Rehumanization: Correctional Officer Story by Chamelle Johnson

Bio
Chamelle Johnson began her career in corrections at the age of 21. During her career, she has worked in a variety of diverse and challenging positions in the High Point Detention Facility, the Greensboro Detention Facility, and is currently an Administrative Captain with the Jail Central Facility. She’s been in Law enforcement for approximately 23 years. She began her career working in Security then transitioned to Detention shortly after. Law Enforcement has always been her desire and her goal is to leave a legacy of integrity, professionalism and leadership after retiring from this career. Throughout her career, she’s always had the desire to advance with the department and make a difference in the overall Detention and Court Services Bureau. During her tenure, she’s had the opportunity to work directly with the inmate population as well as advancing to supervise staff working with inmates. Moving up to the Command Level with the Detention Bureau has been a great experience, and she has learned a great deal as far as the administrative piece to the organization. Chamelle is married to a man she knew since childhood and has two grown children and despite the setbacks caused by her seizures, considers herself an optimistic and positive person who has found purpose in her career. She is currently studying for her bachelor’s degree and plans to continue working until she retires after 30 years of service.

“I had been in this career for 16 years. This was all I knew. Now I was being told I couldn’t go back to work?...That was a really hard time for me as I was struggling with my medical condition and now wondering if I would ever go back to work.”

Growing up, I didn’t have the best of things. I was raised in a single parent home and money was tight. I had my mom, two older sisters, and one younger brother. In school I always tried to be a part of the popular crowd. Throughout high school, I didn’t really take advantage of educational opportunities that would have allowed for scholarships, therefore college was not an option for me when graduating high school.

When I graduated high school, I couldn’t afford to go to college. I was a single parent raising my kids. I made a promise to myself that I would work hard so that my children could have the things and opportunities that I didn’t have growing up. I wanted them to have all the things in life I didn’t have growing up.

I began my corrections career doing security at the courthouse. I was hired at the High Point Detention Facility, which is a direct supervision facility in 2000. I was only 21 and really didn’t know what I was signing up for at that time. I started working in the facility with male inmates. I was a young female coming in and was disrespected in ways that I just couldn’t deal with. One day, after being there for about a year, I arrived in the housing unit early to relieve the previous officer. I began to conduct a round and complete a head count. I looked up and there were three or four men standing by the doors masturbating. I called my Sergeant crying and told him what was going on and that I couldn’t do this anymore.

I was so upset, I was ready to walk off a of the job and leave the inmates by themselves. An officer came and relieved me, and I left. I went home to think about it and asked myself if this was something that I could deal with any longer. After thinking about it, I realized that I needed the job for my family, so I had to toughen up and get to a point where I could just go in and detach from my emotions enough to do the job. Doing that made me kind of mean and hardened my heart. I started treating the inmates poorly. I took my anger out on the male inmates, because of the few that had disrespected me. I wanted to transfer to the Greensboro facility because it was an indirect facility. There the housing units had an office that the officers sat in until it was time to complete a round. The officer would go out and go around what was called a “cat walk” to complete the surveillance round. The inmates could barely see you, so I thought it would be perfect for me to have that distance between myself and them.

I have to say, I did not like my job for the first 10 years, but I needed it for the great benefits and decent pay. The first two and a half years in High Point, my job was hard and intense. I later realized that I made my job hard. It wasn’t the inmates, it was more-so me. Once I felt that they were disrespecting me, instead of using the disciplinary system to deal with them, I allowed it to make me so angry that I treated them harshly. This was very stressful. It was to a point that if they asked me for items that I was supposed to give them according to policy, I would tell them to wait for the next officer. I wouldn’t get it for them even when it was a part of my job to do so. This behavior backfired because it made my job harder. I didn’t respect them, and they didn’t respect me. I didn’t see that at the time.

I realized it after I was transferred to Greensboro, where I was trained by a woman, and when I saw how she dealt with inmates, how she respected them, how she talked to them like they were human beings, how she got so much respect in return. I had this big “a-ha” moment and realized I didn’t have to be mean. I didn’t have to go cold. They are inmates, but at the end of the day, they are also human beings. One could be my brother or my sister. It could even be me in there. When I started changing the way I acted towards them and my perception of them, my job got easier, and it shifted my whole perspective.

I’ve never had a one-on-one fight with an inmate, but I’ve had several incidents with other officers. One incident was when a female came in high on drugs. She was fighting with all of us and ended up scratching my face pretty bad. I remember getting so angry. Survival kicks in and you’re not really thinking of policy. You think about protecting yourself and your fellow colleagues. Corrections can be hard on your well-being because you worry every shift about going home to your family. You try to shield your family from that, but they worry about if you are safe and whether or not you will come home that day. This job is hard not just for the Officers, but our families as well. This often makes Officers feel even more stress because we know what our families go through.

