I started my career as a Correctional Officer in North Carolina in 2005 at two facilities. One was the old Greensboro jail, we call it the linear style facility with the jail catwalk and bar sliding doors, an old school jail, if you will. I was also working at a Direct Supervision jail in High Point, North Carolina, going back and forth with our tactical team. In August of 2012, I was promoted and transferred to a new hi-tech, state-of-the-art facility in Greensboro. I had the rank of Master Corporal and team leader of 53 members. Around 14 years into my career, I took a role as an Administrative Lieutenant over Safety and Security of Operations at Randolph County Jail in Asheboro, NC and was there for 11 months, then in October of 2020 I joined Guardian RFID, where I currently work.
My family has always been in law enforcement. My father retired in Corrections as the Major over the Court Services Bureau after 32 years. My brother is a Police Officer, and two cousins are cops. My uncle who is the Deputy Chief of Guilford County Sheriff’s office and an uncle who is a Captain with Asheboro Police Department in Asheboro, NC. I think I was meant to be in this field. It was fun growing up with my father being a Correctional Officer. I remember during the summer I’d go hang out at the jail. My dad was a shift Lieutenant. I would sometimes stay the night, sleep on a cot in the back of the office, and just hang out and watch the inmates play basketball. As a kid, it was fun to be around that and as I got older and became a Corrections Officer, some of those inmates remembered me.
I never went around the higher risk inmates, and there were always my dad or other officers there with me. You don’t think about security as a kid, you just think it’s cool. I’m sure my mom thought about safety concerns around my Dad’s job, but my dad was very involved with my siblings and me, always at our baseball games or sporting events, so it didn’t cross my mind. I learned a lot as a kid and it prepared me for my career.
When I started in corrections, I knew what to expect from day one, that I’d be going in there and working with all levels of inmates. My very first interaction as a Corrections Officer on November 1, 2006 was intense. During my first headcount, I checked on a cell and there was a juvenile inmate who had hung himself. That was shocking. I wasn’t expecting that, even though I knew that over the course of my career, I would be seeing things like that eventually. You don’t want to see those things, but they are an unfortunate part of the job.
That really messed with me, not to the point where I couldn’t go back in there, but every time I would pass that cell, I could see that individual hanging. It was something that stuck with me. Then, over the years, you have incidents, assaults and natural deaths, maybe attempted suicides and successful suicides, and that stuff all sticks with you. Believe it or not, even babies being born! My last day at Guilford County a baby was born in the toilet inside a cell! The Officer picked it up and wrapped it up in a blanket. A lot of stress accumulates over the years, and you see signs like weight loss, a short temper, etc. You have to learn to reel it in and focus and not bring it home with you. A lot of officers have that problem, they cannot separate work from home and it will eventually get to you. I was lucky that I had someone at home to talk to, and it helped me so much. My wife is a dedicated ER nurse and has been for 17 years, so she has seen it all, heard it all. We would talk a lot about things that we saw over the years and it was like medicine to me, being able to talk about these things outside of work. Not everybody has that kind of support, though.
I was always big on peer support for the Corrections Officers. It is so important to be able to get people help when they encounter situations, whether it is suicide or assaults or whatever. There needs to be a debriefing period. Agencies are starting to step their game up and create peer support teams to give these Officer’s time off to gather their thoughts and get mental health assistance. The last thing you want is someone so stressed, they flip out and take it out on an inmate or an officer. A lot of people feel they can’t swallow their pride or ego and reach out for help. The more we advertise that there’s help available, the more they will be inclined to reach out.
Over the years, I have been shocked when incidents happen that you never see coming. You wonder what you could have said or done differently. They may seem fine when you talk to them, but some people are great at keeping it all inside, and as officers starting out, we may not see those signs. Therefore, ongoing training and yearly recertification are so important. Mental health can be an in-service training every year. People in every department go through their daily lives and their jobs, and maybe they’re barely hanging in there and it only takes one incident for them to fall apart.
There was an officer we saw every day, coming in on time, showing no signs of problems, no slacking off on productivity. One day he didn’t come in and they did a welfare check. He was at his house, with the shotgun on the floor. He took his life. That was shocking because this guy was always there for you to back up, the first one to show up. There is that fine line we don’t see, where a man or woman can only carry so much, and that is why suicide rates are so high in Corrections.
