On the ground, behind the walls

Many of the best freelance writers are generalists who can also regularly persuade editors to let them stalk the beats that really drive them.

Frequent contributor Silja Talvi was a natural for this week's lead piece. She covers a wide range of workplace topics, but has drilled into prison-related issues, including prison labor, for years.

While she's no new kid on the cellblock, this story pushed her into new territory.

"I've been in jails, a minimum- and-medium-security prison, even a supermax-security housing unit in California for women," Silja says. But "this was actually my first time being around what Washington calls 'close custody' prisoners ... a step down from the 'maxest of the max' security."

The prison visit by Silja and photographer Anna Mia Davidson was a relative rarity: Most inmate conversations stopped when the two women walked through the yard. Still, the journalists were allowed a fair number of private interviews with prisoners.

The atmosphere was one of civility and calm, Silja says, among reporters, prisoners, guards, and officials. Respect and balance were maintained.

Many inmates "had committed horrible crimes, and yet looking into the eyes of a murderer, rapist, or child molester," she says, "I could see a bit of everything in them: shame, rage, confusion, intelligence, a desire to be liked and respected, fear, bravado.

"Each one hesitated before telling me what his crime was. More often than not, they looked down at the floor or away from my gaze when they told me," Silja says. "Their crimes justifiably put them behind bars, but I also know those crimes don't represent everything that person is."

Reach us at work@csps.com.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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