Decompression in Action
“A child needs your love most when he deserves it the least,” wrote the columnist Erma Bombeck, yet I was curious how she might have reacted to a Mendota inmate I’ll call Brandon: a plump, freckled, red-haired boy of 14, with pale lashes over narrow blue eyes. He wound up at Mendota with a long rap sheet, including charges that he’d assaulted an employee at his school and sexually molested a 5-year-old girl. Still, if you managed to ignore his shackled wrists and prison garb of white sweatshirt and sweatpants, he looked more like a Norman Rockwell portrait of a boy told to sit in a corner than the monster described in his file.
I watched as Brandon met in a locked room with Michael Morrison, a lanky psychiatric tech supervisor who’d come to discuss Brandon’s third serious conduct offense in two months: he’d shouted, “I’m going to beat your ass! I’m going to fucking kill your ass!” at another inmate from behind his cell door. As I’d learn, the conversation that ensued is the bread and butter of Mendota’s decompression diet.
Morrison, who wore a gold crucifix earring, settled himself next to Brandon in the room’s lone piece of furniture, a wide-seated blue plastic chair. Sitting close enough that their knees nearly touched, he handed the teenager a typewritten account of the beat-your-ass incident. Brandon glanced at the page.
“That ain’t true!” he blurted, pausing only an instant before smiling and muttering, “Yah, it’s true.”
“Thank you, I appreciate your honesty,” Morrison quickly replied, in what I by then recognized as his adherence to a Mendota mantra to “seek one thousand opportunities for praise.”
Like Tyler, Brandon had been kicked out of Lincoln Hills. He’d attacked staff members, exposed himself to other inmates, threatened to kill his mother, and smeared feces on his wall. He continued to engage in “fecal misconduct,” as it’s known in correctional circles, throughout his first four months at Mendota. On the day that he met with Morrison, however, his walls had been clean for several weeks, and his behavior had been generally improving.
Brandon had been diagnosed with both AD/HD and conduct disorder, the latter psychiatric lingo for juvenile delinquency. His records show he’d been severely abused for several years. By his first birthday, neighbors and others had made 16 complaints to child welfare officials concerning his parents’ alleged mistreatment. By age 8, he’d been sexually abused by a neighbor and thrown down a flight of stairs. By age 9, he himself had been charged with multiple sex offenses. He spent four years in a series of residential programs, and then another year at Lincoln Hills, as his behavior worsened.
What does it take to break a cycle of abuse that, in many cases, has lasted for generations? Research suggests it can often boil down to something as simple as a caring bond with just one person. Morrison aimed to fill that role for Brandon. This Mendota employee’s own father had left home when he was a child, and at 12, Morrison had been arrested for stealing a neighbor’s car. It wasn’t until one of his middle-school teachers had taken him under her wing—escorting him to basketball games, teaching him to fold laundry, but, mostly, just listening—that he’d felt capable of graduating from high school.
Morrison’s continuing gratitude for that intervention has made him work all the harder at Mendota. He’s made a special effort with Brandon, sometimes checking in on him as many as eight times a day, he said, because “he’s so young, and this place can be overwhelming. Part of him wants to do good and be productive, but then when he has a setback, he becomes hopeless.”
During the meeting in the day room, Morrison’s eyes held no judgment, only friendly curiosity. “Is this beef still boiling?” he asked Brandon. “Do you still want to fucking kill him?”
The boy shook his head.
“So what are you going to do if you see him again?” Morrison asked.
“I’m gonna leave him alone.”
“Are you a man of your word?” Morrison asked. He held out his pinky.
If Morrison had gone by the book—the state juvenile corrections code—he’d have placed Brandon on six days of “security” status for that third offense. That would mean that Brandon would have had to stay in his cell for all but two hours of each day, allowed to come out only with shackles on his wrists and ankles. But Morrison decided to show leniency. After considering Brandon’s generally improving behavior and good attitude during their meeting, he told him he could return to school in just three days. He also promised Brandon that he’d look into his request to get a bigger cell.
“That ain’t that bad!” Brandon replied.
Morrison got up to leave. “What’s the goal?” he reminded the boy.
“Get off security,” Brandon said.
“And—” Morrison prompted, his hand on the door.
“Stay off security!” Brandon chanted, grinning broadly.
“Right! And remember to keep that cell clean,” Morrison told him, on his way out.