A Prison Guard’s Guide to Survival

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.



Interview by Red Savina Review Editor John Gist

I was recently interviewed in Red Savina Review.


I thoroughly enjoyed reading your novel, The Siege. It was gritty, authentic and carried with it psychological and social implications. With that in mind, do you see Tom Hemmings, the main character, as a kind of antihero caught in industrial forces beyond his control, a kind of Catch-22 where he is damned no matter what he does?


Tom is truly damned no matter what he does.  If he assists the emergency squads by creating a diversion in the dormitory under siege, he is complicit with a system he does not believe in—a system that puts mercantilism over humanity.  If he fails to fulfill this role, more men will die in the attack on the dormitory.  His only deliverance is in the degree to which he chooses to be damned.  By agreeing to create the diversion, he decides that the devils he is championing are more tolerable than the ones waiting to take their place.  He chooses a busted system over pure anarchy.  But Tom is not without consolations.  In his relationships with Chester Mahoney, the leader of the inmate insurrection, and Sarah Baumgardner, the jaded female officer he rescues from the dorm, he finds something a little brighter.  These relationships are analogous to foxfire—you only find it in rotten wood.  But you can read by foxfire.


With the above in mind, why did you write The Siege? Was it primarily to dramatize the plight of the current prison system (privatization) or is Tom Hemmings, in your mind, a kind of everyman caught up in a capitalistic/industrial nightmare? If this is the case, are we all, in a sense, when we resist the powers that be, antiheroes?


I wrote The Siege to dramatize the plight of anyone working in a penal system.  Mismanagement, danger, and the oversights of privatization are only part of the problem.  A bigger problem is that the employee unions are often ineffectual.  Either they are in bed with management or so busy vilifying one another that they have lost sight of their true mission.  I also wrote The Siege as metaphor for America today.  The powers that be are adept at making people act against their best interests.  This extends from the food we eat to the environment we poison to the wars we are told to support.  Are we antiheros when we resist?  That would only be true if the powers that be were heroes.  Thomas Jefferson is quoted as saying, “The end of democracy and the defeat of the American Revolution will occur when government falls into the hands of lending institutions and moneyed incorporations.”  In America today, I think we are close to the defeat of the American Revolution.


As the fiction editor at Sand Hill Review, what are your views on the current state of American Letters? What kind of writing do you see too often? What type of writing would you like to see cross your desk more often?


I think the publishing industry is basically broken.  At least, where the large publishing houses are concerned.  Writers like Faulkner, Joyce, and Melville would probably not be published today—not by the major publishing houses.  Their work would be considered too textured, too layered, and too demanding of the reader.  But there’s hope to be found in the independent and subsidy publishers.  And there is hope to be found in Internet marketing.  The face of publishing is changing so rapidly that writers are no longer at the mercy of our cultural gatekeepers.  Of course, writers must learn to promote themselves.  Otherwise, they will become the equivalent of a musician playing outside a subway station.  No matter how brilliantly a street musician plays, ninety-nine people out of a hundred will walk past him without a second thought.

What kind of writing do I see too often?  Writing that is derivative, clichéd, and in serious need of revision.  Many writers submit their manuscripts far too soon.  This is the kiss of death with most literary journals.  Too many editors are acquisition editors.  As such, they are not inclined to help a writer prune his manuscript.  They don’t have to—there are too many polished manuscripts to pick from.

What kind of writing would I like to see more often?  Writing with a strong sense of presence.  Writing that is fearless.  Writing that compels the reader to keep reading.  I see too little of that.


As a follow-up to the above, do you see independent presses and literary journals (as opposed to those sponsored by colleges and universities) carrying the torch of American Letters into the twenty-first century, or has the sheer number of presses and journals transformed American Letters into a Tower of Babel?


I don’t think the problem is too many presses.  The problem, as I see it, is the public’s short attention span.  As writers, we are in competition with Internet spam, pseudo celebrities, and a culture of instant gratification.  We are wooing a public that celebrates icons while its real heroes go unsung.  And I think we may also be hamstrung by university presses.  Much of what is published in the university presses has a sameness about it—as though the same writer wrote each story.  Overall, these presses seem like fraternities with closed memberships.

Do I think the proverbial torch has been passed to independent publishers?  Yes, and I have an example. A while back, I submitted a novelette, Call Me Pomeroy, to several university presses.  It’s a highly irreverent tale about a street musician who joins the Occupy Oakland Movement of 2011.  He does not join for political reasons but because he wants to get on television and become instantly famous.  I received strong compliments from some university presses, but none of them wanted to publish it.  I think if a university press had published it, somebody’s job would have been on the line.  But Empty Sink, an online journal unencumbered by politics, picked up the piece.  Empty Sink published Call Me Pomeroy in its inaugural issue and deemed it the Editor’s Choice.


What are you working on now? Can you relate it to your previous responses?


Right now, I’m writing more Pomeroy stories.  The editors at Empty Sink like the character and want to see more him.  In April, they will be publishing another Pomeroy story—in which Pomeroy and a band of Blac Bloc Anarchists shanghai San Francisco Bay Ferry.  And I’m working on a third Pomeroy story for the October issue.

Do these stories relate to my previous responses?  Yes—because they also comment on the state of America today.  Also, I’ve known some Pomeroy types in my criminal justice career.  He is in and out of prison all the time.


 What are you reading (aside from your editorial journal)? Why?


I have recently read Johnny Got His Gun, Drift, Atonement, and Lone Survivor—books that capture the disconnect between war and the polemics of war, which is one of the themes in The Siege.  I’ve also been reading The Blood Meridian—it’s like a nightmare you can’t let go of.  And I’ve been re-reading old favorites: The Catcher in the Rye, Waiting for Godot, The Old Man and the Sea.  These books are as much a part of me as old friends.  


 Who is your favorite author, living or dead? Why?


I would have to go with James Joyce and Ulysses.  Not for the story line—the book doesn’t have any—but for its multiplicity of styles.  In reading and re-reading Ulysses, I have found many techniques I can bring to my own writing.  The Cyclops chapter, for example, uses gigantism, where everything is portrayed as larger than life.  It also uses myopia.  The Cyclops character—a fierce anti-Semite called The Citizen—sees everything through a single distorted lens.  I have used hyperbole and myopia in the Pomeroy tales.  Pomeroy, a homeless reprobate, vastly exaggerates his musical talents.  He also believes every woman he meets wants to go to bed with him.  Hence, he has many misadventures.