A Deeper Look: Through the Eyes of an Officer

by Gary York

After more than 28 years working in the jail and prison system, Gary York retired from the Florida Department of Corrections. He authored the books Corruption Behind Bars, Inside The Inner Circle, and The Toughest Job and is currently a columnist for Corrections1.com.

As a former correctional officer and prison investigator, I have always tried my best to connect with people and programs that work towards bridging the gap between correctional officers, the incarcerated, and society. After connecting with The Unconditional Freedom Project and working with them on the Guards to Guardians Program, I have become an advocate for the cause. The first thought that came to my mind was this program is like “Chicken Soup for the Soul.” This program is exactly that, it is a medication for the mind, body, and spirit that can be used to change lives for the better. This program promotes changing the work environment into a positive place for the officers and the incarcerated. Programs such as Guards to Guardians help educate officers on how to come forward and express their thoughts and opinions. This program allows officers to get their problems out in the open, guides them through trials and tribulations, lets officers know they are not alone and have someone they can turn to in times of need, and gives them a sense of security and hope. In return the jail or prison environment starts to improve for everyone.

Correctional Officer Stress
Correctional officers have a 39% higher suicide rate than any other occupation, as well as higher divorce and substance abuse rates than the general public. Unfortunately, I have known and read about correctional officers who have committed suicide. Suicide is definitely an issue within this occupation.

Officers face the daily risks of being assaulted, taken hostage, and even killed. Correctional officers witness suicides, death, and terrible beatings among the incarcerated population, which take a toll on one’s mental well-being. Officer shortages and mandatory overtime with little to no rest has further endangered their safety. Being outnumbered over one hundred to one by the inmate population makes it very difficult to monitor all jail or prison activity and heightens the risk of danger for everyone behind the walls. Although I know retired correctional officers who are now in their 70s or 80s, I personally believe it is all in the way we take care of ourselves. The program Guards to Guardians helps officers take care of themselves mentally and physically. How does it work you ask?

Guards to Guardians Program

  • Guides officers through stress and depression by providing support and direction for mental health well-being and recovery. 
  • Helps officers realize their worth and that they can be a positive influence on society and the well-being of the incarcerated.
  • Supports correctional officers in lifting heavy burdens off their shoulders while they continue to ensure our safety.
  • Gives the officers a place to connect with others going through similar stress issues and allows them to have open discussions with each other.
  • Provides mentors for all the officers’ needs on and off duty.

Risks the Inmates Face

Officers and civilian prison staff are not the only ones who face risks while behind the prison walls. Inmates face many risks as well. The following are some of those risks:

• Being beaten, stabbed, or raped by other inmates
• Physical abuse by corrupt prison staff
• Psychological challenges such as depression and thoughts of suicide
• Elevated levels of stress and anxiety
• Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder
• Airborne diseases such as tuberculosis, Covid-19
• Sexually Transmitted Diseases from being raped or consensual prison sex

The overall goal of the Unconditional Freedom Project and Guards to Guardians Program is to provide a better and safer environment for every single person working or living behind the prison walls. A prison system without empathy is just a system that dumps all the problems behind prison walls and forgets about them. The Unconditional Freedom Project and its inner programs will fight for everyone behind the walls and work hard to change the negative atmosphere of prison and turn it into a positive working, educational, and life-changing environment. We cannot continue to just incarcerate our problems away. We must educate and inform the public that there are better ways to manage jails and prisons.

I have interviewed jail and prison managers who have adapted to using some or all of the Unconditional Freedom Project’s programs, and they have happily reported how much the programs have increased the officers’ and inmates’ attitudes for the positive towards life, work, and being incarcerated. Having everyone’s best interest in mind creates a safer and less violent prison environment.

In the end, we want to see success for everyone and lives changed for the better, which will eventually reflect on the outside within our communities.

Families of the officers and the inmates also benefit greatly from this program. Officers who have peace of mind and are comfortable with themselves spread the positive glow to their family members. This makes for a happy and healthy home life and spreads positive vibes to the children at home. Breaking the intergenerational cycle of incarceration can be highly beneficial to the children of the incarcerated. This program helps accomplish this break in the cycle. We want to see the incarcerated population go home upon release and be positive figures in their families’ lives. While the majority of prison programs cost the state taxpayers money or are funded through federal grants, the Guards to Guardian Program is free of charge and is gaining popularity through proven methods and a large number of prison managers and officers seeing the light.