Rehumanization: Correctional Officer Story by Michelle Threatt

Michelle Threatt has been dedicated to law enforcement in Polk County, Florida for over 15 years. She has received numerous accolades for saving an inmates life, and in 2010 Michelle was honored with Detention Deputy of the Year, The Purple Heart and The Medal of Valor. Following retirement, Michelle started feeding the kids in her community. “The Village” has given out more than 4,000 meals since, feeding over 2,450 students. The community honored her with the Action Partnership Community Service Award for outstanding support and commitment from the Agricultural and Labor Program and the Polk County Community. Michelle authored “Life moments to Inspire, Laugh, and Pray” where she shares about her life.

“That's when I realized something was really wrong with me. I had tried to hide it from my family because I didn't want them to think I was crazy.”

I started in corrections and law enforcement in October of 2002 at Hardee Correctional Institution where I worked until 2006. I then moved on to the Polk County Sheriff’s office until my retirement in 2017. I came into the field because there was a prison being built near me and they were looking for officers. My mom didn’t want me to go into law enforcement. She said once you get behind those gates, you’re locked up, too. Those words would ring true later. She passed away in June of 2000 and I started thinking about it more seriously.

I had been working with juveniles at a detention facility and one of the supervisors was watching how I built my relationship and rapport with the delinquent juveniles that were always in trouble, and how I could reach out and talk with them. He told me I would be a good fit in the prison system and suggested I go down to Hardee Correction and apply, which I did the following week. They called me a few days later to tell me I had the position.

Hardee Correctional was a closed prison. We had a lot of lifers, all males. The first day I walked into those gates and they shut behind me, I looked around at all of the inmates in their uniforms and the fear just hit me. I was thinking, oh my God, what have I done? The first inmate to ever speak to me walked up and said, “Officer, what’s your name?” I told him and he said, “Tomorrow when you come in here, you show no fear. Because it’s all over you.”

I thought about that my entire shift while I was in training. When I got home, I kept thinking about the fear that I showed walking onto that compound, seeing all these men and knowing that some are killers, rapists, sexual predators… I opened my Bible and read the scripture, “I am wise as a serpent, but calm as a dove.” I memorized that scripture and told myself then and there that I was wise and would remain calm. The next day I made up my mind that I could do this. I held my head up. I kept saying that scripture in my mind and the fear left me. I never had that issue again.

It never really got comfortable there because you always had to be mindful and aware of where you were. You were with men that have killed. Some of them take it as a form of disrespect to ask what they are in there for, but others are willing to tell you. I never wanted to know because if you knew, you might not want to talk to them. That’s where judgment comes in and I wanted to be fair regardless of the crimes they committed and have been punished for. Some would never see freedom again. Some inmates would talk to me and I would get this eerie feeling. I would always look them up to see what they did and in every single instance the inmate was a rapist. You pray you go home safe to your family but you never know what situations might occur.

I had one inmate transferred from the prison because his actions had become possessive. They aren’t around any women, so they’ll get used to you and in their mindset, because you talked to them, you now belong to them when all you are doing is your job. I didn’t feel safe with things this inmate would say. As women, we would deal with them gunning us. Gunning is when they bring out their private parts and they’re masturbating out in the open. It didn’t matter if other men were around. Sometimes they’d do it while we were counting and they’re standing at the door with their private parts out masturbating at you. The very first time that it happened to me, I was on the court and there were five of them standing there. This one guy was just doing his business and I told him he was going to jail, which inside means confinement for 30 days. They put the cuffs on him and locked him up. I would ask, “Do you realize what you are doing? You are mentally raping me.” We’re supposed to be calm and respectful, but I thought it was absolutely disgusting and I let them know it. Some will come back and apologize to you. Some will apologize and do it again.

I didn’t have any physical altercations at Hardee, but later at the Sheriff’s office I did. I now call it the “best worst day of my life.” When it happened in 2010, I thought it was the saddest, craziest thing ever. I was on a hospital watch with an inmate shackled to the bed and he wanted to get up. I handcuffed his hands, shackled his feet together with the shackles, and let go of the handcuffs from the bed. I can’t recall if I backed up, or if I turned, or what I did, but the next thing I remember was seeing blood on the wall.

He had been in the hospital maybe three or four days and had gotten the gooseneck faucet out of the bathroom. He was hitting me on the side of my head with it. I recall looking at his feet wondering if I was getting sick because all I saw was blood everywhere. He said that his plan was to bash my brains and get my gun to kill me and whoever got in his way.

I’m a true believer in God. I knew God had me as we fought. He was on the third floor and we made it to the hallway and he was naked and sweating. The nurses tried to get me to stay and these two guys who were visiting jumped on top of him. He was acting like he was possessed. He got loose from them and was running down the hallway. I took off behind him and the nurse told me to stay back because help was coming. But the only thing I was thinking was, “That’s my job running, That’s my career right there.”

When I got to the stairs, I made a choice not to shoot and just took him on. By the time I got outside I could hear the helicopter and the sirens. The sergeants pulled up in their car and asked which way the inmate went. I pointed them in the right direction and then I passed out right there on the street. When I awakened a nurse was assuring me I wasn’t going to die. I had staples in my head and a concussion. To this day my hair never really grew back in that area. I thought that was the worst thing that could have happened because I couldn’t understand why someone would want to kill me for no reason.

