Sitting back on the couch the other night, wondering if I was going to fall asleep or not, I stopped flicking through the TV channels and started paying attention to a series that was being broadcast about rookie correctional officers at the toughest prison facilities in New Mexico. It was pretty interesting stuff, but a little short on depth, focusing more on showing the audience how messed up some of the inmates are and how well (or badly) the rookies deal with them. The main reason it caught my eye was that it made me think of an old buddy of mine who, after he left the Air Force as a police dog handler, went back to North Carolina to be a corrections officer. The next day I called up my buddy and told him about the series, which he knew all about, but started telling me about what it’s like in reality to be a corrections officer.
The first thing you should know about this guy is that he is a bit like a man-mountain. He arms are seriously bigger than most guys’ legs and his neck is as thick as their torsos. It’s obviously essential to be strong and in good shape and there is a weights gym for the officers in the correctional facility. Just building muscle is not enough, however – if you’re thinking about going to the correctional officer academy and are still undecided about the best way to get fit, you’d better figure something out quickly!
The officers often have some kind of combat training, from boxing and wrestling to MMA. It takes a certain type of person to do the job as you can’t be afraid of running headlong into a fight between gangbangers to break it up. Yes, you could say you have to be a little bit nutty.
This is far from a job just for knuckleheads, though. You really need to be a focused and mature individual with strong reasons for pursuing this career. You need to be able to take on board and be able to utilize many different types of training, from physical stuff like handcuffing procedures, use of tear gas canisters and so on, to psychological training to understand the mindsets (and mind games) of the inmates. On top of that you’ve got training on cultural sensitivity, tattoo and gang signal interpretation, legal rights, what to look for during a shakedown, riot control and then a lot of mundane paperwork and procedural training! In many ways it’s like learning to be a police officer, only you’ll be mixing with the most dangerous people on a daily basis and without a firearm.
In return for the complicated nature of the job, the high-risk and high-stress situations, corrections officers are paid reasonably well and given great medical benefits and good pensions. Most rookies are there to work hard and as a result end up taking on senior and better remunerated roles. There is a problem in all correctional facilities, and has been for years of understaffing while the inmate population is well over capacity at the same time. This is probably the main cause of challenges at work, but corrections officers have that platoon mentality that they are a unit and they’ll all put in the work to make sure everyone’s back is covered and nobody is put in danger.
It’s one of the toughest places to work, you’re constantly faced with abuse, the threat of gang members who will try to kill you any way they can if given the order, never being able to fully relax, always being on the lookout. I asked my buddy if he didn’t miss playing with his dogs on some far-eastern air base.
“Not really”, he answered. “My heart’s in this now. I feel like I’m making more of a difference than I have ever done.”
And I guess that’s why they do it.