This Is What It’s Like To Work As A Prison Guard

Shutterstock / momente
Shutterstock / momente

Producer’s note: Someone on Quora asked: What does it feel like to be a prison guard? Here is one of the best answers that’s been pulled from the thread.

The short answer is that working in corrections is consistently challenging. Sometimes it’s disgusting; sometimes it’s violent – on occasion, brutally so. It’s tragic, it’s hilarious, and it’s occasionally uplifting. It never ceases to surprise. To survive it, you need guts, integrity, a sick sense of humor, and above all a thick skin. And you need to remember that respect is everything: you show it to everyone, and you demand it in return.

But that doesn’t begin to do justice to the real answer. The real answer is going to take time. So if you’re really interested, strap in for a long one.

First, I should say that I haven’t actually been a prison guard. What I have been is a jail guard – technically, a Corrections Deputy. I worked for six years at a small, rural county jail. I know several corrections officers who have worked at larger jails and prisons; there are differences, some significant, between their jobs and mine, but the experience is similar enough that I feel qualified to answer.

However, if you want a better understanding of the experiences that corrections officers go through, try “Newjack: Guarding Sing Sing” by Ted Conover. Mr. Conover is a journalist who has a crazy habit of embedding himself with particular subcultures: he has traveled railways in the United States as a genuine hobo, and also spent time with “coyotes” smuggling illegal immigrants from Mexico into the US; he wrote excellent books about both experiences. He also attended the New York State Corrections Academy and was assigned to Sing Sing, where he worked for a year or more before authoring the book. It is a heartfelt, warts-and-all portrait of a challenging, largely ignored profession. Highly recommended.

Mr. Conover had the advantage of an entire book to share his single year of experience. I am drawing on six years spent in a county jail (actually closer to eight years of work, if you factor in all the overtime), and want to keep this succinct enough to avoid scaring anyone away. As long as this response will be, it’ll never begin to cover everything I could say.

It takes a few years of actually doing the work before you really understand the job. Cell searches, head counts, court procedures, paperwork, transports, trials, cell extractions, pat-frisk, strip searches, bookings, releases – they all blur together, and more than a few new hires have been let go because they can’t grasp it all. But the routine tasks aren’t the hard part. Anyone with a modicum of intelligence and a half-decent work ethic can learn the tasks themselves.

The intangibles are what make the job challenging, and they are also what define a good corrections officer. It’s more about personality, less about any specific skill. You can’t teach someone common sense, patience, or courage. There’s a certain amount of foundation that’s required; if it isn’t there, it just isn’t, and no amount of training can make up for the absence.

One thing that new recruits do have to learn immediately is respect. You have to give respect, whenever possible; you also have to demand respect in return. Depending on the trainee, they might have trouble with the first part, the second, or both. Those who don’t figure it out, wash out quickly.

It’s a tough balance. Recruits, especially younger ones, often start out too respectful.

Inmates constantly try to manipulate staff. They’ll spin stories from nothing, or take the truth and bend it just enough; they look for weaknesses, especially in new officers, and once they find one, they start the con. Sometimes it’s just a game – seeing what they can get you to do. Sometimes they want something – extra meds, extra blankets. Sometimes it’s more nefarious; conditioned felons make a habit of trying to “turn” corrections officers, hustling or blackmailing them into smuggling in contraband or providing sexual favors.

As a result, trainees are taught to follow the rules at all times. Adhering to facility policy is about the only way to avoid being manipulated, but sometimes even that isn’t enough.

About two months into my training period, one of my FTOs (Field Training Officers) noticed the inmates were running me around. I wasn’t doing anything I shouldn’t, but I was running myself ragged keeping up with relatively minor requests. A fresh roll of toilet paper here, a signature on paperwork there. He pulled me aside. “Take a deep breath, man. They’re on our time. You do your job, but you do it on your time, not theirs. If they get pushy about it, hey, fuck ’em. They’re inmates.”

It sounds harsh, but it’s something most newbies need to hear at some point.

A few years later, I became an FTO myself. I saw my students do the same thing – first they’d get sucked into the trap of filling every request. Inmates will say things like, “Oh, man, you’re the best officer here. You’re the only one who cares.” They try to exploit the anxiety of new officers, who are under the microscope from their FTOs, to gain special privileges or favors. With female trainees, the male inmates are especially aggressive, trying to leverage compliments into flirtation.

Once I would point this out to my students, most immediately recognized what was going on. They’d put a stop to it, but then swing too far in the other direction. I did the same thing, after my talk from my FTO.

The pendulum, which had started on the accommodating side of respect, swung the other way. An inmate waited too long to stand up and grab the supplies I was handing out, so I dropped them on the ground and walked away.

