Life On the Inside: A Correctional Officers View of Life Behind Bars in Texas Prisons
The feeling of power
After studying Criminal Justice for two years only to find out I was one year over the age limit to join the Dallas Police Dept. I decided to take a job in the Department of Corrections. I filled out the application, had my fingerprints taken and waited on the criminal background check. I passed the background check and started classes. The only question really asked of me was if I could count to twenty-five, the number of inmates in a huge cage with sets of metal bunk beds cemented into the floor. I was also told to prepare my family for the possibility that if something happened I might never return home. Be sure to have your paperwork in order. The training consisted of 36 hours of classroom training and about 25 hours of self-defense and use of chemicals to restrain an inmate. We also learned to cover for each other since many of Texas Prisons are managed by privitized companies. After training in the classroom we were taken on a tour of the facility, including the detention facility. After a week and a half I recieved my uniforms and badge. I was so proud. I felt I could make a difference since my view of corrections was never revenge. In my mind it had always been rehabilitation. It would only take a month of working in the first facility to realize that many of the persons who worked in the units were as bed or worse than the inmates we we hired to supervised. I would soon learn how bad it could be.
Picture of a Texas Inmate
First Assignment: The Juvenile Facility
My first assignment was in Bronte,Texas. It was a juvenile facility. It could'nt be that bad I thought. Boy was I wrong. The first day I reported the inmates were painting a mural. One of them a young girl was painting a unicorn touching a dove with a broken wing. How beautiful i thought, he's healing the dove...Wrong!! The young artist studied me with mischief, knowing I was new decided to take her shot and see what my reaction would be. "No Miss, she said, he's not healing, he's actually killing him, the unicorn is us inmates and the dove is you all." Her tactic worked, shock registered on my face as I walked away. I was later assigned to dorm "D" where the most aggressive and hardened inmates were housed. This was due to my size, I am 6"ft in socks. The inmates in D dorm are charged and convited of murder, rape, aggravated assualt, sexual assualt and any other range of violent crimes. It is constantly under siege by "Code Black" the term used to describe a riot in the dorm. When a code black is called over the radio to central, the CERT TEAM, Correctional Emergency Response Team, rushes in to quiet it down. The only problem being there are 3 Guards to each dorm. There are 25 inmates to a dorm. By the time the emergency response team arrives about 10 to 15 minutes later many times staff members have been injured. In my first week I was assualted by 4 inmates and hit with a stair stepper leaving one whole side of my body black and blue. It would not be the last time. The youngest of the inmates was 9 years old and convicted of aggravated sexual assualt of a child, where does a 9 year old learn this? A 13 year old convicted of killing her sisters twin daughters because they would not be quiet. The twins were 8 months old. The most problematic was a 13 year old who murdered her mother by shooting her in the head because the cereal bowl was the wrong color. She constantly fought with staff, resulting in being held down by 3-6 staff members and disrobed for trying to hang herself, and spent hours in isolation wearing nothing but a strait-jacket and shackles with a female guard sitting across her back until she would stop fighting, then it would start over again. It was soon apparent that these children were not in here for stealing candy. During this time it was a female facility. The most amazing to me was amount of homosexuality present in the unit.
The unit was changed to a male juvenile unit about three years later. It was a little easier than the females. Even though the males are more prone to violence, they usually only fight if provoked or over a major issue such as disrespect. The females on the other hand pick fights over nit-picking, little trival matters. All inmates male or female were required to attend school. Some worked at the cafeteria, in the beauty salon, or buffing the floors. They have 2 hours a day in the community room to watch tv or catch up on homework. The males are also the most likely to make sexual remarks to the female staff. There is not the amount of homosexuality in the male population between the inmates as with the females as far as juvenile offenders. This is seen a a lack of manhood between the males. These inmates are cunning, violent and also still children who, when turning 21 will most likely released to society, many becoming tomorrows adult offenders.
