So You Want to Work In a Prison?
Introduction: Why a Career in Corrections
There may be some readers out there who are interested in knowing what working in corrections is like and may even be considering a career in this industry yourself.
If you are reading this because you are wanting to work in a prison as a member of free staff (non-custody), I hope your intentions for going behind the walls are sincere. There are some people who want to work in a prison because they believe it gives them some kind of thrill.
There are those who are looking for excitement and want to tell stories to their friends about working around criminals. If these are your reasons for wanting to serve the residents of a correctional community, then perhaps you should give it some reconsideration.
The Prison as Community
A prison is a potentially volatile community, with many dangers present. As a staff member you can become the victim of assault or manipulation. Even if you do not witness any violence, the stress of hearing of it can be traumatic. However, in most facilities, the communities remain fairly stable with most of the citizens wanting to complete their sentences in peace. The prison is a microcosm of society and a miniature city upon itself.
Many of the current residents are former teachers, lawyers, wait staff, college students and business owners. One wonders about the circumstances that brought them to this place. Not all are career criminals as some of the Hollywood films would lead one to believe. This isn't to say all inmates are nice people and should always be trusted. It is after all, a prison.
And the people that live there, are human beings.
This is probably one of the first things that should be remembered by a new staff member going into a prison work setting. This is their city where they live. It's their home. The men or women that live there get up in the morning and eat breakfast. Most usually have a job to go to, or take classes. Some may spend their morning hours in a workout routine or running around the yard. Some read or play chess.
In some prisons, you can even see some inmates walking around with their dogs.
Some facilities have training programs for dogsClick thumbnail to view full-size
Are you considering a job in a corrections facility
There are many positions available
The variety of free staff jobs is as open as one might find on the outside. Some examples of career opportunities include:
- Cook Supervisor
- Vocational Instruction - mechanics, construction etc.
- Administrative Assistant
Depending upon your skill level, education and experience you can find a position to fulfill your career goals. The pay is often comparable or much better than you would find in the free world. Many places offer benefits and retirement perks. In addition, you will be able to assist people - prisoners - who may not have had opportunities to work legitimate jobs. Your perspective might shed some light into a world that is filled with darkness and deprivation.
There is a direct link between education/work programs and the recidivism rate
Some Words of Caution
I should say that I am not trying to give the impression that prison is a hunky dory world where you will encounter eager and enthusiastic students or workers. However, keep in mind that much of what you may have seen on television is the figment of someone's creative imagination.
There are some inmates you will want to be extra cautious of. You have to keep in mind that most of the people you will work with in a prison setting are confined there for years and some may not ever see the outside world again. Using the wrong phrase or making certain statements might trigger depression or anger in an inmate. You have to use some common sense and couple that sensibility with empathy and compassion.
Be on your guard however because often there are inmates who are seeking someone to manipulate in order to gain access to forbidden items or even freedom. Keep in mind some of the stories you have read about prison workers who have been coerced into doing things. Perhaps coerced is the wrong word to use, because anyone who goes to work in this setting should have the sensibility to know right from wrong.
You want to be friendly and respectful to the inmates you work with. However, they are NOT your friends.
Some unfortunate incidentsClick thumbnail to view full-size
If you decide a prison career is your calling
One of the things that I have heard many prison workers talk about is the fact that none of them ever planned on a career in corrections. Outside of custody (correctional officers) it seems, no one ever expects to work behind bars.
Whether it is something you planned on, fell into or took because it was an available opportunity, you should keep in mind a few things. I'll try and list a few here, although the list is much more extensive than what is below. Much of what you learn will come to you on the job.
- Prison careers are not that glamorous and exciting. You will have lock down times where you may be doing absolutely nothing for days on end.d
- There are times when you may have to fill in and assist custody with duties - helping take inventory during searches etc.
- This is possibly a dangerous job. You could put your life at risk.
- The type of prison you work at - Level I, II, III etc. will determine the population you encounter - the levels will be explained more below.
- This could be a very rewarding job - you get to help people in need.
- You may have to disregard certain attire or even wear a uniform.
- You will have to be careful about what you carry on your person. Once you enter the facility you will have no access to your electronic devices, may have to bring in a cold lunch or eat at the cafe, no excessive jewelry etc.
- Keep a positive attitude
- Don't denigrate the residents or try and use too much slang
- You will need to constantly be aware of your surroundings at all times. Keep in mind you are in a prison.
A typical day in school or work in prisonClick thumbnail to view full-size
Types of Prisons
The following was taken from the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) website.
Level I - Facilities and Camps consist primarily of open dormitories with a low security perimeter.
Level II - Facilities consist primarily of open dormitories with a secure perimeter, which may include armed coverage.
Level III - Facilities primarily have a secure perimeter with armed coverage and housing units with cells adjacent to exterior walls.
Level IV - Facilities have a secure perimeter with internal and external armed coverage and housing units or cell block housing with cells non-adjacent to exterior walls.
Keep in mind there are also Supermax prisons where inmates rarely get to see daylight. All activity is maintained indoors. You may find similar conditions in what is called the SHU (Special Housing Unit) or AdSeg (Administrative Segreation). These are housing units designed for placement of inmates who violate the prison rules.
A couple of other designations you might encounter:
GP - General Population
SNY or PC - Special Needs Yards or Protective Custody. These are designed for inmates with unique violations or for former police officers or gang dropouts.
Mainline - a general population yard.
Dorms - open sleeping beds - no cells
Theraputic Unit - a special one man device usually designed for punishment. See illustration below.
Would you consider working in a correctional facility?
Some Prison ImagesClick thumbnail to view full-size
Have you ever been inside a prison?
For further reading
You might want to try some of the following books out if you are curious to learn about other peoples experiences working inside:
Newjack: Guarding Sing Sing by Ted Connover. A former guard talks about his rookie year in the famous prison.
You Got Nothing Coming: Notes from a Prison Fish by Jimmy Lerner. You are convicts. Your job here is to lie, cheat, steal, extort, get tattoos, take drugs, sell drugs, shank and sock each other. Just don't let us catch you - that's our job. We catch you, you got nothin' coming.
Running the Books: The Adventures of an Accidental Prison Librarian by Avi Steinberg. A librarian talks about his experiences working in a prison library.
There are many others of course, but these are few that you may find interesting told from the point of view from someone new to the prison environment.
© 2018 Liam Finnegan