I got another talk. “Look,” my FTO said, “you’re partly right. Fuck him, he was disrespecting you. But you gotta be better than that. When they fuck with you, that’s a test too.”

I asked how I should have handled it, and he said I shouldn’t have thrown the supplies on the floor. “That’s a dis. That’s coming down to his level. You just say, ‘Hey, if you don’t want it…’ and then walk off. He’ll apologize.”

The next time an inmate treated me like a servant, I just shrugged it off, as I’d been shown. Sure enough, I got an apology and had no more problems with that particular inmate.

Some acts of disrespect, though, have to be addressed immediately. An inmate who tells you to “fuck off” has to be reprimanded immediately, and usually “locked down” (confined to their cell). You can’t let that sort of thing go, because if you let one inmate tell you to fuck off, it will soon be known that you can be tested. Inmates start to think of you as weak, and any perceived weakness was an invitation for disaster.

We worked two or three officers to a shift, in a facility that could comfortably house 40-50 inmates, but often climbed as high as 80. As many as sixteen inmates were housed together in a given block. We were outnumbered, in other words. Almost comically so. An officer who was unwilling to confront overt rebellion, to meet aggression with force and violence with overwhelming force, endangered not only himself but his fellow officers, and ultimately the facility as a whole.

As an FTO, I had one student in particular who simply couldn’t stand up for himself. He was fine when other officers were around, but quailed from any confrontation when alone. I talked to him several times, but he simply could not find it in himself to answer a challenge. He was let go not long after, as much for everyone’s safety as his own.

I learned, and later taught, that it was a paradox: You have to show respect, as much as possible, at all times; conversely, you cannot tolerate any disrespect, let alone any sign of aggression.

Even after several years in the jail, it could be a difficult balance to maintain. You have to be conscious about it. So I made it my habit to call inmates “Sir” or “Ma’am,” or refer to them as “Mr. Smith” or “Ms. Rogers.” I said “Please” and “Thank You” whenever possible. Even when things came to blows, I made it a point to try to never direct profanity at individual inmates. I might say “Put your fucking hands up” or “Turn the fuck around,” but I would never say “Fuck you” or “Put your fucking hands up, shitbag.” From the outside, it might sound like I’m splitting hairs, but inside the jail it is a huge distinction.

When you’re being called every name under the sun, when your family is threatened, when you’re spit on and pissed on and threatened with sodomy and torture and death, it’s hard not to stoop to that level. But when you don’t, when you maintain your composure, other inmates notice.

An officer who keeps her word, shows respect, and takes no shit from anyone gains the respect of the inmates she works with. One of my students had a particular gift for law enforcement; she embodied the virtues I’ve just described. She’d been in the jail less than a year before I heard inmates talking favorably about her amongst themselves. A new inmate would arrive, fresh out of prison and freshly back behind bars, and start to step up to her; another inmate would say, “Nah, man, she’s all right, but she ain’t no punk.”

That sort of reputation makes the job easier, and safer. It helped me out more than once. In particular, I once found myself squaring off to a man much, much bigger than me; he had informed me, in no uncertain terms, that he was going to fuck me up if I didn’t give him what he wanted (a free phone call to his baby mama). My backup was coming, but I wasn’t looking forward to the thirty or forty seconds it’d take them to get there, and I wasn’t convinced my Taser would have any effect on a guy this big and this pissed. Two other inmates intervened.

“Back off, dude, he’s cool. He ain’t fucking with you.”

The guy backed off, and locked down in his cell without me having to use force – or get my ass kicked until my partners arrived.

I know not all jails or prisons run that way. There are plenty of horror stories about individual officers or entire institutions, and there is a lot to be said for keeping a closer eye on corrections. I was fortunate, though; even inmates would tell me that our jail was one of the best. Good food, fair staff, and no tolerance for bullshit.

That mantra – be honest, be respectful, don’t take shit – doesn’t just protect you at work. It helps you go home with a clean conscience.

Corrections, like any job in law enforcement, requires that you be an asshole sometimes. Since I treated everyone as well as I possibly could under the circumstances, I always knew that when things went south, it wasn’t my fault, and the inmate had generally earned whatever came next.

That was reassuring for a couple reasons.

First, since I made respect my habit, it insulated me from my own darker nature. I’m not going to lie: there were more than a few inmates that I’d have loved to put boots to. Rapists, child molesters, predatory drug dealers, the occasional murderer who darkened our door. You can’t understand until you’ve been there, but sometimes the urge to beat the living piss out of a predator is almost inescapable.

I’d been on the job maybe two years when deputies brought in a drunk who had kicked in his ex-girlfriend’s door and beaten her while she held her three-year-old boy in her arms, trying to protect him. She retreated into each room in her house, and he kicked in each door to continue beating her. She finally escaped to the driveway, but by the time she was there, he had broken her nose and her son’s, fractured two of her ribs, and blackened both of the little boy’s eyes.