The danger of seeing them as children like any others is a grave mistake made by many new officers and seasoned ones as well. You learn early on to never turn your back to them, You keep your hair short or tightly secured to your head. These inmates are very creative since they spend much of their time thinking up new ways to cause disruption. They take razors and remove the blade, put a bobby pin into an electric socket and put a piece of paper on it. When it becomes hot they light fires , melting the handles on toothbrushes and inserting the blade into the plastic. When it hardens they have a perfect weapon. Many will bite the guards, spit on them, or throw feces and urine at the officers. Assualt on Guards is common since you are only allowed to use soft restraint and isolation. Tube socks were banned after a guard was beaten into a vegetative state after entering the cell of a girl who was lying on the floor curled up in pain, it was a ruse. When the officer entered the cell, the other inmate in the cell closed the door and began beating the officer in and around her head an kicking her, the weapon was a tube sock with several bars of soap inside. She was uncouncious by the time CERT could get into the cell which can only be opened form central control. She remains in a vegatative state to this day 20 years later.
I remained at the juvenile facility for 6 years before transferring to the adult male offenders facility. I gained experienced that will always remain with me forever. The violence and abuse will always cause me to look at children in a new light today. They are not the same children we were or raised our children to be. Due to the in ability of parents to disipline their children due to child abuse protection, the taking out of prayer in our schools, and many other factors. have created a new breed of today's child. The "Alpha" child, with no regard for the rights of others or for property and most important, the pure disregard for human life.
I was exposed to many incidents of violence and abuse, but it was not all by the inmates housed there. In a subsequent capsule I will detail for you the abuse of the inmates by the staff trusted to care for them.
Adult Correction Facilities In Texas
After moving from West Texas to the Metro-Plex, I was assigned to the Intermediate Sanction facility for male adult offenders in Fort Worth. transferring from a juvenile facility to an adult facility means another type of training since the force you can use with adults is more than is allowed for a juvenile.
The training is two weeks weeks long and then another week of self defense. After training you are issued 5 uniforms, have your graduation certificate. and off you go to work. The difference between the Juvenile facility was shocking to me . It consisted of what was once a large warehouse that had been converted into a prison by constructing large cages, like the ones in the zoo, made by cementing the heavy steel bars into the ground. There were no 2 man cells. There 25 beds in each cage, or pod as we called them. The beds were bunk beds and the persons with disabilities were assigned to the bottom bunks after a written note from the doctor. These inmates do not work, they basically lie in their bunks and watch tv. They go to pill call for the ones who take medications, it can take up to a month before the inmate can see the doctor and get their medications started. this can a problem for an inmate with a mental illness or heart problem. If they need to see the doctor or dentist they must put in a written request. It can take a week or so even though there is a nurse on staff. Three times a day, we call count. All inmates are to sit on their bunks and not move during count. It is a favorite game to the inmates to move around during count to confuse the officer counting. On each corrider there are 4 cages, with twenty five inmates to each cage. There are two officers assinged to each corrider, that's not good odds. The ratio of two guards for 200 inmates is in my personal opinion dangerous. I also feel that having 25 men locked in the cage together with nothing to do and only one tv is asking for assualts and riots. Many of the fights have started over what tv show to watch. They can attend services at a non-denominational church service on sundays. Many attend just to get out of the cell for an hour. There is a chaplain on duty to deliver bad news to the inmates or to talk if they need an ear.
Being a woman working in a mens unit is by no means easy but once you establish a boundary and respect it becomes a lot easier. My first day an inmate called me "Baby Boots" that's what they call female newbies, the new officers. I promptly called him to the bars and told him "My name is officer or Ms. Luna to you, do not disrespect me and I will not disrespect you" I never had another problem. I became known now as "Amazon" due to my height. There is a library but it is rarely used and many of the inmates here are illiterate. I was often asked how to spell words when writing letters. Mail call was at 3pm everyday. Inmates wait eagerly for their names to be called , it was heartbreaking to see the ones forrgotten, who never received mail or letters or even visits. You do not form friendships with the inmates but you can always take time to stop and listen. H Unit is solitary, reserved for the combative or suicidal. I hated working that unit. The cells are very small, a bunk with no mattress, no shets, and a bath once a day. There is no tv, no phone, no one to talk to. You can hear the inmates communicating with each other by yelling at the inmate in the next cell, or at the officer. The officer on H Unit peeps in the little window every 15 minutes to assure safety, it doesn't take 15 minutes to commit suicide. I learned this my first year there, luckily not on my shift. Often an angry inmate will throw feces, urine, or stick their private parts out the slot meant for the food tray. if it is a female officer on duty, the inmates in H Unit will sit in the cell mastrubating. There is nothing else you can do to them besides a write up which extends their time in solitare.