After that incident, I went through a lot mentally and emotionally that I tried to hide because I didn’t want people to know what I was going through. That I saw his face every day for years. After my attack doctors diagnosed me with PTSD. I was put on Xanax. I didn’t sleep for four days. I kept thinking he was going to attack me. I came home one day and my bathroom door was locked. I thought someone was in there. I ran out and called 911 screaming and they knew it was me. They were thinking maybe it was the inmate’s family trying to get back at me. They sent out the cavalry. They had shotguns and dogs and the street was blocked. There were officers everywhere. They got in the bathroom and saw it was just the lock on the door. I had an anxiety attack. I was embarrassed. That’s when I realized something was really wrong with me. I had tried to hide it from my family because I didn’t want them to think I was crazy. I didn’t want to tell them I’d be driving down the road and see his face, or that I’d look over in my passenger seat and see him.

I was angry with my job. I was angry with my supervisors. I was just angry. I was angry with that inmate for wanting to take me from my family. I was just getting ready to get married. Some would hate him, but I didn’t because it ended up all for a reason. I worked through it with the workman’s comp site doctor, my own personal doctor, and a Sheriff’s office mental health doctor. I would talk about it with my doctors and in my culture our grandmothers would tell us to talk to the Lord, but that the Lord also gives us people to help. Prayer is wonderful, but there are people here on Earth to help us through it. Those doctors helped me and prayer just works.

I heard God say to stop taking Xanax. I didn’t take it anymore. My body was craving it. I wasn’t even having an anxiety attack and wanted to take it to feel calm. I realized this is how people get addicted because I was having the feeling like I needed to take the pill, but I stood strong. I refused to be addicted and just needed to learn when the anxiety attacks would come on and practice my breathing.

I wouldn’t have wished that incident on anyone. At that time I wore a hair weave and still ended up with staples. If that had been one of my coworkers that didn’t wear a weave, he would have hit them straight on their head, gotten their gun, and killed them while they were passed out. Years later I wondered why it was me. People always ask why they have cancer or why this or that. My question now is, why not me? I’m glad that it was me because that seed he planted pushed me into my purpose. I still call it “the best worst day of my life” because everything changed for the better. People ask me how I was able to forgive him so easily. It’s because of the good that came out of it.

I ended up receiving a purple heart from the Sheriff’s office, the medal of valor. Earlier that year I had saved an inmate from choking and was up for detention deputy of the year. I’ve always done my best and taken pride in every job. After I left detention, I went into the communications department with that same commitment. I’d be on the phone with people who found their loved ones deceased from suicide and stay on the call with them. I’ve cried with my coworkers when we got a bad call, it’s hard to not take that call home with you and think about it. One of my coworkers on another shift did commit suicide. I was only aware of three officers that did commit suicide in my 15 years in law enforcement. I myself never thought about it.

At the communications department, I received one call about a young man who killed himself. His friend found him, then his mom showed up on the scene. You have to stay on the phone until a deputy gets there. There is a professional protocol you must follow. I’m on the phone, listening to the screaming, the crying, to the mother that just found her child. I would listen with tears rolling down my face. Then when I hung up, I would go outside and cry or scream because it’s hard not to be compassionate. It’s hard not to be human. But it takes a toll on you mentally and with how you relate to your family.

At that time, I was married and because you are so professional and in-charge on the job, you would take that same tone with your family. I would find myself speaking to my now ex-husband and my sons and they would have to remind me they were not my inmates. I had to work on it because you don’t even realize you are doing it until it’s brought to your attention. But my marriage was over by then. We already had some issues and that didn’t help. We got divorced in 2016 and after leaving law enforcement, I really got control over it because friends told me about my actions and my tone. It broke me down because it hurt me to know that at times I did it with them, too.

When I left the communications department to retire in 2017, I didn’t have a full plan. I had always enjoyed cooking, but had no money to start anything big. I started cooking on weekends and got my first food truck in 2019. Then COVID hit and I was sitting in my prayer room and heard God say as clear as day, “I need you to feed these kids.” I had $13. I said, “I don’t know how I’m gonna feed them for $13.” He said, “Just do it.” I thought of a meal of fried hot dogs, chips, some drinks, and some sweets. The next day, a friend of mine called and said he had something for me. It was hot dogs. I thought, oh my God, you’ve got to be kidding me! Someone else called me that owed me money. I was able to buy everything for that first Wednesday and we fed 74 kids.

We had to shut down during the lockdowns, but I made an announcement on my social media page that I was going to do it again. By the following Tuesday, because we do it every Wednesday, people had donated $600. Each week people were donating from all over. Someone called the newspaper and they did a story. We ended up being able to do it from March until August. We fed almost 3,000 kids. We had teachers and different volunteers every Wednesday. Some prayed with the kids. Some helped them with their homework.

Now people are volunteering their time, including different organizations. I named the feeding of the kids “The Village” because so many people came together to help. It has just been the most humbling experience that I’ve ever had. I tell people all the time my food truck is my career and inspiring others and helping my community is my purpose. So many people, when they go through something traumatic, choose to wallow in that. I did not choose to. PTSD is real and it’s something awful but you have to be strong and know who you are. I refused to let that incident kill me. I always tell people, I’m not going to let that inmate hold me back because if he had not attacked me, I would still be in that uniform. I wouldn’t be feeding kids. I wouldn’t have a food truck.

I’ve grown so much over the last four years. I know that everything – the bad, the good, and the ugly, all works together for my good no matter how bad it might seem. I found purpose in sharing my story and inspiring others. I found purpose feeding these kids. I have my book about my life moments to inspire, laugh, and pray. Without the “best worst day of my life,” I would never have thought it possible I could become an author. I am going to eventually write about my experience with the inmate. I’m just waiting for God to move me on it. I don’t know how long I’ll be doing this food truck because I think I have bigger plans in store. God always provides every time. We just have to listen. Two weeks ago, I woke up at 5:00 AM and I heard him say, “There are three things that move me; faith, obedience, and sacrifice. So, you’re going to have to remember that – faith, obedience and sacrifice, no matter what it looks like.” I’m just so excited about all the doors that God is opening for me.

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