged back to his assigned unit as he had reported safety concerns, fearing for his life. That’s when I learned that prison-gang politics were a reality and not just a part of Lockdown on National Geographic.
That day, after the huddle, I got my census list and went to the custody station so that the patients could be brought to the office. It was clear that no movement happened in the prison without the approval of custody as “safety first” was the motto. A few minutes later, a young, well-built man with multiple tattoos walked into my office. The accompanying custody officers made sure I had an alarm on me and gave me a thumbs up.
My first patient sat down across from me on the bland and unwieldy chair, smiled and said cheerfully, “Ah! You must be the new Psych! We’ve been expecting you!”