When it is shower time the inmate has no privacy. they bathe in showers in the cage, there is no curtain or wall to stand behind. This is the same with the tolieting. This to me was shameful on the part of the institution. Once a shift, one of the guards has to enter the cage locking the door behind them and with the 25 inmates present , do a shakedown for contaband. Another reason not to disrespect an inmate unless he disrespects you. While you enter the cage to do the shake down , looking under the mattresses, shaking pillows, looking through the personal belongings and patting down the inmate. When you enter into the cage for the shakedowns you leave your keys with the other guard outside, if there is a problem in the cage the guard outside calls central control for CERT to respond. Contraband is anything not issued by the prison, or bought by the inmate in the commissary store. The inmates are not allowed to give other inmates things they have bought though they will often pay the other inmate with commissary items they by for them. They pay for tattoos, haircuts, things another inmate may make for them to send their wife or family member, such as handkerchiefs with pictures, pictures drawn on paper or even to write letters for them. They are very creative, in good ways and in bad.
There is a lot of gang activity and everything possible is done to keep the different gangs separated. They are screened at intake and put with their own. On the inside, more than gang membership, the inmates will mingle with their own race. The inmates are served their meals in their cells, it is passed through a slot in the cage and after being given 30 minutes the trays are picked up by the staff. There is no kitchen in the Fort Worth Facility so the food is prepared and brought to the facility in a catering truck. Many times the facility will be short on the number of meals ordered and the inmate is given a piece of fruit and a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. I worked the floor in the Fort Worth Unit for about three years.
Around 2000 I decided to return to school so the 12 hour shifts were not an option. I asked the warden for a transfer to a new unit that was constructed in Del Rio, Texas. The unit there holds both state, federal, and city level inmates. Male and female are in the same facility but in different dorms. They have cells and usually 2 people to each cell. The inmates hold jobs inside the facility and make $ 5.00 a month. I never made the transfer. I was offered a job as asst. secretary to the warden if I would stay. I was the only officer besides one other one, who could speak, read and write both Spanish and English. I took the job. It was Monday through Friday, 9-5 with the same pay as my officers position and the same benefits. I translated the Offender Manual into Spanish, answered the phone, translated for inmates and officers when needed, worked in intake where inmates are booked in and released. I also worked in the mailroom and helped to deliver the mail. The mail room is a job requiring gloves. You get the usual letters with kisses on them, but you also get letters with pubic hairs in them and any number of weird, nasty, and very graphic letters. The officers only scan the letters for security reasons and legal mail is delivered unopened to the inmate. Visitation is on weekends from 8-5. It is a happy time for those who have visits and sad for the ones who stay for long sentences with no visits, no mail, all but forgotten.
I stayed in the position for about six months, I missed my work as an officer and felt like a complete sell out. I had the opportunity to meet and observe many different types of people, both inmates and officers, both good and bad. During my tenure as an officer, I always made sure that I never disrespected or mistreated any inmate under my supervision. I never felt the need to extract anymore than what society (the courts) has decided the inmate should pay. I never used my position to bully, humiliate or make the inmates feel any less of a person. Though they are inmates, they are still human beings, with feelings, and rights and needs like any other human being.
I was sad the day I resigned and turned in my uniforms. The experiences I took away with me have taught me to look at things in an unbiased manner. While there are times a person may be taken out of society for violating the laws we have set out to keep order, There is another side to corrections that the average person never sees, where the ones entrusted to supervise, often abuse the authority granted to them and the rights of those under that authority.
Let's take a look now at the other side, where the inmate is the prey and victim. I do not know if I can name the facilities and persons involved in the following abuses, so I will not. But I have always felt the public should know and care about the abuses in our Criminal Justice System. As they say "You never know when you or someone you love will be on the other side of those bars."
I walked out of the facility that morning, hearing the doors slam behind me for the last time. It was a sound I had never gotten used to. "Good-bye Ms. Luna, we love you, we will miss you, good luck." I smiled as I went through the last checkpoint. I drove out the gate and never looked back, except in my mind.
To be silent in the face of injustice is to be an accomplice to evil. I will not be silent!