In 2016, I was promoted to shift Lieutenant and transferred back to the High Point facility. It was there when I had my first seizure. I had never had seizures before in my life. No family history of seizures. I was sitting at the booking desk processing a release and it was almost time for me to get off my shift. I wasn’t feeling well, but figured I could tough it out. While I was asking the inmate questions, my brain started spinning. It felt like I just wasn’t there. My Corporal and booking officer were calling my name, but I didn’t hear anything. They said I had a blank stare, and the inmate was standing there looking at me because I had been asking her questions one minute and then went into this blank stare the next.

When I came out of it, I didn’t know what happened. I stood up and almost fell. I called my husband and he took me to urgent care. They ran a CT Scan, and everything came back okay. I was about to be discharged, but then I had a grand mal seizure while in urgent care. During a grand mal seizure, you go into convulsions. It lasted a little over a minute, but it was absolutely terrifying. I bit my tongue very badly. When you’re having a seizure, it’s like you’re not in the world. You feel outside your body and you don’t know what’s going on. It’s an awful and frightening experience. They did an EEG to monitor my brain. In my mind, I thought, okay, I just had a seizure, but I was ready to go back to work. They told me I couldn’t go back to work nor drive for six months.

I had been in this career for 16 years. This was all I knew. Now I was being told I couldn’t go back to work? I was so upset and didn’t know what was going to happen or what my future held. That was a really hard time for me as I was struggling with my medical condition and now wondering if I would ever go back to work. Six months later in December of 2018, my neurologist asked when I wanted to go back to work. I told her my next scheduled working day was Christmas Eve. She was surprised I wanted to go back on Christmas Eve, but I was just so ready to get back it didn’t matter. I was a shift Lieutenant and I loved my role. I missed my people and they missed me.

When I went back, I worked another 5 months as a shift Lieutenant and was then promoted to an Administrative Lieutenant. My role was a more typical 8-5 shift, Monday through Friday, doing administrative work. I really had to transition mentally, because my mindset was still on the intensity of dealing with inmates and staff on the shift. I loved it, but in October of 2019, I had another bad seizure and was in ICU for a few days. I spent that month in the hospital going through rehab and therapy. I had to basically re-learn how to read and write from scratch. This time my neurologist didn’t want me to go back to work at all. The second seizure was a lot worse than the first. They did all the tests, but couldn’t pinpoint the exact cause and that made it even more frustrating, not knowing why it was happening to me or if I could do anything about it.

They figured stress had a lot to do with the seizures. I had some thoughts that it had something to do with an acne medication that I was on. When my husband and I did research, there were quite a few people that suffered seizures as a side effect of this medication, but everything strongly pointed to the stresses of my life at that time. I was working full time and taking five classes to get my associate degree in criminal justice. I didn’t realize all the stress I was under to maintain straight A’s taking college courses, working full time hours, the physical stress of day and night shift changes, lack of sleep from night shifts, and then home life with a husband and kids. I went through a period where, because of the seizures, I would look at people that I had worked with for 15, 16 years and could not remember their names. I knew their faces, but I had to look at name tags to know who they were. I felt as if part of my brain had been permanently shut down and it scared me.

My neurologist did not want me to go back to work in that high stress environment. She was worried it would happen again. After a while of pleading my case and showing her my passion to finish what I started with my career, she let me go back to work in May of 2020. I was transferred back to Greensboro Jail Central as the PREA coordinator. PREA stands for the Prison Rape Elimination Act. My job was to create policy and monitor situations of sexual abuse toward inmates. At this point of my career, it was a lot less stressful. I was not in charge of supervising subordinates, which helped alleviate some of the job stress.

In August of 2020, I was moved to internal affairs. It was talked about for quite some time about having someone from detention work in internal affairs because we know the detention side. I was only in that position for about 6 months, but I loved being in that role. I really liked the investigative part of the job. You would get a complaint from a citizen and then go off to investigate, kind of like Inspector Gadget. I was able to get out in the field. I reported directly to the Sheriff. He was all about diversity and wanted his people to be cross trained in different areas. I was in internal affairs as a first Lieutenant then promoted to Captain January 3rd, 2021. I was transferred and promoted several times and was able to experience diversity and different opportunities in the different positions.

I have goals that I want to reach while in this career. I think that’s important being in this field this long. It helps you get through the tougher times because of the purpose in the end. I have recently been accepted to the Agricultural and Technical State University of North Carolina (A&T) to get a bachelor’s degree in Criminal Justice. My goal is to retire after 30 years with the Guilford County Sheriff’s Office. I have nine more years. I started this in 2000 and I didn’t like it at first, but I’ve grown to love what I do. I feel good about my career and the service I am providing to others. I am committed to finishing it out no matter what.

I believe that my future and my destiny will unfold according to how I believe it will be. I try to be positive in everything I do. I try to always see the glass half full. I know I’m not perfect and everything will not go perfectly in my life. But I’ve learned that any situation can be a good thing, or it can be a bad thing, depending on how I choose to look at it. When I wake up every day, I thank God for allowing me to see another day. I pray for my family, for myself and the people that I work with. I told my husband when I went back to work that I would never have another seizure a day in my life. That’s what I believe. I plan to keep going and continue to let my light shine brightly in the world in whatever way I can, because I am a positive person who loves to encourage others.