Archive for April, 2012

I get asked all the time by friends and family (and sometimes strangers):

“What’s your job like?”
“So how is it working in a prison?”
“You’re a correctional officer, what is it you do, exactly?”
“What made you decide that job?”

After telling the person that I wanted a career, not just another job, I find myself pausing for a bit; not because I don’t know what I do. I just tend to think back on everything.

When I first started working at a prison, I had no idea what to expect. In truth, before I got hired I had never been inside a prison before. The whole experience of being a correctional officer was extremely new to me. Exciting in some ways, but I didn’t want to seem to eager, lest I do something stupid. My two months spent as a cadet shadowing officers was spent observing and asking as many questions as I could think to ask. I got a crash course in how a prison was run day to day, and another crash course in how to talk to inmates.

Finally BCOT started. 5 weeks away from the prison, spending time on a college campus. We marched like soldiers, were treated like inmates, learned how to handle ourselves (and in my case, fire a weapon), and somewhere along the way we picked up the skills necessary to do our job effectively at our institutions.

I didn’t want to stand out at BCOT. Having high test scores would have been nice, but it wasn’t my goal. I went into BCOT like I went into the cadet portion of my job; with my eyes and ears wide open, hoping to learn any and everything. I didn’t want awards or recognition, I wanted the skills to be a good officer.

I graduated. It was the first time I had walked with my class to get my certificate. I didn’t even do that when I graduated college (I was in London, but that’s a different story).

I had a moment of panic when I accepted my badge and shift placement from my supervisor right after graduation. Standing there with my fellow officers, I wondered if I would be able to do the job required of me.

Observing how a dorm is run and running a dorm are two different things. Day shift and night shift are two completely different animals when working in a prison. As a cadet I spent 8 hours shadowing an officer; as an officer I spent 12 hours on post. My first two nights were hell, but not because I found the job hard. I wasn’t used to working a night shift job at all ever, let alone for 12 hours.

Five inmate counts a shift, every shift, a total of ten counts a day. Accountability/Count is the most important thing in a prison. If you don’t know where your inmates are when you come on post, you’ve had a bad day. If your accountability is right from the start, everything else falls into place.

I remembered what I saw and experienced as a cadet, which by comparison didn’t seem like enough when you’re handed a clipboard, equipment and a dorm of roughly 100+ female (or male) inmates for the next 12 hours. You quickly learn things BCOT didn’t teach you and no one can really prepare you for.

You’re taught not to judge or ask questions about why they’re incarcerated. You learn to not be nosy. You learn to field personal questions, or give broad answers to not give away personal information. You learn that inmates love to talk, and that if you listen long enough, you’ll learn everything about their life. You learn to judge when you’ve heard enough and when you need to hear more. You learn how to pull an inmate aside without attracting attention, how to talk to your fellow officer without being ear hustled, and how to get information from snitches without them being discovered.

I learned how much paperwork it takes to run a prison. As a cadet you see officers filling it out, but rarely did an officer take the time to show you what forms needed to be done each shift, every shift.

You can’t be prepared for how a dorm will react to seeing you for the first time, and there’s no easy way to describe it. Inmate’s attitudes are different every day; and while they preached being fair, firm, and consistent, it can be difficult. I’ve been hated simply for walking into a dorm, and respected for the exact same reason; and not because of anything I had done, but because I wear the uniform of authority.

They don’t teach you pill call at BCOT, but pill call is an important part of the shift. A dorm of 96 inmates is guaranteed to have 1/3 on some sort of medication(s) that are taken at least once a day. Some are on heavy anti-psychotics. Even if you don’t know half of your inmates by name, you can expect roughly 35 out of your dorm to go to pill call. You can’t be prepared for having to run pill call, either. Nothing can prepare you for what you’ll see when an inmate opens their mouth to show you they took their meds. You learn to not think about it, but somewhere in the back of your mind you know you have a good idea of what meth mouth looks like.

Incidents at a prison are a dime a dozen. A shift that doesn’t have at least one fight, verbal or otherwise, is considered too good to be true. Inmates will fight over anything and will argue over even less.