- Texas Prison Reform Site
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Abuse in the Criminal Justice System
There are many wrongs I wish I would have spoken up and righted during my time in corrections. But there is an unwritten code that you learn very early on. Although I did not participate in any of the situations I will discuss in this part of my story, by keeping silent I am as guilty as those who performed the actual act. When I recall the years as an officer, these are my regrets. The fact that I was cared for and respected by those under my supervision makes it harder, If I had it to do over again I would do it diffrently. My consolation is knowing that I was always there to listen, spell a word, look at a new picture or help read a letter from home to someone who could not read.
During my time working with the juveniles I wittnessed physical abuse by staff of the minors they were there to supervise. the inmates were often provoked into fights with staff and then locked down in solitaire. If staff had to take an inmate to the floor, the taller guards would always stand in the door to the solitare room blocking the view of the security cameras . One morning I was assigned to sit guard with a 14 year old while she bathed, she was in isolation. As she undressed she showed me bruises that covered most of her body, I was shocked. This girl was about 5'4 and weighed around 100 to 110 pounds. As I questioned her and consoled her by listening, She told me what had taken place. After a minor argument with a member of staff, she was taken to isolation and held down by six guards, shackled and sit on until she would comply. In the units when they say take down, it is not done gently. there was no reason for this girl to have the bruises she had. Many staff members were charged with sexual contact with inmates. This facility was finally closed due to the continuing physical and sexual abuse of inmates by staff.
In the Adult Unit, Provocation and threats by staff to inmates that threaten to lengthen the inmates sentence are often used to make the inmate combative, thus being taken to H Unit. There they have no phone calls, no mail, no visitation. Many times inmate on inmate abuse leads to the entire unit being locked down. These assualts occur while staff looks the other way. They are often violent, many inmates are injured or dead when it is over. Riots often are caused by the lack of basic necessities, heat, blankets and lack of food. An assualt on inmate in adult units is not viewed as serious most of the time. Officers sit to write the incident reports together so all the stories are the same.
Many staff members in the adult units also are charged with sexual conduct with an inmate. This includes nurses, male and female staff . Staff members are often the path through which the ciggarettes, drugs, cell phones and other contraband are provided to the inmates. The majority of the time it is the inmate who suffers the hardest consequences. Making the inmates bathe in plain sight of staff, who often stand and make remarks about the size of the inmates genatalia, thus making the inmate the object of humiliation by both staff and other inmates.
Making sexual remarks about the inmates wife when they visit knowing the inmate will react, ignoring the threat of self-harm is common and lead to the death of a young inmate in the Del Rio Unit. All of these abuses should not occur. Many would not occur if the training was more rehabilitation oriented. The background checks more rigorous, and not hiring those with no training or experience in corrections.
At this time there is a severe shortage of officers, due to long hours, mandatory overtime and too much stress. This is often reflected onto the inmates. This along with overcrowding, and other problems such as health care and a lack of plain human decency when dealing with the prison population, can and does often have deadly consequences.
Please click on the links below to read more and see the stories of the other side of the Criminal Justice System.
It is almost Easter and once again I am sad. I miss my husband. I have been diagnosed with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and told that with luck I have 10 years to live. My husband has 6 years to go in a federal prison. I am scared that I may die and never see him before he is released. He is 10 years my senior but I love him so much. My only wish is to see him and touch him one more time. I am a prison wife... but I will never give up on him and I will never let go. It is hard the same prison I was once employed in now holds the only thing in my life that matters. HOW IRONIC!!
The Homecoming and Life After Corrections
It has been 20 years since I worked in the field of corrections. I received my Masters Degree in Criminal Justice but the only thing it is used for is to decorate my wall and write articles. I still translate for the State and Federal Courts but I am much happier teaching children in China English.
The prison system touched my life in both a professional and personal way and has had a lasting effect on me. The stress and the mental exhaustion still tax me at times.
My husband has been home for almost 5 years now and we picked up where we left off. Love has to be very strong to endure a 14 years sentence with no visits or contacts except emails and letters. Its difficult at times. There is a lot of technology that wasnt around when he went in that he has to learn. He has a hard time trusting people and has developed mental health issues but we are loving each other through them.
I would not recommend the Corrections field to anyone but I guess I learned a lot from the experiences.