I put the blame on the agencies and the counties because they’re responsible for getting people help. They need to be more proactive instead of reactive. Luckily, this agency offered peer and chaplain support for officers who were going through tough times. After that officer’s suicide, they were assuring everyone that if you needed to stay home from work, it was fine, and they could send somebody to talk with you.
If an officer is in a shoot-out and takes a person’s life, a lot of agencies take your gun and interview you, then send you home. That is going to affect me beyond me taking somebody’s life or shooting them. You’re investigating me, but how about helping me? I understand the process, with Professional Standards and the Investigators, but part of that process should be talking to me about how I am feeling, instead of sending me home for a few days where I’m probably depressed, and my anxiety is sky high. People in those mental states make bad decisions and are afraid to reach out because they do not want to be thought of as crazy.
About fourteen years into my career, I noticed some changes in myself. I noticed those same changes in my wife, too. We both had such high stress careers; she was in the ER from 7 am to 7 pm. We would come home from those environments and it was toxic. We were fighting a lot and we began to become roommates instead of a married couple. I said I would do my part to fix myself. She agreed to do her part to fix herself. We both started reaching out to ask what we could do before things got too bad that we could not fix it. We started working on ourselves and getting help on our own. Now our marriage is better than ever, because we both realized it was no longer one of those things where you see it getting bad, but you think it will all be fine, and you can procrastinate and get help later. You focus on yourself and what you can fix. I do it for my kids’ sake, my marriage, my wife, my family. Sure, I could still take care of my staff and my inmates, but I needed to put myself first sometimes. We always talk about mental health for inmates, which is good because our job is to take care of the inmates, but we must take care of ourselves as well.
I am glad to see a lot of agencies starting to implement this. Many blame the lack of action on their budgets, which I understand. I have noticed smaller agencies with smaller shifts or platoons that do maybe eight to 12 officers per shift are more there for each other and have more of a bond. They may hang out after work and have others to talk to. At a larger agency I worked for with 50 plus people per shift, you would go weeks without seeing the same people until you have a shift meeting, and everyone is in the same room. That bond was not as strong.
There could be a psychiatrist on site just for the staff. There may be a lot of complaining, but nothing being done to find out why officers are not happy. Some will ask if there is something they can do. Yes, but if you really want to work in Corrections, you cannot be in the middle or just getting by. You need to have the passion for succeeding at this. If you don’t, you will fall through the cracks. That’s why training is so important.
I was a Field Training Officer for 13 years and the first thing I would tell a new officer when they came in was that you had to look the part. If you go into a unit or a pod and there are fifty, maybe a hundred inmates, the first thing they are going to judge you by is your appearance. Your uniform needs to be pressed. Your boots should be shined, your shirt clean, you need to make your gear look good. You can go in there and talk like “Robocop” all you want, but if you do not look the part, the inmates will treat you like crap. When you look sharp, the inmates respect you and it boosts the Officer’s confidence.
I also encourage working out at the gym or going for a run. You don’t have to be a bodybuilder, but strive to stay in good physical shape. It releases endorphins and makes you feel good. Take care of your body and your mind because if you don’t, you won’t last from the stress your body will accumulate over the months and years in Corrections. When I became a supervisor, I would have my field Training Officer meetings and encourage them to do the same thing.
My former agency is now sharing the videos from GuardianRFID’s YouTube page during shift briefings and meetings to improve their communications with inmates or go over safety issues. You wear more hats than just a Corrections Officer. You may be their only link to the outside world, and if you cannot communicate, then eventually something bad is going to happen or you won’t make it through your career. You must let the inmates know you are not there to be their enemy. You do not know what these guys are going through. Honestly, I could not imagine being locked up after working in a jail. I treat them with respect and most of the time, I get respect back.
It’s nice to know when I was a supervisor that my officers were helping the inmates. I encourage my staff to talk to these folks, see what’s going on with them. I’ve done a video about that on GuardianRFID’s YouTube channel. I talk about the high suicide rate around the holidays with inmates who have not seen their family or friends. Also, I would talk to my officers the same way to see how they’re doing. I’ve always wanted the best for the well-being of the inmates and staff. That is just who I am. I train my folks to be the same way. I feel I have made a strong impact on a lot of them, and I believe they are still carrying out those duties I’ve introduced to them and taught them. I hope it continues to have a ripple effect for years to come.