They don’t teach about passing out mail, or laundry, or all the forms inmates will ask for. They teach you defensive tactics and how to cuff an inmate, but they don’t prepare you for your first inmate escort. They don’t teach you about everything that can happen that will require a witness statement. (They teach you how to write a witness statement, but until you have to write one, you never knew how to do one properly.)

They tell you about recidivism and the turnover rate of officers. You hear this, but you experience first hand officers resigning or being fired because they were more corrupt than the people they supervised, or because they couldn’t handle the job. Losing fellow officers is hard because 9 times out of 10 you walk into roll call barely able to fill every post. But you suck it up and learn that it is what it is, and if an officer leaves because they were corrupt, it’s better to work short staffed than have a full shift of officers you can’t trust.

Training doesn’t really prepare you for that trust, either. You learn that as you go. You want to look on the officers you went through training with as the ones who have your back first and foremost, but that isn’t always the case. Sometimes the one you can depend on the most to help in a situation is the one you least expect.

They don’t teach you how to pack and inventory property at training, yet as an officer it’s part of the job. They don’t teach you how you’ll adapt as an officer, or how you’ll reflect back on when you were a cadet to where you are now, and take stock of what you do and put up with on a daily basis without fear or a second thought.

Not everyone knows what a correctional officer does, and if you ask us, sometimes we can’t form the sort of response you want to hear. This isn’t because we don’t know, we know all too well what we do on a daily basis; but because we do so much in a shift we can’t begin to tell someone who hasn’t worked in our place.

Like I said, all the training in the world can’t prepare you for how you’ll run a dorm of 100+ inmates, and unless you’ve done it, you’ll never be able to imagine it. Everyone wants to know what you’ve seen or been through, but they don’t realize that shift to shift we go through a lot, sometimes before we get our post assignment in roll call and after we’ve handed over our post to the next shift.

I’ve been cursed, called every name under the sun, and been yelled at by disgruntled inmates, just because I came on shift and accepted my post. I’ve had inmates threaten to hang because they weren’t getting their way, and had inmates so needy you couldn’t give them enough to keep them quiet. I’ve had to run to assist fellow officers restrain an aggressive inmate, and strip search inmates going into lockdown or a safe cell. I’ve pat searched kitchen staff, and confiscated all sorts of contraband. I’ve been trained to detect changes in behavior, gained a “6th sense” about situations and my dorm, and had to diffuse verbal altercations I just knew were going to turn violent.

I’ve had inmates test my authority and my ethics to see what I would and would not let them get away with. I’ve had inmates try to get me to pass for them, and had to stand my ground and say no, I’m not that officer. I’ve had inmates try to bend the rules so they could see their girlfriend, or volunteer for a detail so they could stay up past lockdown.

I’ve heard all manner of filth come from an inmate’s mouth, in normal conversation. I’ve had to make sure girlfriends didn’t lag behind everyone else for that extra “together time”, told inmates to “get somewhere”, and caught inmates in middle of their…business, toilet or otherwise. I’ve opened inmate mail and read the filthiest things you can (or can’t) imagine.

I’ve had inmates flood their cell, throw a tantrum that would make a toddler pause and take notes, bang their head, and refuse their medicine and had to assist in force medicating via a shot. I’ve had to put inmates into restraints to curb aggressive and self-injurious behavior.

I’ve heard more gossip than you could find in a high school lunch room, and played counselor to inmates needing to vent. I’ve been disrespected by some and respected by others. I’ve been thanked for listening and been cursed for being too busy. I’ve made more rounds than I can remember and counted my dorm over and over again. I’ve had an inmate be at the end of her life, fall out in her cell and be taken out in an ambulance, only to die in the hospital a few days later. I’ve been yelled at and lectured by fellow officers, made mistakes and learned from them. I’ve been expected to have all the answers or at least find as many answers as I could before my shift was over.

I can’t accurately tell you what I really do as a correctional officer. Our job description is safety: protecting the general public from the inmates and the inmates from themselves and each other. But that’s just part of it. These things that happen day to day, shift to shift is part of the job. So don’t be surprised if a correctional officer pauses the next time you ask what our job is like. It isn’t because we don’t know, it’s because we’re remembering everything we do and we have too many stories to tell.

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