Prison myth No. 4: All prison guards are brutes

By Stan Moody | Feb 06, 2010

Being a prison guard is a thankless job.

The shroud of secrecy that envelopes a prison system feeds the public perception that guards are schoolyard bullies who never grew up. They cannot repair that image because the public never sees what really goes on there. You have to ride tall in the saddle to come to work every day, be faced with emergencies that demand the right action and know that you are there to back up a prison administration that wants to keep everything secret and under control without getting its hands dirty.

In my experience as a chaplain at the Maine State Prison, I have to say I have never met a more dedicated and professional group of people than probably 80 percent of the guards there. Here is what these people have to face every day.

Until the recent change to 12-hour shifts, they were mandated to come in on short notice, raising havoc with their home lives, but fattening their paychecks. With all the overtime, some guards were able to make upward of $80,000 a year, albeit with a divorce or two along the way.

Prison administration operates under the principle that a good day is one in which there is no crisis. Thus, you don't always get promoted at the Maine State Prison by insisting on doing the right thing but by how you handle crises, too often self-instigated. Promotion often depends on the leverage you can exercise with an administration that is physically, emotionally and legally detached from the trenches.

Walk into the lobby of the prison, and it is immediately clear from the plaques on the wall that the most valued asset staff members bring to the job is longevity — how many years you have put into the system. With a turnover of some 100 officers a year (nearly 40 percent of the total), "staying the course" has become a badge of courage.

The ability to stay the course for the duration, however, requires a deftness of foot. When something goes wrong, the blame will always be placed on the people lowest on the food chain — never on anyone from the front office.

How, then, can a prison guard come in there every day with a smile on his or her face, remain objective and keep the rest of life in perspective? It takes a real professional to do that while knowing it is likely that you will never be thanked. Here are a few examples of character that make a difference in prison.

I was visiting a prisoner who had spent the last few months of his bid in solitary confinement. This was to be his last day. There was a guard standing at the cell door, quizzing the prisoner on a course he had started teaching but was not permitted to continue. The care that this guard demonstrated in trying to offer that prisoner some pride and dignity to take with him out the door was astounding.

A model prisoner was appealing for a sentence reduction after some 22 years of confinement that evolved from a crime committed in his youth. The number of prison guards who went the extra mile to write letters advocating for him was very impressive. They were among the guards I hold in high esteem from my short term there.

There are guards at the front lobby who take great care and patience to assist family members coming in to visit and volunteers coming in to help.

There are other guards who carry a friendly smile every day and who attempt to advocate for the prisoners under their jurisdiction. Over and over again — every day of every week — you witness acts of kindness over and above the job requirements.

History will validate, however, that none of these people is likely ever to be promoted to sergeant and on up the line. Job security as a guard is a nail-biter — often a conflict between doing the right thing and doing the expedient thing.

There is another type of guard who turns a blind eye to beatings by inmates of weaker inmates and routinely makes derogatory statements about certain types of offenders. That is the kind of guard who would put an injured inmate in solitary confinement for his own protection and let him die of his injuries, alone in his cell. That is the type of guard whose philosophy of incarceration is reflected in the saga of Abu Ghraib. Caring and human decency to that kind of guard are considered weaknesses.

The climate created by that kind of guard is reflected in the attitude of a prisoner currently incarcerated at the Oregon State Correctional Institution:

"The men and women who hold the key to your freedom (the prison guards) should be considered your enemy. There is a reason that surveys on job status and job satisfaction often rate being a prison guard as the lowest job a person can hold. No one respects prison guards, and they know it. What kind of man or woman would want to examine body openings for contraband, turn keys, and stand around and do nothing for a living? Prison guards hate their jobs and blame prisoners for their unhappy and unfulfilled lives...

"The Golden Rule to remember, not only about prison guards, but about anyone who works inside the prison in which you are held captive, is to stay as far away from them as possible and avoid even talking to them unnecessarily. Even if you happen to run across a prison guard who appears to be halfway human, don't befriend him ... Don't make eye contact with the people who work at the prison because if you avoid eye contact they will leave you alone. The less contact you have with prison employees, the better off you will be."

The golden rule for this inmate, then, is to do for others nothing under any circumstances, period. That is a sure path to repeating the same failure of respect for authority that got him there in the first place.

Respect for human dignity demands a maturity that may be too much to ask of a guard culture selected at random from the general public. There are those, however, who know what it means to be tough but fair and consistent without losing their cool when things go south. That is the kind of attitude that engenders respect and establishes role models that increase a prisoner's chances of success upon release.

Boundary issues for both guards and prisoners are very acute within a prison. How to be respected without being pushed around is a fine balancing act. What we can hope for, however, is that both prison guards and prisoners will finish their bids as better human beings than when they went in.

The taxpayers and society expect that from both.

Stan Moody, former state representative and chaplain at the Maine State Prison, is the author of "Crisis in Evangelical Scholarship" and "McChurched: 300 Million Served and Still Hungry." He currently serves as pastor at the Meeting House Church in Manchester. His Web site is stanmoody.com.

 

 

 

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