Paul Wach was awarded an Honorable Mention in Nonfiction Essay in the 2022 Prison Writing Contest.

Every year, hundreds of imprisoned people from around the country submit poetry, fiction, nonfiction, and dramatic works to PEN America’s Prison Writing Contest, one of the few outlets of free expression for the country’s incarcerated population.

I work as a leadman in our prison’s printshop press area. The printshop and other correctional industries are programs intended to teach inmates a trade in the hopes that upon release they can find jobs and become productive members of society. Many inmates have never held a job and lack any work ethic. Others take a prison job merely to pass the time before they are released. 

I am grateful for the many opportunities I have been given to work at UCI, where I’ve learned so much, such as, another job skill, patience, adn how to interact with so many different personalities on a daily basis. First, as a press operator, then as a leadman. Having this job at  UCI has provided me the opportunity to grow as a person. 

Being an inmate, myself and also being a leadman has provided me an opportunity to encourage those around me to realize the satisfaction one can receive from learning how to work. In the capacity of my position as leadman in the press area, it’s my responsibility to train newly hired inmates how to safely and effectively operate a printing press. I also coordinate job flow and help resolve any issues that may arise. 

In many bases I act as an intermediary between inmates and correctional staff, and also between inmates and inmates. 

When a new inmate is hired for the press area, a follow leadman and I sit down with him for an informal interview. We have learned through experience that this initial interview is essential to understanding who this guy is and what his intentions are. It also provides us an opportunity to explain what we expect of him. During this initial interview we ask questions about this guy’s work experience as well as his prison history. Prison is unique in that there is a very-well defined hierarchy. 

As leadmen we have to balance where we decide to put an individual without disrupting the delicate harmony of those already there. The guards extend to us (leadmen) a level of trust that we’ll maintain some sort of order. 

If an inmate has no previous work experience but is willing to learn, we pair him up with a pressman who is willing to train him. In this capacity we try to use a trainer who has a good work ethic. We are always clear that safety is the number one priority and that it takes time and patience to learn how to effectively operate a press. 

Initially, we’ll assign jobs that are similar in size and limited to one color. We also make sure they aren’t assigned a job that has a quick deadline. The idea is to build up his confidence and to teach him correct principles. 

It’s much better to go slow and train them right than it is to correct bad habits. Part of our trained process is to work alongside the new inmate to develop a rapport. If he has confidence in us, we can more easily help him. 

Our toughest cases are inmates who don’t care. Unfortunately, many guys were never taught to respect others or to respect themselves. Many grew up in the neighborhoods that taught them to hate the law and to fight against authority. We encounter some guys who always look for a way to manipulate the system. It has been said that most inmates are either narcissists or bullies, and in a large part, that’s true. 

A major tool we use to change unwanted behavior is honesty. We don’t mince words, inmates have an inherent ability to detect lies, so any form of deceit is likely to end in failure. 

Along with being honest we do our best to show that we care, that we want them to succeed. In an environment of so much failure, it’s important that they know we’ll stand by them and that we believe in them. 

It’s amazing to see the change in someone who started out with a negative attitude begin to restore the confidence within themselves. They begin to take pride in their work, which is a testament that this program works? 

Of course, we’ll alway have to confront the “convict” mentality and in those cases we often have to let the guy learn from his own mistakes. We have to be accountable for our actions and the sooner we accept that, the better off we’ll be. 

As leadmen we try to be as positive as we can. We try to lead by example. One of the best ways to elicit respect is to invite a guy to work alongside us for a big project. Some jobs take weeks to print and seem almost insurmountable, but by taking it one day at the time you can accomplish it. And at the end of it you can look back on it and know you’ve accomplished something special. We encourage setting daily goals in order to challenge ourselves. When we reach those goals, we have reason to celebrate. 

Many of these guys have never had to work as a team, so we try to find ways to develop team building. If we work as a team we forget about our own needs and focus on what’s best for the group. As a reward for working hard we’ll all pitch in and cook a meal together. We call it a “spread.” A spread provides an atmosphere of unity and often erases some of those barriers of hatred that exist among inmates. 

Positive reinforcement is the best way to help someone change their behavior. Show you care, recognize success, and encourage patience during failure. Being a leadman has taught me how to be patient with someone who is struggling with negativity. It has taught me the importance of effective communication. In fact, we often use as our motto, “Communication is Key.” 

Over the years I have met many guys who we thought were lost causes, only to find out this wasn’t the case at all. All they needed was someone to believe in them and an opportunity to prove to themselves that all was not lost, that there’s always hope. 

As a leadman I feel that when they succeed, I succeed. It’s wonderful to watch a guy begin to take pride in himself and his work, having overcome many failures and begin to become a new man.

Purchase Variations on an Undisclosed Location: 2022 Prison Writing Awards Anthology here.