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Thanks from a former offender brightens officer's outlook.

One day in a unit of the Southern Nevada Correctional Center in Jean, where I was a senior corrections officer, I walked across a rotunda that was being scrubbed down by a group of inmates. The inmates were expressing their enjoyment with the assignment by using the water liberally. I slipped and fell.

After walking around in pain for a couple of days, I went to a hospital emergency room, where I learned I had fractured my hip. Then it was on to an operating room to get enough medical hardware implanted in me to set off most electronic metal detectors. I was sent home to bed to rest for a long while.

About three months later, I began to feel an urge to do something besides watch C-Span, so I dragged myself out to my truck for a drive across town to a hardware store. Our fence was in dire need of repair--our dogs had expanded their horizons to the yard of a fastidious neighbor, putting our relationship in jeopardy.

As I parked my truck in the store parking lot, I felt a little better. I was relieved that I could drive. As long as I moved slowly, I was not in great pain.

After I entered the building, I paused to rest in an open space. The pain in my hip had begun to throb. Suddenly, a loud voice pierced the air behind me: "Pat Harbour!"

Almost every correctional employee dreads confrontations on the street, where we are unprotected by the system that prevails in prison. We do not like to hear voices from behind. And I was particularly vulnerable, due to the pain in my hip and the fact that all the bed rest had considerably weakened me.

I was more confused than afraid at hearing my name called aloud in a public place. I didn't know what I would do if it was a bad situation--running was out of the question, I could not fight and there was no backup available.

As a well-trained correctional officer should, I turned as fast as I could to face the problem. The smiling man I saw coming quickly across the store was handsome, short haired, clean cut and smiling--in no way did he appear dangerous.

He was with two women, and the sight of them was even more reassuring. One was young and slender with a freckled nose and long, straight blonde hair. She wore a beaded necklace and leather moccasins. The second woman was older, and she was dressed in a flowered print cotton housedress. The women looked confused and seemed a little shy.

I relaxed a little, figuring that men are seldom dangerous with such women around, and that smiling, clean cut men almost never kill.

Ten feet away the man stopped and said, "Pat Harbour, I want to thank you for saving my life." He paused, "You don't remember me, do you?"

"Isn't your name Darrell?" I asked. "Didn't you go to the school at Indian Springs?" (I had worked at the Southern Desert Correctional Center in Indian Springs before transferring to Southern Nevada.)

"I took a course," he said. "You got it right. My name is Darrell." He seemed delighted.

It dawned on me. "Yes, I remember now. I signed off on your enrollment," I said. That was about four years earlier.

"It wasn't you, really," he said. "Well, it was and it wasn't, that saved me. I mean, you influenced the whole thing--but it was really the sign."

"The sign?" I asked.

"Yeah, you know, |Just because you made a mistake...'"

I quickly finished the line, "|...doesn't mean you are one.'"

As I envisioned that sign above my desk in the prison school, my mind drifted from the conversation at hand.

I recalled vividly how an alcoholic inmate had said this in a group meeting a long time ago. I'd carried it in my mind for several years, wondering if it were a gloriously original line, something he had read or something from a published program tailored to fit the needs and negative feelings many inmates have about themselves.

Eventually I decided it didn't matter where the line came from--it was a good piece of wisdom. I asked an inmate in the prison woodshop to make a sign with the words. I told him, "It's my money. I'll pay you for the work and materials through the hobby craft program. All legal and kosher."

I realized I had not been paying attention to my companions in the hardware store.

"I'm drivin' a truck for a living," Darrell was saying. "It's a good job!"

"And we're gonna have a baby," said the young woman.

"And he goes to church, too," the older woman said.

"And I just wanted to thank you, and have my wife and mom meet you," Darrell said. "That sign said to me--well, it was a way to forgiveness. I mean, I wasn't any less guilty or a fool, but I could stop being one--even in all that madness. Prison is madness, you know that.

"You're the man who saved my life. That's what I been tellin' them."

I started to argue the point, but thought better of it and stuck my hand out with my standard parting line, "Don't let me see you back there again."

I shook hands with his mother and wife. "All the books say that the right kind of strong family support is what saves men from going back to prison," I said. "That and a religious conversion, or something like it."

By now I was focused again. It did not matter that this was a hardware store and people were walking around us indifferently. Something amazing had happened.

The younger woman tugged at Darrell's sleeve. "Come on Darrell," she said. "We gotta go." I raised my hand and said, "Go in peace."

When they were gone I realized I was standing up straight and that I felt good and proud. I turned quickly to go after my hardware--too quickly, it turned out, for my hip.

As pain shot up my side, I thought to myself, God, it feels good to win one. Just because you made a mistake, doesn't mean you are one.
COPYRIGHT 1993 American Correctional Association, Inc.
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1993 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Author:Harbour, Pat
Publication:Corrections Today
Date:Oct 1, 1993
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