In the driveway, she managed to get into her car; he tried to block her exit, so she ran him over. (That’s the closest the story gets to a happy ending.) Demonstrating cockroach-esque resilience, he was only slightly scratched up after being run over. He was taken to the hospital, and was there just long enough for me to see photos of the injured toddler.

I wanted to hurt the fucker. I had a three year old, too, and it didn’t help that my boy looked similar to his victim. My partner wasn’t a parent, but was a bit of a hothead, and was as eager as I was for a piece of this asshole. At the time, it seemed like kicking his ass wouldn’t have been unethical at all; if anything, it would’ve felt like God’s work.

It would’ve been so easy – so fucking easy – to provoke him just a bit. One whispered insult while patting him down might have been the only push he needed to turn violent, and if he turned violent then so could we.

We didn’t do it. We both stuck to our mantra. We called him “Sir,” said “Please.” We didn’t let him know what we thought. We didn’t provoke. But the whole time, we were both praying he’d go sideways on us, give us the excuse. Because then at least we could’ve kicked his ass with a clean conscience.

As it was, he sobered up, and kicked his own ass more thoroughly than we could have. He was one of the few inmates I encountered who was genuinely remorseful. He swore off alcohol forever, plead guilty to a rash of charges, served his time, and disappeared. Either he stayed sober or he moved out of state, because (unlike most of the inmates we deal with) he never came back to jail.

And, because my partner and I held to our professionalism – respect, to the bitter end – we never had to look in the mirror and know we provoked a beating.

I experienced similar violent urges over time, sometimes bordering on homicidal. But it was never so hard to resist as that first incident.

The sad truth is that the inmates you have to fight are rarely the ones you want to fight. The wife beaters, the violent thugs, the predatory drug dealers, even the murders, and especially the child molesters, all had one thing in common: whether out of cowardice or shrewdness, they rarely provoked physical confrontation with staff. I think it’s because they were bullies, almost to the last; bullies never pick on people they aren’t confident they can intimidate.

So, unfortunately, most of our use of force happened either in the booking area, where fresh arrests would arrive drunk or strung out on drugs…or with the mentally ill.

I hate fighting the mentally ill. Of all the inmates I deal with, I have the most sympathy for people with serious mental illness. Many of them are serious dangers to the community, but unlike your average rapist, there’s not much moral culpability attached to the crimes the mentally ill commit. Yes, they’re dangerous, but it’s not because they’re evil; it’s because they’re sick. The communities they live in – we all live in – have largely failed to protect them, or provide for them.

Closing down psychiatric hospitals in the 60s may have been the right thing to do, but we failed to create an effective alternative. To say our nations mental health system is broken is a gross understatement. TIME magazine did a great feature on this issue earlier this month (December 2014). I’d highly recommend reading the piece.

Pundits and activists complain that we over incarcerate the mentally ill. They’re not wrong. We do. And jail is no place for people who need treatment. For one thing, unlike mental hospitals (which are few and far between), jails generally cannot force inmates to take their meds. For another, the jail environment is rife with predators, and just with assholes in general. If mentally ill inmates aren’t outright victimized, they are often teased mercilessly, provoked, and shunned.

In terms of government, law enforcement in general is where the rubber meets the road, so to speak. I believe a lot of the current unrest in the wake of Ferguson has less to do with policing than it does society as a whole. Similarly, jails become the catch all for every other social system that fails: schools, the foster system, the mental health system.

Dealing with people who simply didn’t belong in jail – to say nothing of having to hurt them – was easily the most depressing aspect of the job.

Again, respect and professionalism were the mantra. You did everything you could to avoid a fight, so when a fight did happen, you knew that even if it wasn’t exactly their fault, at least it wasn’t yours.

Midway through one particularly busy day shift, I entered a cell to stop an angry, psychotic inmate from bashing his forehead into a wall. I didn’t have backup, so I opened the door with my Taser drawn, hoping to gain compliance. (You’d be amazed how often the little laser target the Taser projects will calm down a violent inmate.) Instead of the desired result, however, the inmate immediately reached for my Taser and yelled “Give me that!” He was a small guy, and I could have taken him in a fight, but I didn’t want to risk even a momentary struggle of my Taser; if it accidentally deployed, I might be the one taking a five-second ride. So I immediately deployed the darts into the guy’s hand, at a distance of inches. It’s something you’re never supposed to do, except to keep from being disarmed – and that was exactly the situation I was in.

One probe missed his hand, but the other stuck clean through the webbing between his pointer and middle fingers. I was surprised by the amount of blood. He collapsed the floor, screaming for his dad. I called for a supervisor and an aid car, made my Taser safe, holstered it, and then sat with him, trying to comfort him, until an Aid car arrived. He kept telling me, “You fucked up, you fucked up, I’ll have your job. But if you just let me go, I won’t say a thing, you can keep your job, just let me go!”

