The mail room is, quite simply, the room within a business or company in which the mail is sorted. It is usual the first place a character in a rags to riches story will work before clawing his way up to CEO, a la J. Pierpont Finch in the musical play How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying and Michael J. Fox in the movie The Secret of My Success.

I would venture to guess that mail rooms are not nearly as interesting as the aforementioned works make them out to be. :)
“The rules about nudity are easy; if you can’t see the nipple or pubic hair, it can go in.” I’m sitting at my station, holding up photographs sent in to an inmate. Bryan is behind a box of glass, the only thing, besides the numerous stacks of paper, that distinguishes him from the rest of us, as our manager.

For the last 3 months, I have been temping at the Camp Hill Prison, in the mailroom. It’s not actually in the prison but housed in the basement of the Administration Building, just outside the main gate. All the fences behind this building are framed with 3 tiers of razor wire and punctuated with towers overlooking E Block on one end and the “outdoor gym,” a select group of bench and free weights freely rusting in open air. Scott tells me, on the way to Central Office for our free daily meal, that once the weights have rusted so much as to not be usable, the State will not be replacing them, even though the inmates try to get out and use them every chance they can.

E Block is for the worst of the worst, usually lifers or people that require intense medication. On E Block, whenever one of us goes in to pick up the outgoing mail, he or she has to walk right by the open shower room door. Tonya tells me that E blockers are the one that often throw their own shit, or save up a cup of urine for a week, for the opportune moment to throw it in a CO’s face.

They are also the ones most likely to file grievances when they don’t get their mail for weeks at a time. Everyone knows that it’s not us, that we get the mail out, all the mail for over 3,000 inmates, almost every day. It’s the CO’s that take it, keep it, throw it away. I guess that’s what happens when you throw your shit at people.

The mail room is small, smaller than what you think you’d need for such a large facility. Including me, there are only 6 people on staff, whose sole job it is to code incoming mail, inspect it for contraband, and sort it for delivery into the prison. We also sort thousands of outgoing mail from inmates, who can do everything from write loved ones, order shoes and porn (within the bounds of porn – no penetration shots). Each inmate is given 10 free envelopes and postage for 10 letters per month, but they can also buy pre-stamped envelopes from the commissary, inside.

Inside. I have never been inside, nor will I ever be. Since I am a temp, I do not have clearance, although I did have to pass a background check to even be considered for the temp position. I was hoping I would get to go inside before the assignment is up, but it’s not going to happen. It doesn’t matter. I think I see enough in the mail.

When I started there, they had a 6th person, Edris, a cocky black guy that I thought was pretty funny, actually. He left for DC for New Year’s and never came back to work, something about a firearm he had in his possession that was supposed to be stolen, but was legally his. It’s been almost 3 months and he hasn’t been back to work. There are processes when a prison employee at a State facility is arrested, and there’s a review pending. Some people want him back, others wish he’d get fired and get over with it. One of the other positions in the mail room had been cut with the last governor, and now with the new governor, it’s back. So I am filling in for the potential new hire, until one is found, but as soon as I start, we’re a man short. I found out later that they had been functioning one man short for almost 6 months before I showed up for work.

Bryan had approached me early on in my assignment to see if I would be interested in applying for the position I was working already. The temp agency pays me $8 an hour for a 37 ½ work week, clearly not enough to support my financial needs. I had already been working nights part time at a hotel, but lately I’ve had to step up the pace a bit, taking on more shifts than my sanity can really afford, borrowing from Peter to pay Paul, that sort of thing. When he told me that they make $12 an hour with free benefits, I was excited at the idea, and applied online to the State’s employment web site. I got a little postcard in the mail telling me they’d received it, but once Harrisburg got around to sending names to Bryan for potential applicants and the interviews were underway, I hadn’t made the cut. I imagine there’s a long list of people waiting for state jobs.

We arrive at 7:30 and leave at 3:30. We get two 15 minute breaks and a half hour for lunch. A free lunch is available to all employees over at Central Office. I go there every day. The guy who runs the cafeteria is Tonya’s husband. That’s how they met, when she also worked in the kitchen. They have a 3 year old son, Tyler, who is supposed to be very good at video games already and really loves the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. I like Tonya. The only think I don’t like about her is that, I believe, she is the only person who really doesn’t like Howard Stern, so we never get to listen to it on the radio. She says that since no one can really agree on a station, and since everyone in the mail room has such differing tastes, we keep it on WINK 104, one of those generic stations that is work safe, has an 80’s lunch and an impossibly hard morning trivia contest. But I know the reason is mostly her, that she doesn’t like many types of music. I tried bringing my own stereo, keeping it at my desk on low, but Tonya always complained.

