A Survival Guide for Prison Guards
To become a prison guard is to enter an inverted world that is threatening on many levels. No matter what degree of vigilance you bring to the job, the inmates will be watching you far more closely. They will not begrudge you doing your job—bed checks, counts, and shakedowns; this they expect from you. But you will have to perform these duties within narrow limits—limits prescribed by the inmates. Exceed these limits and you will be in trouble. Never be a hard ass—the inmates will dislike you if you are. And don’t be too friendly with them either. Guards who are friendly with inmates may make them look like snitches. And always—always—be conspicuous. Let the inmates know when you’re walking a range. Rattle your keys, shuffle your feet, and whistle. If the inmates are involved in some sort of mischief, you don’t want to take them by surprise. Always remember that you are outnumbered.
If you perform your job within acceptable norms, the inmates will respect you. They may even protect you if you run into a nut case—an inmate who attacks you without cause. But if you trespass beyond these norms, the inmates will retaliate. First, you will receive an anonymous note—a note telling you that you are not wanted there. Ignore the note, and you will get a warning. A garbage can may crash down at your at your feet while you’re standing near a catwalk. Ignore the warning and you are at serious risk. An inmate shot caller may get one of his soldiers to take you out. This time, there will be no tip off—only the plunge of a homemade shiv between your ribs. And long before your heart has stopped beating, the inmates will have passed off the knife half a dozen times.
Do not expect support from the prison management. Prison superintendents are generally out-of-touch with staff. Often, they are political appointees with little understanding of what rank-and-file officers endure. Sometimes, they create policies that are dangerous to enforce or buy services from substandard contractors. Substandard contracts force shoddy medical care upon the inmates and sell them commissary items at inflated prices. Should the inmates riot because of these contracts, you, the line officer, will take the first hit.
Trust in your union, but only if your union is reliable. Many unions are in bed with management and provide only the illusion of support. Should the prison have more than one union, the unions may be focused on vilifying one another in a campaign for votes. This means they will have little time for you.
If your union seems effective, rely on it, but only to a certain degree. Unions do not have unlimited resources and, should you face disciplinary action, cannot provide you with the best of legal council. For this reason, it is suggested that you have a personal attorney on retainer. Remember, it is easy to get written up. Prison policies are arbitrary, ever changing, and may be subjectively interpreted should a staff member dislike you.
If you face disciplinary action, you will be afforded due process. But this will not happen at the institutional level. Institutional hearings are typically prepackaged and conducted for the sake of appearances. You may be allowed a union representative, but in all likelihood he will not be allowed to speak. It is therefore recommended that you treat your deprivation hearing as a note taking opportunity so you can take the matter to arbitration. If you are willing to invest the time and money, you will receive due process at the arbitration level. A great many suspensions and firings have been reversed by state arbitrators when all the facts come to light. The process is expensive and generally takes two years, but it is worth it to get a fair hearing. Facilities rely on the probability that an officer will not go that far in pursuit of due process.
Cultivate a circle of friends—you will need the emotional support of others. But if you chose your companions within the facility, chose carefully. Remember, there is a type of person who will report you for the most trivial of matters if he thinks it will advance him in the eyes of management. Have nothing to do with this sort of person—do not even speak to him unless it is absolutely necessary. Nor should you have much to do with the complainers. Complainers will drain you energy with their constant gripes and negativity. They may even enlist you in harassment suits—grievances that go nowhere and put you on management’s radar. So be very selective in your choice of friends.
Practice self-defense tactics. Do not count on the facility to train you to protect yourself—this will not happen. The prison will give you some level of self-defense training, but mostly to avoid liability. If you are to effectively protect yourself, your moves must be quick, instinctual, and honed through many repetitions. So take a few hours each week to master these moves. If you can enroll in a martial arts class, even better.
Avoid the bars after work. Many officers, when they are done with their shifts, head straight to the local watering holes. And there they self medicate with alcohol and tobacco. If you fall into this kind of trap, it is improbable that you will live long past fifty. Remember, you are working at a job that is stressful, mostly sedentary, and highly frustrating: a perfect recipe for a heart attack. So participate in a physical activity each day after work. Play basketball, go hiking, or take up long distance running. Don’t drop dead before you can collect your well-earned pension from the state. The bean counters are relying on that.
Don’t be too zealous in the performance of your duties. Do what is required of you—no more—and do it by the book. If you bring new ideas to management, you are may be labeled an upstart or a troublemaker. Should management accept your ideas, your experience may be even worse. You will not be financially compensated because your salary is fixed by the state. And, if your ideas fail, the blame will fall on you. So do not take risks for which you will not be compensated. Do only what the facility is paying you to do.
Remember this. When you put on your uniform, you have entered an antihuman environment. An environment that places you at risk, but does little to nurture or protect you. So look to yourself for the tools of survival. Always take care of yourself.