The messed up thing was that he had already been ordered released by the judge. We were in the act of trying to process him out when he started trying to break holes in the concrete with his head. I was willing to let bygones by bygones, but the patrol deputy who responded to back me up charged him with attempting to disarm a peace officer – a felony.

After the inmate was cleared at the hospital and patched up, he came back to the jail. He was oddly friendly with me, and kept trying to make deals. He’d offer to say he was never Tasered if I’d only let him go. He also eventually came up with a story, in which he claimed he was dizzy and only called out “Give me that” because he needed to hold onto my Taser for balance. This didn’t fly well with the judge – his defense attorney seemed almost embarrassed presenting the defense – so he ended up pleading to a lesser charge.

The whole time he was trying to sell the “dizzy defense,” though, he sat on a water bucket that he’d turned upside down and scooted himself around his cell block. He told us this was so he wouldn’t get dizzy again and reach for another Taser. The thing was, literally everyone in the jail – staff, inmates, trustees – knew he was acting. The only person who didn’t know we knew, was the guy himself.

You’d turn out the lights at night, and when he thought you couldn’t see, he’d hop up and do a little jig. You could catch him mid-jig, and he’d immediately sit back on the water bucket and scream at you that you were lying, he’d never be able to stand again, how dare you taunt him by pretending he’d been dancing!

He was a weird guy – angry, bitter, spiteful, and yet also capable of whimsy, and deeply, deeply loyal to his dog. After his case was settled, as he was being released (for keeps this time), he apologized to me for reaching for my Taser. “It was all a big misunderstanding,” he said. “You were just doing your job.”

But the job wasn’t all sociology, tragedy, and violence. Sometimes it was just plain disgusting.

You’d get inmates who would use their own feces as an art supply, or, in rarer cases, a projectile weapon.

After extracting one particularly vicious inmate from a segregation cell (he tried to bite staff whenever he could, and liked to set traps for us with cups containing a mixture of feces, urine, and Kool-aid powder), the task fell to me to clean out his cell. Normally, we would pay a private contractor to come and sanitize the thing, but he had torn it apart so badly that we were fishing improvised weapons out of the clogged toilet.

Not shockingly, neither our agency policy nor our union contract require us to engage in poop-scrubbing or toilet-dredging. My boss, the jail superintendent, said he was going to do it himself, and for some reason that didn’t sit well with me. Everyone else pulled rank or just said “Fuck no,” so a relatively junior female officer and I went to work. We both put on hospital masks, and rubbed Vicks VapoRub all over the inside of the masks as well as under our noses.

For me, the Vicks-and-mask combination worked wonders. It’s a life hack that I’ve used many times since, on and off the job.

For my coworker, the smells being blocked wasn’t enough. She was holding out a trash bag for me while I dumped in meal trays covered in feces and rotten food. I looked up and saw her dry heaving, and immediately told her to get the hell out of the cell. I was already surrounded by rotting food, piss, and shit; the last thing I needed was her to throw up on me.

Honestly, though, the bits where you have to be an asshole – or get poop thrown on you – or find yourself going fisticuffs with someone – those were all things I expected. And I imagine they are the sort of things that the outside world expects when they think about life inside a jail or prison.

What really surprised me was the compassion I witnessed in my coworkers. Sure, some are very rigid, some are very jaded. A few are asshats. But overall, I was consistently impressed with the men and women I worked with.

One of the toughest things I ever dealt with was an eighteen-year-old autistic boy who was arrested on domestic violence charges. He had the mentality of a three year old; he sat there in our segregation cell, and when we fed him dinner he asked if the reason he didn’t get dessert was because he’d been bad. I tried to explain that there isn’t dessert in jail, and he started crying for his mother. I damn near started crying right along with him.

Obviously I wasn’t present for his original arrest, but I was disturbed enough that someone with the mind of a toddler would be thrown into jail that I asked the arresting deputy about it. He, too, was regretful; he said the young man would “snap” and go off, and in this case he had broken his mom’s nose. His parents couldn’t handle him, and in any case, our state’s domestic violence laws required that anyone over eighteen who assaults a family member be arrested and booked; the law makes no exception for the mentally ill, and cops are actually committing a crime if they do not make an arrest. In any case, both the deputy and I agreed it was a terrible situation.

I was working graveyard at the time, and our shifts lasted twelve hours. He slept through the night, and in the morning, I found myself busy with routine duties. Toward the end of my shift, right after breakfast was served, I was walking through the jail and noticed my shift partner, a guy we’ll call Barnes, had taken the young man into an empty recreation area and was sitting with him while the young man ate. Barnes sat with him for the better part of thirty minutes, then helped him clean up, and held his hand as he walked back to his cell. In a place as bleak as a jail, it was among the most beautiful things I’ve ever seen.

