How Prison Guard Became the Job Everyone Leaves

    Lonnie, in his late 40s, was a high school teacher for 20 years before he came to prison. He and I are currently incarcerated in the same living unit at South Central Correctional Facility in Tennessee, and he’s observed something in his current life that reminded him of his old one. At some point during his teaching career, school administrators hired a teacher whose only class was detention.

    For five class periods a day, this teacher’s job was to keep the students sent to detention seated and quiet, in theory occupied with some sort of book work. The idea was that this position would relieve the regular teachers from the unpleasant task of supervising a room full of students who were all in a bad mood from being stuck there in the first place, and which frequently included the “troublemakers.”

    “We couldn’t keep a teacher in this spot,” Lonnie told Filter. “Each one hated being there and quit after about a week or two.”

    A good teacher wants their students to flourish. To see them grow and achieve. This sort of teacher takes pride in their job, and with each year of experience they’re able to do it a bit better. Of course, not all are working under conditions that support this. Most are strained by low pay, unsustainable hours, dwindling resources and no institutional support.

    When I began my sentence nearly 30 years ago, corrections officers (COs) had permanent posts. When a CO was assigned to your living unit, they became the mayor of a self-contained little town. They ran the roost. They had a desk and a telephone and their function was clearly defined. If one of us needed them, we knew where to find them.

    They got to know us. They learned our routines and personalities and could distinguish normal behavior from legitimate cause for concern. The good ones developed a vested interest in keeping the unit safe and encouraged us in our goals. When a bigger event came around, like a basketball tournament, they would come watch. And all of us would talk about it together in the days that followed.

    I’m not trying to paint a grandiose picture of all COs from a bygone era, or make it sound like there were ever “the good ol’ days of prison.” But the difference I see from the 1990s to today is extraordinary.

    Occasionally they’ll go over to one of the unit tables meant for prisoners and sit down for a spell, just to rest.

    What we have now is a revolving door of COs who very rarely engage prisoners in conversation. When they do, it’s usually related to bringing in contraband drugs or cell phones, or doing other favors for money.

    They have no desk or chair or any particular place they’re supposed to be. They’re just supposed to supervise the unit, all 128 of us. If they get called away, we all get locked in our cells because there is no one to relieve them. Their 12-hour shifts become 16-hour shifts. Occasionally they’ll go over to one of the unit tables meant for prisoners and sit down for a spell, just to rest.

    Most of their day consists of locking and unlocking doors. At this facility the cells have bathrooms, which allows staff to lock us in with much more regularity than dormitory layouts where there’s a common bathroom down the hall. We used to all have keys to our cells, so we could let ourselves in and out during the day and then lock the door at night to stay safe, they way you’d lock the front door of a house. A decade ago, they stopped issuing us keys. Now, every time any one of 128 people needs to use their bathroom, or go in or out of their cell for any reason, the CO posted here has to go unlock their door.

    Bailey, 62, has twice been burgled by prisoners housed in other living units because the COs posted to our unit don’t know who lives here and don’t bother to check.

    “They just go and stand in front of a cell door, and the officer unlocks it for them. I’m at work,” he told Filter. “It’s crazy.”

    When one of us has a visitor, or a medical appointment, a call will be made over the radio. But often there’s no CO in the unit to receive it, so we don’t know when we’re being called. People are late for their visits and miss their appointments all the time—and if asked why we didn’t show up, staff will say we refused to go.

    Many prisoners avoid referencing suicidal ideation to staff, even obliquely, for fear of being taken away to a freezing cell for mental health observation. Others do it with the intention of being taken away, generally to escape drug debt about to be collected from someone else on the main compound. But sometimes people seek out mental health observation for its intended purpose.

    “I remember telling the unit guard I needed help, could I go to medical to see mental health [staff], that I was thinking of hurting myself,” Norman* told Filter. “He looked at me all crazy and said, ‘It’s almost count time. Maybe after count.'”

    During count, Norman began cutting himself. A unit CO who had been here longer might have known that Norman had lately been struggling to find a medication that helps treat his depression, and that depression was why he’s been on suicide observation before.

    A lot of veterans used to take jobs as corrections officers here. Not anymore.

    A current job opening for a CO at South Central offers $21.94 per hour and has essentially two points to make: You’ll be expected to handle physical violence. You must be able to work any hours, on any shift, at any post.

    CoreCivic, the private prisons corporation that operates South Central and Tennessee’s three other private prisons, did not respond to Filter‘s request for comment.

    “Veterans are encouraged to apply,” the job listing states. “CoreCivic recognizes your military service to qualify you for positions requiring criminal justice experience.”

    The job itself does not require such experience—the listing just says applicants should be over 18, with a valid driver’s license and high-school diploma or equivalent—but in years past we used to see a lot of veterans here. Not anymore. They see a dangerous job with no backup and no organizational structure, and seek employment elsewhere.

    The things we overhear from staff most frequently: I’m ready to walk out; I don’t have a problem with the inmates, it’s the administration that’s fucked up; I can’t find a babysitter for a schedule like this; As soon as I get my bonus, I’m out.

    In Tennessee prisons, much of what went wrong can be traced back to around 2011, when a new commissioner named Derrick Schofield began reshaping the Tennessee Department of Correction. Staff hours got longer. Our cell keys were taken away. Instead of assigning COs to fixed posts where they did they same job every day, administration implemented the new approach of shuffling them around, so they have a different job every time they come to work.

    In 2016 Schofield left for a high-ranking job in the private prisons industry, but conditions never improved. I used to know COs who’d been on the job 20, 30 years. Now, even the wardens started not that long ago.

    The national understaffing crisis in state and federal prisons isn’t just about low pay. Some corrections departments are trying raises or bonuses and still failing to keep any COs on the job. Like us, COs probably don’t have air-conditioning. They might not be able to smoke. They’re surrounded by the constant threat of violence. Any positive or rewarding aspects of the job have been winnowed away as educational and recreational programming disappears. Given the option to leave prison, people do.



    * Name has been changed to protect source

    Photograph via Michigan Department of Corrections

    • Tony has served almost three decades of a life with parole sentence in Tennessee. Before prison he lived as a closeted gay man; his Southern Baptist parents and an older brother have since died. While incarcerated he has worked as a tutor, clerk and newspaper editor. He’s also begun book clubs and writing workshops, and prisoner-led elder care programs. He writes about captivity in the hope of contributing to the prison reform movement.


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