I have been able to try a lot of different jobs throughout my lifetime and one of the most adventurous, in my mind, was my stint as a Corrections Officer at a maximum-security prison. Now, this wasn’t my first choice for work, but it was an opportunity that was provided to me a family friend. Seeing as I was unemployed at the time I figured why not just give it a try. My friend, I’ll call him Robert, was a Sergeant at the time and told me that he would be my reference and that I should apply because at the time the prison was short-staffed and was planning to hire about 50 new guards.
Having put in an application, I didn’t have to wait a long time to get a call telling me that I was to report for an interview. I will admit that when I got to the prison, and saw the massive towers and brick walls, I was really scared and nervous. I was ushered to a waiting room and told that I would be called when it was my time to interview. When I went into the room, after my name was called, the first thing I noticed was that there were four people sitting on one side of the table and a single chair on the opposite side that was for the interviewee. The four-people consisted of one Captain, Two Lieutenants, and a Major, all if full dress uniforms.
During the interview, I was constantly told to just relax. This was truly difficult as this was the first time I had ever been interviewed by more than one person. After the Captain and the Lieutenants had asked all their questions, the Major finally spoke to me. He didn’t ask any questions, but instead gave me a scenario.
The scene went like this; I am on tower duty and am notified via radio that a riot has broken out in the lunchroom. As I am watching, my tower overlooks the front of the dining hall, an inmate comes out of the front door holding a knife to the neck of an officer. How do I respond. I thought about that for probably 2 seconds and looked the Major right in the eyes and said, “I shoot him in the head”. Without blinking the Major turned to the other officers and said, “I would take him”. Two days later I received a phone call telling me that I had got the job and to report to the prison the following Monday where I would board a bus and be taken to the State Police Headquarters for training.
Training for becoming a Correctional Officer consisted of two weeks of classroom training on gangs, monitoring inmates, how to perform searches of inmates and cells and firearms training. There was some other stuff too, but I can’t remember the full curriculum. I loved the firearms training the most. We learned how to shoot, disassemble and reassemble a handgun and a M16 rifle and had to gain a level of Marksman to graduate firearms training. Needless to say, I hit that mark. Pun intended.
The prison I worked at was Joliet Corrections Facility, in Joliet, IL. I worked there for approx. two and a half years. There were two main cellblocks that housed inmates. The West cellblock was for permanent detentions and the East block was for inmates that were either sentenced to two years or less or were being held for transfer to another prison where they would serve out their sentence. There were two “yards” as well, one for the perms and one for the transfers. I was assigned to the West block for most of my time as an officer. I would be assigned to two floors and usually was the only officer on that assignment.
One of the perks of being a corrections officer, that had seniority on the job, was the opportunity to “bump” a less senior officer for their days off. Meaning if, say I had the weekends off, I could get bumped and have to switch my days off with whoever bumped me. The first time this happened to me, my scheduled days off were Saturday and Sunday and I got bumped to having Wednesdays and Thursdays off. This turned off to be a blessing in disguise for me because there was a riot on my first scheduled Wednesday to be off. The Sergeant in charge of my regular cellblock had turned the phones off in the yard during the inmates scheduled time outside and the inmates got really mad and upon entering the cellblock started fighting with the guards. After the riot was quelled, there were several officers that were sent to the hospital for their injuries, and the cellblock was placed on lockdown for two weeks.
One incident I remember vividly was while I was working the lunchroom. After the inmates had finished their lunch and went out to the yard for some free time, I oversaw several inmates that worked in the dining hall cleaning up. I had been on this post several times and knew the inmates that were assigned to the cleaning detail. On several occasions I had to step between two inmates, I will call them Stan and Dean. They were members of rival gangs in the prison and would always be arguing with each other. On one occasion they were arguing and when I stepped in to break them up, they asked me if they could go into the adjoining overflow dining area and just duke it out to get it off their chests. As I was the only officer there, I told them I would agree if they would stop when I gave the order. They promised, so I let them go at each other for about 10 minutes. It was crazy to let them do that knowing my job would be on the line if they were caught, but at the same time I thought it was the only way to settle it as I knew they wouldn’t stop otherwise.
One of the biggest concepts that was constantly told to us officers was to always be “firm, fair and consistent” in dealing with inmates. Do not show favoritism in any way, or the inmates would notice and that would lead to frustration and make for a dangerous environment. Also, to not take our job home with us. Corrections Officers experience a lot of stress and that was a cause of high divorce rates. To this day, I still follow those two creeds.