I wrote my partner up for a commendation the next day, and turned it in to my boss. When I did so, I learned that another coworker – an officer with a reputation for being socially awkward and even rude, with whom I and other officers had often come nearly to blows – had done the same for the young man at lunch time. The same officer then gave the kid dessert he’d brought from home, to let him know he hadn’t been bad.

I later learned that my boss – the same person I was turning the commendation in to – had taken the kid out to the rec yard later in the day, and shot hoops with him for the better part of an hour.

I was proud to work with people like that.

Another inmate who stands out as example of what the job can be, at its best, was a guy that we’ll call Todd. I had encountered him in the community as a reserve patrol deputy several times. He lived on disability and social security checks, and was regarded by his community as an irritating nuisance; he wasn’t violent, or even particularly creepy, but he was often admonished about trespassing, and a few neighbors had taken out anti-harassment orders. For whatever reason, though, I kind of liked him. He had a good sense of humor and was always amicable; he genuinely loved the small town he lived in, even if the town didn’t love him back.

Unfortunately, Todd suffered from bipolar disorder and schizophrenia. He was able to manage when he got the right medications, but at some point, his doctor accidentally prescribed Todd a lower dose of anti-psychotic medication.

As a result, Todd developed a gnawing suspicion that the local bible study class was actually a Mexican drug ring. Believing himself to be an undercover DEA agent, Todd rammed two elderly couples off the road, and then held another elderly woman at “gunpoint” (he actually only had a cane).

Todd was arrested and charged with vehicular assault and felony harassment, but was diverted to a mental competency evaluation at the state mental hospital. The wait list at the time was – and still is – incredibly long, though, so he languished in jail.

Our medical provider at the time was ambivalent at best, negligent at worst. Unfortunately, the medical provider was also connected with senior command staff at the sheriff’s office, so no amount of bitching on the part of line officers could convince our admin to fire him. So, our jail doctor, either because he didn’t know better or just didn’t care, dramatically over-prescribed the same anti-psychotic meds to Todd that, when under-dosed, had landed Todd jail in the first place.

At first, it just made him even weirder than before. Todd confessed several times that he was my long lost father, and at one point broke down in tears, apologizing for not finding me sooner. He shared experiences he’d had in Vietnam, and I still don’t know if he was telling the truth or just hallucinating. He occasionally tried to escape by pushing past us when we opened his cell door, and at one point bit my shift partner. I had to use knee strikes to get Todd to let go, and my partner was out for a few days and had to get tested. Another time, Todd urinated under the door of his cell and then invited us in for tea; when I asked him about it later, he admitted he was plotting to have us slip on his urine so he could escape from jail.

As the doses of medication built up in Todd’s system, though, they began to kill him. We noticed that he was having trouble talking clearly, and starting to be dizzy all the time. Then he lost control of his bowels. All along, our bosses and the medical staff told us it was fine, just his mental illness taking hold.

Eventually, he passed out halfway up the hall of his cell block. We summoned an aid car, and he was transported to the hospital.

I spent several days up at the hospital with Todd, where the nurses were (rightfully) furious that the jail had essentially poisoned Todd, almost to death. At first, the nurses took it out on me, since I was the nearest manifestation of the jail. Todd kept sticking up for me, though – or at least, he did when he wasn’t hitting on the nurses.

At one point, Todd was asked to provide a urine sample. He claimed he was too weak to do so, and a nurse had to manipulate his genitals and hold the cup. The nurse did so, and Todd caught my eye over her arm and winked. (The nurse knew exactly what was going on, and handled the whole situation with a sort of resigned humor. Apparently Todd wasn’t the only dirty old man in the ER.)

Later, after getting his medications sorted and being treated for a few months at the state mental hospital, Todd returned to the jail, a much-improved version of himself. He was cheerful, funny, and downright evangelistic. The day I drove Todd up to the courthouse to have his charges dismissed, he spent the entire van ride preaching to a pair of twenty-something tweakers. The tweakers were debating the finer points of injecting meth versus smoking it, anal versus oral, and how best to break into a vacation home. Todd just kept saying, “You boys need Jesus!”

After he was released, I would occasionally bump into Todd in the community. He came up to me at a restaurant and introduced himself to my wife and son; with many inmates, I’d have been reaching for the pistol I always carry when off duty. With Todd, I felt like I was introducing my family to an old friend.

He came back to jail maybe a year later, I believe on a probation violation or some other minor charge. His mental illness was under control, and he was a quick-witted and good-natured as ever, but his physical condition had deteriorated. He was only with us a few days, but every time I talked to him, it was obvious he didn’t have long to live. He also seemed sad, which wasn’t something I recalled from his prior incarceration.

