Growing up, I didn’t have family in law enforcement who influenced me to be a CO. When I started working, I was a waiter and wasn’t making the money I wanted, so I looked into Corrections and the initial pay was good, with great benefits. I jumped on the opportunity and began my career in 2002 at an all-female prison. I was there for about nine years, then I became a Sergeant at a maximum-security prison. I did that for about three years and am now on the administrative level of a facility with all levels of inmates.
I worked for about thirteen years on the custody side and it was work I thoroughly enjoyed. I always felt that even outside of safety and security we provided, we had a purpose and an influence. We might even be seen in some cases as role models and that our positive interactions could lead to a higher level of expectations for the inmates to aspire to. The work was quite rewarding for me and gave me the opportunity to create a high level of impact on the lives of people I might not have normally interacted with otherwise. COs wear many hats and are a part of all aspects of trying to rehabilitate inmates. If you are not able to maintain a level of professionalism in order to protect and serve, you should not be in this field.
When I first started, one of the hardest parts of my job was knowing what the inmates had done, and still being able to treat them in a professional manner and believe in their efforts to rehabilitate and change. In our profession, the last thing you want to do is see the prisoners, or yourself, losing hope in humanity. You want to have empathy, not sympathy. Empathy can help you be a better CO. You’ve been given this chance to have an impact on the lives of inmates, and if you start getting disenfranchised, if you start believing that people can’t change, then it lessens that purpose of the career for you. Once you start losing purpose, then it truly is just a job with no internal reward or incentive. I told myself going in that I would always hold onto a piece of who I am to keep me grounded. I have always had an internal “why” that’s driven me. It’s gotten me through some really dark days at work and reminded me that even the worst inmates can turn their lives around, and that we can have a huge impact on them to keep their hope alive to do so.
Being a CO can be very stressful and it takes a toll on you. During my career, I’ve been blessed to have very limited physical interactions. I had a few, but not as severe as many others that I know that deal with this every day. Sometimes the stress is not always from the inmates, it could be from your peers, it could be from admin, and from the changes that are happening (especially where we feel that we’re not involved in those changes). Which leads to the catch 22 that’s there. If I ask for help, I can hurt my career. COs go through this dilemma a lot. If I tell my boss I’m having a hard time, the administration might take away my weapon, I may get less shifts. So most just bottle it in, drink it away later, or take it out at home with their families and friends, or worse, take their own life. COs need a place to say what they need to process their emotions and be able to speak without repercussions. They need to be able to trust the people they are turning to for help and this is something management needs to understand.
I have known people who have taken their own lives. In most cases it could be impulsive. It could be a reaction to something that happened in their lives at that moment. It’s tough because when they do, they leave so many questions unanswered, especially for the people who are the closest to them who wonder if they could have said something to prevent it. There’s a big psychological impact that needs to be addressed. Or else it will continue to spin in your mind, thinking about what if, as it eats away at you over time.
There was one that truly shocked me, someone I worked with. He was happy, a good person, but unfortunately, a situation happened in his life, and he reacted in a very extreme manner, because it didn’t just involve himself. He also took the life of another. He would have been in prison for what he did and here we are trying to keep the prisoners safe. You must process it the right way, because if you don’t, you’re going to eventually explode. This was such an extreme act that really shocked me and showed how important it is to allow people to feel what they feel and not be told they shouldn’t. Some of us push ourselves away from these things by saying this would never happen to us, or that our circumstances are different, but it’s hard sometimes to relate both worlds and identify how the job has changed how you behave or act in the outside world.
If you cannot find a reason behind an act like that, you may feel as if you cannot avoid it happening to you. Those deaths are the ones we worry about because we don’t understand what made this person go to such an extreme. The response team comes in and they are trained to see if these situations might trigger someone else to do the same, to have that domino effect. You need to understand personally how you relate to the person and the act and realize that it is not indicative of you and to not believe that seeing all this death means everyone in the CO field will suffer the same fate. It’s a matter of how you connect what just happened to the profession itself.
I remember there was this hero who got killed in a North Carolina Correctional Facility. I didn’t know her; I knew her only through the profession. I saw on social media that she had passed, and that she got set up by an inmate when she went in there with the intent to save a life, because it looked like he had set something on fire. But it was a setup. The inmate wound up killing her with the tool she was going to use to protect him – the fire extinguisher.
