Rehumanization: Correctional Officer Story by Luis Soto

Luis received an Associate in Arts degree in Criminal Justice from Union County College in 2002 and a Master’s in Public Administration from Fairleigh Dickinson University in 2015. In 2016, even before he retired, he had started teaching classes in the criminal justice department at Rutgers University. In addition, he is a regional safety manager with GEO Reentry Services, which operates halfway houses and private prisons throughout the United States.

“Each day you go to work, you’re taking your life into your own hands, not knowing for sure that you’ll be going home again. Your most powerful weapon is the ability to tell the difference between what’s normal and what is putting you in danger.”

I started working as a Correctional Officer in 1991 when I was twenty years old. I was struggling to pay for college during my first year at Montclair State University, and I saw a posting for the officers’ entrance exam being given at the Northern State Prison in Newark, New Jersey. I took the exam, and that’s where I’ve spent almost my entire career. After working as an Officer for about eight years, I was promoted to Sergeant. And a couple of years after that I moved to the Correctional Officer Training Academy. Two years later, I went back to Northern State as a Lieutenant for another four years, after which another position opened up at the Academy. So back I went for another two and a half years, this time as a lieutenant and co-director. When yet another promotion came up, I moved to a medium security state prison with about 3000 male inmates. And finally, I finished my career back at Northern State Prison.

Corrections is one of the toughest jobs there is, and it wasn’t until after my first year that they sent me to a training academy, at which point I wondered what they could teach me that I haven’t already been doing. That part has changed, because the Police Training Act now requires that everybody in law enforcement must attend an academy before starting the job. But, as for the job itself, you’re actually going to prison every day and you’re not allowed to leave until the end of your shift. And if your relief doesn’t show up, you’re stuck there for another 8 hours. . Your mental state suffers from that kind of stress.

Each day you go to work, you’re taking your life into your own hands, not knowing for sure that you’ll be going home again. Your most powerful weapon is the ability to tell the difference between what’s normal and what is putting you in danger. Starting from the beginning of orientation, your instructors are telling you that you have to be vigilant and on the alert. So, right out of the gate, you’re hyper-aware of working in a dangerous environment.

Seasoned correctional officers tend to be a little more lenient because they understand how prison works, whereas new recruits are always trying to enforce the rules the way they’ve been taught, and sometimes they just make the wrong choice about how to handle a particular individual or situation.

The department is always trying to hire the cleanest people with the cleanest records. So when you put that person in the middle of the worst place you can be, they’re going to have a hard time for a while, until they learn the language and how to treat the inmates as human beings without putting their own life at risk. Just because you’re wearing a uniform doesn’t mean the inmates are going to respect you. In fact, they’re not going to respect you until you show respect for them.

At the Academy, they talk about how inmates manipulate and try to take advantage of you, but they don’t really tell you how to respond to them. They teach you a little about psychology, but it’s really a crash course. So you’re already tense when you go in. If you’re going to a new job in a school or an office you may have some jitters, but you’re not going into a facility where you’re surrounded by criminals. When I was working corrections, I didn’t really want to know what crime an inmate had committed, because, by not knowing, I was able at least to treat them all equally, whereas if I knew, I might be prejudiced by my personal biases.

One thing I did know was that I could never relax until my relief arrived. At that point, I could definitely release some of the tension I’d built up during the day, but I still couldn’t go home and talk to my family and friends about what I’d done at work, because most of what goes on in a prison isn’t exactly dinner table conversation. So, the only way to release those feelings is to people who do the same kind of work, which means that officers who tend to hang out with other people in law enforcement even when they’re off work. But that does not necessarily work so well for their family life.

Just as an example, whenever we go out to dinner, everyone in my family knows that I need to sit in a particular seat, usually the one that provides the best view of the door. I’m always super-aware of my surroundings. And also, because of all the training I received about watching out for inmates’ trying to manipulate me, when I meet someone new, instead of seeing their best qualities, I’m always picking up on how they might be trying to manipulate or harm me.

Although I haven’t been diagnosed with PTSD, I can see that after being hyper-aware of your surroundings over the course of your career, you wouldn’t want people getting too close to you I’m fine as long as there’s no one too close to me. But when I’m stuck in a crowd, I immediately start to think, this isn’t safe, even though, logically, I know that I’m not in prison and it’s really perfectly safe.After so many years, it’s just an instinctive reaction.