When it was time to release him, I was working with the jail’s senior sergeant. This particular sergeant could be generously described as “gruff.” He took pride in hating everything, shooting down any idea that wasn’t his own, and generally trying hard to not give a shit about anything other than the safety and security of his facility. Inmates who made requests, whether legitimate or manipulative, were blown off with classy retorts such as “What do you think this is, a fucking hotel?” He would mock you if you were polite to citizens who called on the phone. National tragedies were treated by this guy as sob stories: when Gabrielle Giffords was shot, he immediately remarked, “Great, now this fucking bitch will try to take our guns.” The sergeant was not long on compassion, in other words.

At least, that was how the sergeant chose to present himself to the world. I got to know him over several years, and realized there was a soft, gooey center underneath the jaded crust. He secretly made generous donations to any good cause he came across, couldn’t watch films or shows in which dogs were injured (let alone killed), loved and was great with kids, and would vehemently deny all of this to almost anyone.

Still, hidden core of decency aside, the sergeant is not the type of guy you’d expect to ever, ever be friendly toward an inmate.

And yet, when I went to release Todd, the sergeant met me at the jail exit. Todd turned to me and gave me a hug. It’s not uncommon that inmates want to shake your hand, which we’ll usually do on release, but hugs are unheard of. I was certain I would suffer endless mockery from the sergeant, but I let Todd hug me and hugged him back.

Then, to my surprise, Todd hugged the sergeant as well. And the sergeant hugged him back.

Did I mention Todd was a small guy? And the sergeant was easily six-foot-six, four-hundred-and-fifty pounds? It looked like a bear hugging a Pomeranian.

“I love you guys,” Todd said. “You guys treat me better than anyone out there. Nobody gives me the time of day. But you guys talk to me.”

It broke my fucking heart. How sad is it, that Todd’s best experiences were in a jail?

Todd died a few months later. I knew he was in hospice and meant to go see him, but didn’t make it in time. He had no family, no friends. I really believe my coworkers and I were the only people who marked his passing.

Again, I know not all jails are like that. But ours was, and I am damn proud to have worked there.

In addition to the acts of compassion, I was also constantly surprised by the humor. I’ve rarely laughed as hard as I did almost daily at work. We’d laugh at crazy shit the inmates tried to pull, at the stupidity of our bosses, at our coworker’s antics, at the world in general. Some of our humor was pretty diseased, or it would’ve appeared so from the outside. Sick or not, it was therapy. Laughter wasn’t just the best medicine, it was the only medicine.

The hardest I ever laughed was immediately following one of my career low points. Remember how I spent all that time talking about respect? Well, this was the time I broke my own rule.

We had booked in a heroin addict who dabbled in large-scale identity theft. The guy was renting a three story home in my county’s largest town, where he lived with his girlfriend and her young daughter. At night, he and his girlfriend would switch from heroin to meth, hop in her car, and drive through our county and the three surrounding ones, stealing mail from mailboxes. He had machines to fabricate fake ID cards and driver’s licenses, and had stolen thousands of dollars using fake checks, fake social security cards, fake bank accounts, the works.

When he was finally busted, they found tons of mail at his house. Literally, tons. It took dozens of detectives from the town police department, county sheriff’s office, US Postal Service, and a handful of other agencies months to sift through all the stolen mail.

They only caught him because his girlfriend’s daughter got tired of watching him beat her mom, and strolled down to the local police department.

A warrant was issued, and when the cops booted his door, this genius ran up two flights of stairs and out onto the third story porch. Except, in his haste, he had forgotten he’d torn down the third story porch a few weeks earlier, over his landlord’s objections. He fell down to the first story porch (there wasn’t one on the second story, don’t ask me why), and landed on his back.

After being cleared at the hospital, he was turned over to our care and custody. We put him in a segregation cell, and he was provided with pain meds for the back injury, as well as ice packs and a bunch of juice packs. The juice was intended to help him drink water, since staying hydrated is one of the few things that we’re told may help out during heroin withdrawals.

This guy was the most self-righteous, demanding, entitled punk I’ve ever encountered. It was our fault he was in pain due to his back, our fault he was in pain from heroin withdrawals. He ordered us around, made frequent demands, and was verbally abusive whenever he was told “no.”

Finally, after about a week of this, I was collecting meal trays and utensils after lunch. The guy had been up pacing his cell earlier, so I figured he was well enough to get out of bed and push his meal tray and utensils out to the kitchen crew, rather than making them go in and retrieve them. I was testy already, because he’d already cussed out the same kitchen workers when they brought the trays because he didn’t think his serving of pizza was big enough.

