From Inside Supermax: The Corrections Staff (9 of 18)

I recently did an eight part series of posts with Jacob Ind, who was sentenced as a juvenile to LWOP and is currently incarcerated in the Colorado State Penitentiary, a Supermax prison. These posts reflect a series of my questions (bolded) and Jacob’s responses.

Jacob has been incarcerated since he was 15. He’s 30 now. The eight part series of questions and answers is quite long, but can be read in its entirety here: from-inside-supermax-feb-08.pdf.

Clearly, inmates have to watch their backs with other inmates and have a very adversarial relationship with the prison staff. Many current and ex-corrections workers have significant issues with marriage, family, depression, domestic violence and post-traumatic stress. Although you’ve expressed your feelings in general about the corrections workers, can you put yourself in their place and describe what it must be like on their side of the fence? Over the years, have you seen new corrections officers who, like their inmate counterparts may start out with good intentions, but become institutionalized?

I can put myself in the shoes of the guards here. Really, there are differences among the staff which we can see. Some are here just for the paycheck and are not out to make anybody’s life harder. Those are the officers who know what is and what is not a security threat and let anything go which is petty and doesn’t matter in the whole scheme of things. I definitely prefer guards like that. They’re the ones who don’t care if I have an extra magazine, pass items to another inmate on a homemade line, or save up some condiments from the food trays to fix up other meals.

The gung-ho guards who see themselves as law enforcement agents and are hopped up on testosterone make life miserable for inmates and other staff. They tend to be belligerent and militantly “anti-inmate”. Just having them around greatly increases tensions in a unit. Not only do they enforce the most inane and petty rules against inmates, they give hell to those guards who treat us like people and with basic human respect. They see it as their job to punish us. About a month ago, one of the gung-ho guards was packing up a guy’s property because he was moving to another unit and he stepped up on the guys’ bed to remove items from the shelf above the bed. An inmate who watched it happen asked the guard who was with the gung-ho one why he walked all over the guy’s bedding in his dirty boots instead of stripping the bed first. The gung-ho guard went ballistic, yelling “he should have thought of that before he committed his little felony.” As you can imagine, that set off a bunch of yelling and verbal abuse towards both the guards.

Then there are the guards and staff who want to make a difference and have human dignity. They don’t last long. I’ve seen them quit left and right and they usually make no bones about telling us that they’re quitting because they don’t like the way the gung-ho guards want them to treat us. I have a friend who used to be a Colorado guard and she wrote of her experience:

The minute you join up with the system, the brainwashing begins. I hired on to DOC because I needed a job. I had worked for Jolly Rancher Candies for 25 years, and then all of a sudden, my job was gone to Mexico. I am raising my granddaughter and I needed to work. Maybe I did not buy into the DOC life because I am older, but from the moment you start the academy, you are told how inmates are pieces of shit, and how you are so much better than they are because you are in blue, noble and honorable and so on and so on. That if you befriend an inmate then you are lower than dirt, because they lie, and manipulate and are incapable of thinking the same as regular people in this society…I got extremely good job reviews, I was very good at my job, but I was so tired of feeling two faced. When I quit, the officers who were supposed to be so close to me, the ones that had my back, turned their backs on me and I was labeled a dirty cop. I found that amusing considering that I never brought anyone in anything, never did any favors, or anything that might even look like it could be considered wrong. So how was I dirty? Couldn’t figure that one out. They were the ones that had me fake reports, and lie about what I saw. They were the ones that would go out and get drunk and drive home, then come to work the next day with their high and mighty attitudes and look down their noses at people that were locked up because of drunk driving. Go figure. I have a hate for DOC that is probably deeper than any inmate has ever had. You guys get shit on all the time, but in their eyes you are just shit anyway…

Those comments are pretty much universal among those guards who are open about why they are quitting. Gossip is the favorite pastime of both inmates and staff and the system is the favorite topic of gossip. Guards who care, love to gossip about the flack they get from the other guards and the B.S. that goes on that we don’t get to see.

I have another friend who works in the system to help guys in community corrections reintegrate back into society and become productive citizens. She is from a state where the system is more geared toward rehabilitation and she tries to actually help guys. When I wrote to her about how all the staff who want to make a difference become quickly dejected and discouraged, she replied:

It is so strange when I got your letter I was already feeling drained from work. I have been told so many times that I am helping or doing too much for the ex-offenders that I work with. I agree with you at this point that the system on the outside is designed to have them fail. I have seen too many fall and return to prison for the stupidest things.

It really is ridiculous. The hard asses think they’re doing society a favor by cracking on staff who they see as too “pro-inmate” and by giving us a hard time, but they don’t realize they are endangering the public. These inmates are people trying to make a fresh start at life and try to do it legally – which is the hard way. Once they see that it is not “worth” it to try, they will fall back to the easy way of making money through victimization. This isn’t an issue solely of seeing humanity in others and other “touchy feely” concepts most Americans reject, this is an issue of ending crime and doing what it takes to obtain results in rehabilitation.

The guards and staff are really in a hard position. The gung-ho guards are filled with hostility and negativity and that, of course, spills into other areas of their lives. All that negativity just sours ones outlook and makes life less enjoyable. I’ve been in those shoes as a militant “convict” and just as blindly anti-staff as they are anti-inmate. It is easy to see why they have problems in their personal lives.

I can also put myself in the shoes of the guards who care. They are trying to be positive and fair but catch flack from their peers for it and have to put up with hostility from some inmates who don’t see a distinction between a hostile guard and a humane guard. That is the situation I am in. It is extremely stressful because they are resisting hostility from both sides. A prison job can be an easy, do-nothing job with no stress, but in order for that to happen, the guard has to become apathetic to everything and just go through the motions. Most people of worth can’t turn a blind eye to wrongs and most dysfunctional people can’t resist becoming hostile in an environment which encourages it. As such, it is not an easy job or one I envy.

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