I was so invested in that story. I even met her parents. We went down and started filming her story. It was powerful to me to the point where, when I left, I felt I left a piece of me in North Carolina. I’ve never seen this level of emotion from the profession. The officers that were affected by her loss thought they could have done more, and they really couldn’t, but they’re constantly reminded of things they believe they could have done differently. They’re judging themselves at the highest level for a situation they could not control, and to see these heroes all broken up moved me.
The mental health aspect of the job is what needs the most addressing. If you have a CO who is assaulted, aside from any physical healing needed, there should be a mental evaluation, because now you’re going to put this person back into an environment he hasn’t been in since the assault, we don’t know how that’s going to trigger him or her. You need to slowly reintroduce that person back to where they need to be. It can be hard to build up the courage to do that. They may have PTSD and freeze and now they can’t respond to help their partner. I believe there should be some follow-up with mental health before you put that person right back into that area. They need to process what they have been through.
I never had a problem sharing my feelings or talking to my loved ones about what is happening for me because they also know who I am when I’m not in that uniform. This career taught me that I should share more or else it will take over me. I would tell anybody coming in, hold onto who you are, know what your resources are, and make sure you process what you’re dealing with. You went through something, so give yourself a chance to process that as opposed to dismissing it. Writing is always great therapy. Get it down on paper, and then you can go back and reread it when you’re in a better mindset. After each incident empty the emotional bucket on paper. Sharing is an important aspect I wish more COs could understand, but it’s hard.
You’re taught to not show any fear or vulnerability, so you suppress your feelings. If you allow the job to change you, how you handle things on the job can easily manifest in the outside world as problems with drugs and alcohol, violence, divorce, and/or maybe suicide. I have been pushed to the limit many times. Comes with the territory. You will get tested. Whenever I feel that I’m getting lost in all of it, I have my own internal north star to remind me who I am. I can’t say that about a lot of COs. I see the way the work eats at them.
There is so much inherent risk in what we do, and we have to remember that our families are counting on us to come home at night. Guys that go in and rile up the system and cause trouble are not just putting themselves at risk, but the entire facility. It’s also disrespectful to your family who trusted you to take this dangerous job and want to have faith in you and be supportive. Your promise to them should be doing your job in a professional manner to minimize situations at work that might risk your life. You also want them to be assured you are getting the help you need if and when you need it. We want you to go home safe at the end of the day. So do your families.
I believe this is a noble profession. I believe what we do is a public service that is rarely recognized. One of my goals is to remind people that we are true professionals and deserving of self-worth. I’m tired of people bashing what I do, because it is a piece of who I am, a part of me. It took me doing the work myself to understand firsthand that this is really great work and to stand by it with so much conviction. I say, go meet the people and understand the profession through the people outside of uniform.
Society puts a negative label on the uniform, and anybody who wears the uniform has been generalized to be whatever negative term you want – aggressive Neanderthals, racists, or whatever. The stereotype is always going to be something primitive, like we stand around in a world that doesn’t move much and it’s like we are just warehousing inmates. Obviously, what we do has evolved and we have more interaction with the inmates than ever, all of which is geared toward facilitating their needs and preparing them for reentry into society. People don’t see all our efforts behind these walls to better the lives of the people that are in there. Nor do people on the outside see that this increased interaction puts us more at risk.
That’s why it’s so healthy for us to be able to give our testimonials and tell our stories, so people understand who we are and what we go through here. It gives them a chance to look inside our world and see the challenges we experience from our perspectives. Maybe someone will read something in a story or testimonial that will be beneficial for them, and maybe someone will get something from me that will help them save a life one day. This kind of work is so important.
I’ve been in the system now for 19 years and I’ve never shifted too far from who I was when I began. I was always a person that saw the best in people. I always had a high level of empathy that kept me in tune with the spirit of others. Luckily, that part of me wasn’t taken away by the job over the years. I carry myself professionally, which helps me out 95% of the time. I’ve been married since 2006. I have two kids. I maintain a good family life; I believe that’s key. I still smile. I still laugh.
I think by just remembering who I am, I’m never going to lose that, and I remind myself occasionally when it hits the fan to find people who also know who I am. I have always had my north star to guide me and I never truly got lost even when I had to process something difficult. It always brought me back to knowing who I was and where I needed to be.