Anyway, I told him to get up, and he told me to fuck off. I repeated my instruction, so he did get up, but once he pushed the tray out, he took another step toward me and just glared at me. I told him to step back, and he didn’t, so I squared off and shoved him back. Up to that point, I was good.

But when he stumbled onto his bunk and started calling me (and the kitchen crew) names, I just snapped. I walked in started telling him exactly what I thought of him. It went downhill from there – basically an R-rated version of “You’re a poopy-head!” “No, YOU’RE a poopy-head!”

My two shift partners (one was Barnes, the guy who had sat with the autistic inmate during breakfast) arrived almost immediately and started trying to back me out of the cell. At about the same time, the inmate asked if I would like to fight. Instead of the professional response, which would have been to listen to my partners and leave, I replied “Fuck Yeah, let’s go!”

This is why you have partners. Barnes grabbed me and physically hauled me out of the cell. The other officer remained behind and, using far more professional language than I had, tried to calm the inmate down, to no avail.

For the next hour or so, the inmate was standing in his cell window, hopping up and down, spitting on the inside of the glass, calling us pussies and faggots and cowards and niggers, daring us to come back and face him like men.

I stayed in the control room, cooling down. Barnes and my other partner talked to me for a while, telling me I had been out of line. Barnes was the one who used the “Poopy-head” analogy.

“Fuck, man,” I said, “you’re right. It was grade school shit. I might as well have just stuck my tongue out and left.”

Barnes laughed, and suggested it might not have been a bad idea.

I don’t know if I made this clear when I was talking about Barnes having breakfast with the autistic inmate, but Barnes is a former Marine. More than that, he’s the embodiment of everything you’d expect from a former marine. Perfect posture (inmates regularly compliment him on it), hair always cut high-and-tight, uniform pristine, boots and gear polished. He’s tall, broad-shouldered. Radically conservative, very no-nonsense. He just screams “authority.”

Anyway, the next time Barnes had to walk past the inmate, who was still screaming threats and obscenities, Barnes turned and smiled at him. Then he put his thumb to his nose, wiggled his fingers, and stuck out his tongue, before executing an exaggerated left-face and walking away down the hall.

It’s still one of the funniest things I’ve ever seen. So incongruent, so out of place.

The inmate was stunned into silence, and immediately walked back to his bunk and sat down.

I later went and apologized to him for my unprofessional language. He apologized to me as well, and then suggested that perhaps, if I didn’t want to be reported for my language, I might do him some favors. (Some things never change.) I told him to go ahead and report me, I was willing to face the consequences. That wasn’t what he wanted to hear, but he never did report me, and I ended up telling my boss about it anyway. It was the only time I had to be “verbally counseled” for unprofessional conduct.

The inmate went away to Federal prison for several years, but he returned on appeal at one point. He wasn’t any less of a slime ball, but we did have a good laugh recalling Barnes’ resolution to the conflict.

Maybe that story isn’t as funny to you as it is to me. Maybe you just had to be there. But that’s the thing with law enforcement – your sense of humor goes pitch black, and also takes a twist toward the bizarre.

Most of our younger clientele, male and female, were siring heirs left and right, usually with multiple partners. It wasn’t uncommon for male inmates to get into fights over who was the actual baby daddy. On one memorable occasion, however, I found two guys who had come to blows arguing over who wasn’t the baby daddy – neither of them wanted the responsibility.

The only thing that seemed to slow down the procreation train was STDs. Once an inmate got an STD, for whatever reason, that seemed to be a wake-up call that led to more responsible sex. Or maybe just fewer willing partners, I don’t know.

Anyway, speaking of a sick sense of humor, we had a nurse who worked night shift, four hours a day, five days a week. Other than our useless medical provider, she was our only medical staff. Her mandate was drug and alcohol counseling, but since the actual medical provider was lazy, she generally did sick call, too.

At the time, most of her energy was tied up with a very young female inmate – maybe nineteen – who was, quite literally, a whore. She would drive to nearby metro areas, turn tricks, and then come back to our quiet hamlet to turn more tricks, buy drugs, and hang out with the local burglary ring. She was a frequent customer, and had more venereal diseases than I knew existed. This was common knowledge, since she bragged about them to anyone who would listen, whether they wanted to hear it or not.

The nurse at one point suggested to me that we might as well put her to good use, and let her make her way through the male blocks. “At least if she infects the rest of them, they might not pop out as many kids. They could pay her in commissary.”

Lest you think this nurse was serious, or some sort of black-hearted wench, she was among the most professional, compassionate healthcare professionals I’ve ever worked with inside the walls of a correctional institute. She genuinely cared about her inmates, as well as the officers, and was extremely conscientious. A fucked up sense of humor was just her way of coping.

Once we finished laughing at her suggestion, she shook her head. “We’re dead inside, you know,” she said, and chuckled.

