Prison Life as a Correctional Officer
Pictures from the Inside
Some things we never forget
Growing up in a Southern Baptist family and attending church with my grandparents every sunday I always thought the only way you went to hell was when you died, if you were bad, or when I became older, if you weren't saved. I was wrong!!
I often think back to my time in the Department of Corrections, sometimes fondly, remembering the laughs shared with other staff, other times with my poddies (inmates). But other times, I remember the pain I wittnessed on both staff and my poddies. Not everyone is good on the inside, not even those in charge. The warden in the last facility I worked before retiring was sentnenced to prison for trafficking in narcotics, thus the saying...never mistreat your poddies... you never know when you or a loved one may be on the other side of those bars. I am happy to say that I was always able to show compassion and mercy and never take more than society said the poddie owed. I will not say I have no regrets, I have many. We will go there later. For now let me walk you through my private hell.
I started my journey in approximately 1994. Criminal Justice had always facinated me, so being a correctional officer while working on my law degree seemed a natural. The pay was excellent, plenty of overtime, and damn I even looked good in that ulgy beige uniform, my little badge pinned to my chest and the ID that said I was a part of the good guys, the department of corrections. my training and upbringing had taught me that the "criminal" , a word i have since deleted from my vocabulary, deserved what he got. He deserved to be in this shit hole of a place. I was the typical rookie, the Betty bad ass. " Stay behing the line, tuck your shirt in, don't call me Luna...it's officer to you, put your hands behind your back,,, let me see the diamond (when you put your hands behind your back and touch your thumbs and index fingers together to form a diamond) . It didn't take long to realize that this wasn't going to work. Number one you are out numbered... 400 inmates to three guards. You can't watch everyone. The poddies know this and take great delight in getting one over on you. Nothing serious, just good-natured pranks. In the joint your shift was 8-12 hours, if you were one of the unlucky ones and had no children, if someone didn't show up...mandatory overtime. This meant 16-24 hours. I lived in Garland and worked in Fort Worh. I was too tired to drive home. I would go to the parking lot and sleep in my car until my next shift. It didn't take long to realize this would be a re-occurring thing. if you refuse to work mandatory overtime, it is reason for dismissal. The paper you signed acknowledging this was in your training packet but you just didn't take time to read it. Many days it would be 36 hours before I saw home again. You have two days in a row off, but you are so tired by then all you want is to sleep. This is dangerous to both the officers and the poddies. You start to let little things slide. You prop the cage door open to keep from leaving your chair to open it. remember, there are 25 poddies in each cage, 200 on the walk, three officers. More than enough to take over if they really wanted to. Good thing for me that never was their intention.
Training consists of 6 weeks of learning alot of rules that you are never going to follow, getting measured for your uniforms, being fingerprinted for a criminal background check, that part is really a joke since unless you kill someone you will pass. Don't fail the drug test though. if you do that, which I don't and didn't, you are taught to drink vinegar and lots of water to clear up since you know it is done on the day you do the fingerprinting. After you pass the background check and drug test and finish class you are given your diplomas.
Self-defense is taught in approximately three hours. You go inside a big warehouse and pretend to fight with your instructor. Believe me the instructor is not going to hit you like the angry poddie. It's mostly play acting. It's mostly about putting your arms up so you don't get hit. It's not any good in a riot and it won't keep you from getting hurt. At the end you get another diploma.
CERT stands for "Correctional Emergency Response Team". They are the equivilent to SWAT in the real world. The training is more strenous since you are the ones who respond in a "code black" or riot as it is commonly called by the lay person. To be on CERT you must be a certain height and weight. I am 6'0 and weighed 185...no problem. You must also be taken out into a field and sprayed in the face with a foam called C2 that sticks to your face and burns like hell. You can't breathe, talk, you are disoriented and if you put water on it the burning is worse. it lasts about 30 minutes. Many of us giants vomited and and some didn't make the cut. The poddies reffer to CERT as the "Turtles" . I loved my cert uniform. All black, head gear, shields that put out a small electrical charge that will at least stun the person. In the joint we have at least 2-3 riots a day, but it is usually calmed when the turtles appear. The poddies think it is hiliarious. After the 6 weeks of training your next two weeks are on the floor.
The poddies in the cage
When you first are on the floor you are "new boots" or "baby boots" if you are a female. This is the time when the poddies learn who they can use and who will be nice but stand their ground. It is at this stage that you must earn their respect, and demand yours. The officers who are afraid will not make it. These are the young ones mostly, but the fear will show and the poddies will immediately recognize it. This makes the scared ones vunerable and puts the other officers in danger. This person is your back up and you are theirs. if they are afraid of getting hit... it's a problem. Fortunately these types do not last long and will resign before someone is hurt.
It is hard for me to share my home with my husband and son at times so I can imagine what it is like to spend all day and night in a cage (like in the zoo) with twenty four other people. There is one TV in each cage, three telephones and three long tables and chairs attached to the floor so they can not be thrown. regardless of what you may hear on the outside, there aren't alot of programs available to the offenders and many can not read or write. The library is sparse so reading is limited anyway. most fights breakout over what to watch on TV. The poddies are allowed one hour recreation time each day. they can go to church on Sundays.
The poddies for the most part are good hearted. Even though they have their differences, languages, cultures and attitudes, for the most part they get along. The lucky ones have a wife, child, or family member who sends them money to buy things in the commissary store. The ones who don't quickly learn to use their talents to get things they need. They shine shoes, evens staffs, draw pictures beautiful handkerchiefs, envelopes or cut an braid hair. whatever they must do to survive. The socks you can buy at walmart 12 pair for 6.00 cost them 3.00 a pair, a ramen noodle, 6 for a dollar at the grocery costs them .75 cents each. It is a disgrace. They are given one roll of cheap toliet paper, one motel bar size soap, a small tube of toothpaste and 1 razor. Anything else must be bought from the prison store. Walmart tennis shoes are $45.00 a pair and last about a month. They are dressed in hospital scrubs which do not protect them from the cold, slip on rubber sandals, open at the toes and in back. Is it any wonder they are angry??? The drugs, cigarrettes and cell phones that are smuggled into the units can not be brought in by visitors... it is by staff. But the ones who are punished are the poddies, locked down for sometimes a month at a time. it is a shame... a disgrace and not something I cared to be a part of any longer. they suffer physical, verbal and sexual abuse at the hands of the very ones who are there to supervise them and turn a blind eye to the injustices done to them. I would be mad as hell too.
Compassion and moving on, but never forgetting.
I lasted 10 1/2 years before turning in my resignation. During that time , I tried to show care, mercy, compassion, and even friendship to the extent allowed. I listened when an ear was needed, dried tears when divorce papers were recieved, prayed for a child, a wife or for my poddies. When I left it was to yells of "we love you, we will miss you, and we wish you the best".
It was time for me to move on. I became a translator/interpreter fro the court system for another 10 years. Thats yet another story.
I remember the heavy iron door slamming behind me as I left. I revisit the hell of that place many times in mymind. It still wakes me with nightmares, always the same... hands reaching out through the bars of the cage... and the heavy door slamming behind me as I ran forward to another life... but never able to forget the hell I left behind or those still in it.