More than a Guard

by Hesham Hauter

As the Guards to Guardians program has grown, I’m proud to share that last week we hosted events for the Mendocino County Jail and the Central California Women’s Facility custodial staff. At each institution, guest speakers with thirty plus years of experience, Keith Hellwig and Gary York, offered insights on their experiences with being officers, the mental and emotional triumphs, and challenges. They also talked about how the Guards to Guardians program can help officers find inner peace, stability, joy, and creativity in the face of the tremendous responsibility officers bear today.

Gary and Keith got to speak to the Mendocino County Jail’s custodial staff about their experiences as correctional officers and why they believe the program can be a great benefit to improve an officer’s well-being, emphasizing the importance of how to deal with the stresses of the job, to talk to one another, and not to deal with issues alone. This approach is especially important with the deep purpose of an officer and the impact they can have on the facilities environment.

It has been an incredible journey up to this point. Earlier this year, I felt so fortunate to attend a conference in D.C. with correctional officers from all over the country as well as to witness a call to action for the betterment of their profession and the system.

It all brought me back to this one moment a year ago. During an interview with an officer, one of those moments came in, where time slows, the lights in the room get brighter, and the pixels in our vision sharpen. This clear thought and feeling of what it meant to be a guardian came through: a keeper, protector, and defender for peace and human redemption. The demonstration from the officer, and the many that came after him, left me in awe.

I used to think corrections officers were like how they were portrayed in the media. When we hear and watch about correctional officers using excessive force and being cruel, it’s easy to assume that all officers are bad and that they are just “guards.” This is far from the truth. In fact, there are many great corrections officers who put their lives on the line every day and make sacrifices for their communities — even if those sacrifices aren’t often recognized by society. Sometimes these sacrifices result in tragedy or pain; other times they lead to redemption.

The passion and purpose of the corrections officers I’ve met have always left me inspired and grateful for the work they do. I had it all wrong, like many of us do. Through the Guards to Guardians program, the work with the corrections officers has helped me see all of the things that have been perceived inaccurately. One of the main reasons for the Guards to Guardians title in fact is a part of the work we do. We offer not only the tools to officers for the improvement of their mental health, but also help clear the stigma of the guard to the nobler role this profession plays as the guardian.