In some ways, she wasn’t wrong. In some ways, working in law enforcement – and especially inside a jail – does deaden you. But that, too, was a joke, one that was only half true at most, and we both knew it.

You have to laugh, because the alternatives are tears or alcohol or worse. This job could wear you down – not just with its violence and its tragedy and its lunacy, but simply with its volume. I worked 700 hours of overtime one year, in addition to volunteering as a reserve deputy. The OT alone was equivalent to an extra four-plus months of full time work.

Shift work is hard, too, especially with a family. My son, especially between four and six, had a really hard time when I left in the evenings for graveyard shifts. He didn’t have a problem when I was gone all day, but for some reason saying goodbye to me before bedtime was a lot more troubling. It was even worse when my wife would be on nights, too; she was a dispatcher, and occasionally our shifts would line up, and we’d have to leave him with a grandparent.

“I don’t want you to go to work,” he’d say, sometimes crying. “I miss you!”

Or: “Why do you want to go see the bad guys instead of me?” That’s a tough question to answer, especially to a five year old who misses his mom and dad.

Being a family with both parents in public safety is hard in other ways, too.

Our parents, especially, don’t understand that our lives don’t conform to the schedules by which the rest of the world lives. They don’t understand that we can’t be available on Thanksgiving Day, or that Friday isn’t really Friday for us.

My son struggles to understand the nature of my job, even more than his mom’s. “But,” he asked me once, genuinely confused, “If you have the bad guys all in one place, why don’t you just shoot them?”

“We don’t shoot people just because they’re bad.”

“Oh.” He thought for a minute. “Well, why don’t you just tie them all up and come home?”

Why indeed. It was five-year-old conversion of the whole “lock em up and throw away the key” argument.

Speaking of throwing away the key, a lot of people I meet – especially older men – like to tell me what they think should be done with inmates. I’m sure you can guess. Bread and water, dripping dungeons, public floggings, the whole nine yards. I find myself put off by these sorts of attitudes, even when they occasionally match my own opinions. These blowhards haven’t been there – they haven’t stared evil in the face, smelled its morning breath, laughed at its jokes, scrapped with it on a dirty floor. So: What the fuck do they know?

A lot of other people I meet – especially people my age or younger – go the other way. They’re the moral crusaders, the enlightened liberals. They like to talk about how broken our system is, how the prosecutors are all bastards and the cops are all brutal and the system is stacked against blacks, against women, against the poor. There may be nuggets of truth to their protests and their self-righteous hashtags, but I have no patience for them, either. Everything they think they know has been learned in an ivory tower or an Internet chat room. If they haven’t been face to face with the issues they preach about, then, again: What the fuck do they know?

One thing you learn, here in the trenches, is that the problems facing our nation are far more complex than the pundits and the armchair politicians would have us believe. Poverty, crime, drugs, vice, recidivism, violence, mental illness, addiction – it’s all interlinked, a vicious jumble.

It’s sociology, but it’s also personal choice. Understanding that socioeconomic forces may push a person to crime does not absolve the criminal of individual culpability. Reducing recidivism should be the goal of the system, but ultimately is the responsibility of the individual.

I don’t have answers to all, or even most, of our problems, but I know most of the talking heads aren’t even asking the right questions, let alone putting forth the right answers.

I guess I shouldn’t complain. It’s job security. If we ever fix this mess, we won’t need law enforcement officers. I’ve been a corrections officer and a patrol cop, and they’re the best jobs I’ve ever had. I don’t know what else I could do, to be honest. It’s in my blood now.

The reality is, I wish I weren’t needed. I wish our jails could be smaller, I wish people would stop hurting each other, I wish we could magic away the drugs and other addictions that are rotting our communities and our nation from the inside out.

It’ll never happen, though. It’s not human nature. We are dragged down even as we rise up. My time in the jail was a microcosm of that, as has been my time in patrol: every lie, every act of violence, every tragedy, every failure of the system, it all builds on you, seeps away at your soul. But at the same time, the darkness makes the light so much brighter.

The compassion, the courage, the humor, the sacrifice and the dedication I saw every day – from officers especially, but also from community volunteers, from paramedics and firefighters, from doctors and defense attorneys and prosecutors and social workers – it helps to balance out the weight of all that misery.

Good and bad, sad and funny, violent and kind: law enforcement is a front row seat to the best show on earth. I wouldn’t trade my career for anything else.

So, I’m not sure that’s any way to wrap this up. I know I haven’t put to words everything I’d like to, and I know I couldn’t begin to articulate much of what ought to be said. But hopefully the answer is at least interesting, maybe even informative.

In the end, if you take anything away from this, I hope it’s the same lesson I learned to apply in all areas of my life: be honest, be respectful, and don’t take shit from anyone. It’s not a bad way to live your life, even outside a jail. Thought Catalog Logo Mark

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