I’m now teaching two classes in the criminal justice department at Rutgers University, and one of the things I always tell my students is that the qualities that make you a good correction officer–being observant, being vigilant, questioning everything–are not the qualities that make you a good family man or woman. And being in law enforcement can–and often does–also affect your friendships. I remember an instructor telling me that I might lose some of my closest friends, and my thinking uh-uh, that’s not happening. But it did. For one thing, I started staying away from people who were doing things that weren’t necessarily on the up-and-up. And sometimes they started steering clear of me as well.
Before entering law enforcement, I’d been an outgoing kid who liked having a good time. But once I became a correctional officer, I wanted to create a good impression. And because I wanted to spend time with like-minded people, I wound up making friends with coworkers. So my time off became an extension of the workplace.. And because anything we discussed when we were off duty was likely to be talked about back at work, I went from being an outgoing teenager to becoming an introvert. The problem with that scenario was that I couldn’t really let go and express what I was feeling or thinking with either my friends or my family.

There are programs that work like hotlines manned by someone like a retired officer with whom you can talk without having to worry that it will get back to someone at work and cause you problems. One of the fears among law enforcement officers is that seeing a healthcare worker could have a negative impact on their career, because if the person you’re talking to has an obligation to report the situation to your department, you might be taken off the job, put on suspension, or not be allowed to carry a firearm. Not all correctional officers have the right to carry a firearm, but in New Jersey they do. So, while taking away someone’s gun might help prevent him from committing suicide, it might also deny them the ability to put food on the table. And if they were unable to work, they’d also, paradoxically, lose his medical benefits.

Unfortunately, I’ve known three people who took their own lives with their own weapon. And I also have a very good friend who almost did the same thing. I was at work when I got a call from the municipal police saying they were at this guy’s house and he had locked himself in his garage with his weapon. His house was an hour away, so I jumped into my car and started driving while also speaking to him and to the cops on the phone. Thankfully, I was able to talk him down from the edge. It took talking to someone he knew, someone who could understand where he was coming from, to get him to stop doing what he was thinking of doing.

Thankfully, there are now more programs, generally known as critical incident stress management teams, you can reach out to if there’s a bad incident in a facility or you’re having a hard time, knowing that it’s not going to get back to the department. I contacted CISM a couple of times when I was getting divorced from my first wife, and it was very helpful to talk to someone who understood my problem without my having to go into a whole long explanation first–which was probably at least partially responsible for my getting divorced in the first place. Anyone who hasn’t been there, can’t really understand what it’s like to work in a correctional facility. So, in order to talk to my wife about something that happened, good or bad, I first had to go through a whole checklist of, well, this is what the unit looks like and this is what that person does. And, after a while, instead of going through all that, I’d just wind up saying everything was fine. So I can understand that my first wife probably felt “ this guy doesn’t open up, doesn’t talk to me. We just can’t relate because of his job,” I can see that being a factor.

In terms of getting help, I think there has to be a policy put in place at the top level of the department that provides a way for a correction officer to ask for help knowing that it’s not going to affect his employment status. But the problem is that the department also needs to protect itself. If someone has an anger issue, or if he’s on drugs or drinking, or has PTSD, or, God forbid, is suicidal, he/she can’t be allowed to walk around the prison carrying a gun. So the question is what to do with that person. And I think there have to be better resources with no repercussions for the individual seeking help.

But, on a more positive note, I don’t want to give the impression that I spent every day fighting or breaking up fights. In fact, here in New Jersey, an average of 25 to 30 people are retiring from the department of corrections every month, which means they’ve worked 25 years and are now collecting their pension. If I had to fight every day for 25 years, I doubt I would have made it. But most of the time you go into work, do your eight hours, and nothing happens.

Now that I’m retired, I’m enjoying my life, even though I still work in an environment that deals with prisoners. Within four months of retiring, I took a job at a halfway house in which I was working with the same individuals I’d been dealing with as inmates. The difference is that the residents aren’t there to cause harm. They’re trying to get home, and I’m the person getting them ready to re-enter society and become better citizens.

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