The food at Central Office is actually pretty good. They’ll have cold cuts, or grilled cheese, and they always have, as I call it, Government Peanut Butter and Jelly. Jackie, a woman in her 70’s who works in the Business Manager’s wing, always gets an extra helping of food, which she promptly wraps up in napkins, tucks into her overcoat, and takes home to eat at dinner. Jackie should have retired ages ago, but she has nothing really left to do with herself, with all her kids grown and her house paid off by her ex husband (still living, by the way). She sits with us and giggles to herself a lot. She thinks getting free food is the coolest thing. Once I’ve eaten my fill, I always dump my tray and leave a few minutes ahead of the others, walking back to enjoy a smoke alone. We never really have much to say at lunch. Every now and then people ask where Edris is, but Bryan really can’t talk about it. There’s not even much gossip.

Bryan told me when I started that he’s seen everything I could imagine try to get through the mail: pubic hair, used tampons, underwear. I need to check the backs of Polaroids to see if drugs have been inserted. Inmates can’t receive blank stationary or envelopes; they have to buy them at the commissary. They can’t receive stamps either, even if they are the sticker kind, because of acid, although I can’t imagine tripping behind bars to really be worth the risk. They can’t get stickers at all, really, so the ones that get intercepted end up decorating the little wooden trays we use to sort mail, sports teams, mostly, although Phil, our youngest staffer at 21, gets all the Philadelphia Eagles stickers for his desk.

To date, I haven’t seen much more beyond stamps and nudie shots, most of which are far from palatable. There’s apparently a large demand for ass shots, where the girl sticks her butt way out. I had a favorite, for a while. I called her Pimple Butt Girl. She always posed in thongs and see through things, but she must have always known how far she could go with nudity, because they always got through. She had those high heeled shoes that laced all the way to her knee, and she’d wear them with anything. The backs of her legs and ass were always sprinkled with pimples, a condition I read in a later letter from her was due to fleas in her apartment, not “skanking around,” as her inmate husband/boyfriend/whatever accused her of. Women who write inmates will refer to their man as their husband even if they’re not, going as far as hyphenating their last name on the return address. I became enchanted with Pimple Butt Girl, so when I came across her letters, I’d save them, set them aside, and read the saga of her life. She would write all these “I Love You” notes on the outside, like something you’d see in high school. She seemed really devoted. The mail room crew says that all women are like that when the man first gets in, but it takes real devotion to make it past a year. Soon enough, another woman began writing the same inmate, as well as her mother, both pressing that he not speak to Pimple Butt Girl, if he wanted to build a new life with his new wife and child once he was released. Shortly after that, PBG’s letters were flustered, questioning, lost. After that, he was transferred to another prison and I never read another word from her. All inmates processed in Pennsylvania go through Camp Hill first. That means a lot of traffic and new faces. Those transferred out will get their mail forwarded to them, unopened, for the mail processors there to handle it. Once PBG’s man was transferred, I wasn’t supposed to read his letters but after he was transferred, I swear I don’t remember seeing any.

After 90 days of incarceration, all inmates will receive something like 23 cents an hour for every hour they’re in prison. This money is deposited into an inmate account that he can spend on anything he likes. The commissary offers a lot, but he can also order pre-approved items from pre-approved vendors who cooperate with the State. Most of the money they do get, however, comes from friends and family on the outside in the form of money orders (no cash or personal checks are allowed). We probably get thousands of dollars in money orders a day. Receipts are written and passed along to the inmate, and the money is applied to their accounts by the accounting department upstairs. Oh, and they can also buy a TV inside, for $135. They can also get cable for $7 a month. People say that the TV is the best babysitter, especially for prisoners.

Inmates can receive books, magazines, and newspapers, as long as they come directly from the source, Amazon or a some other distributor. Books mailed from home are rejected because we don’t have the time to tear the book apart looking for contraband, even though it is extremely unlikely that contraband ever comes through First Class mail. I’ve been told that any drugs you find inside will almost always come from a CO.

I don’t deal with CO’s much, since I never go inside. We have some inmates come in from time to time and clean our mailroom, but it is seldom that anyone in power has to come down and check on us. I have been told that most CO’s are the ones to worry about when it comes to sexual harassment, over worrying about inmates. They often are just bloated, ignorant pricks, I’ve been told, who eat too much junk food and die young. They all seem to drive roughed out trucks with expired inspection stickers. In any case, I keep to myself when I’m around them. In any case, I’m sure they’ve dealt with a lot that made them the way they are.

There was a riot at this prison in the 80’s, and most of it was burned down by inmates. They’ve since replaced and added onto the facility, as demand for more rooms was made. Bryan told me once that if I was ever on the inside during a riot, many inmates would protect me, hide me in a mail bag or something. They know you work in the mailroom, he said. They’d know you were their only contact with the outside world.

In the end, working at a prison wasn’t much different than anywhere else. You get used to things. You adjust. You find that overworked, under-educated people can be equally boring or monotonous as overworked intellectuals and at the end of the day, you end up where your actions have left you. Everyone’s life has a little bit of that prison feel: the illusion of innocence, the regulation of daily functions, the goal of some release at the end of the story. A glimmer of hope that the next time will be better.

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