Behind the walls
By Brian Dawe, American Cop Magazine
Photos: Dave Douglas
Like most kids growing up, I often spent days with my friends playing cowboys and Indians, soldier, fireman, and cops and robbers. Never once can I recall locking my friends in the basement and playing Correctional Officer. In fact, after 23 years in corrections I can honestly say I’ve never met anyone who planned to become a Correctional Officer. I believe it’s one of the reasons my profession is one of the most misunderstood and under appreciated in the nation. We often come to it by way of economic necessity, after a military career, or as a stepping-stone to other more “respected” careers in law enforcement.
Most of what the public believes about Correctional Officers comes from old Cagney movies, ridiculous and brutal shows like HBO’s “OZ,” or the highly popular “Prison Break.” We’re often portrayed as crueler than the inmates themselves. Some malicious “guard’ or unscrupulous warden is the ultimate bad guy. The only movie I’ve seen in the past 30 years coming close to an accurate portrayal was “The Green Mile.” Even then the most despicable person was a Correctional Officer. It’s sadly ironic, only in a story written by the nation’s premiere horror writer, in someone’s worst nightmare, are we portrayed as the “good guys.” Our parents taught us to respect the police, admire our firefighters and honor the military. No one ever mentioned how we should feel about Correctional Officers, except of course Hollywood and the headlineseeking media.
Would You Do This?
Rather than being looked upon as the doormat in the law enforcement matrix, we should be hailed as the backbone. The men and women doing our job are heroes. In a society where all the citizens are felons, we go to work everyday — unarmed, undermanned, ill equipped and often inadequately trained.
Each year over 33,000 Correctional Officers are assaulted. In the last year records were released on the prosecution rates of those assaults, only 10.9 percent resulted in prosecutions. Yet over 20 percent of the Officers assaulted required medical attention. How loud would the public outcry be if only one in 10 assaults on our city streets, where the assailant was clearly identified, were prosecuted? What would morale be like in our police departments if only one in 10 assaults of our cops were prosecuted? What would our communities be like if the criminal element knew they had only a one in 10 chance of being prosecuted, even if we knew who they were and could prove they committed the assault?
The number and severity of the assaults behind the walls has dramatically increased in the past decade. In the past six years, 47 of our brothers and sisters have died in the line of duty. With continued overcrowding, understaffing and more violent gang members being incarcerated, it will only continue to get worse. But, assaults aren’t the only problem we face.
Behind the walls, the AIDS/HIV rate is over three times higher than on the streets. The Bureau of Justice Statistics reported in 2003 there were 23,659 inmates testing positive for HIV and 6,000 confirmed cases of full-blown AIDS. Yet in many jurisdictions Officers are denied access to inmate medical histories — even after coming in contact with bodily fluids while performing their job. From 1996 to 2001 we saw a 958 percent increase in the number of inmates with TB, and currently it’s estimated over 25 percent of the inmate population is infected with Hepatitis C.
As a result of budget cuts and the closing of many state mental institutions, over 200,000 inmates now in our care suffer from major depression and the National Commission on Correctional Health estimates anywhere from 22,000 to 44,000 are schizophrenic.
Yet everyday over 400,000 of us punch the clock and go to work in our nation’s hellholes. At some facilities raincoats are standard issue “behind the walls” to protect from being “gassed.” In prison parlance, being “gassed” is when an inmate combines urine, feces, semen, vomit, mucus, blood and whatever other bodily fluid they can collect and throws it in our faces. Is it any wonder we have the second highest mortality rate of any occupation in the nation, or on average our last birthday is our 58th, and we have a 39 percent higher risk of suicide than any other profession? You’d think it couldn’t get much worse — it does.
What Are They Thinking?
One of the most depressing issues facing my profession today, and one that illustrates just how far we still have to go, is a lack of recognition and respect from our own brothers and sisters in the law enforcement community. In Colorado, the Law Enforcement Memorial Committee refuses to allow the names of Correctional Officers killed in the line of duty on the law enforcement memorial wall. What happened? Did the inmates suddenly become good guys when they went to jail? The same convicts that murder cops also murder us. Why is it any different? There are many who believe Correctional Officers aren’t law enforcement officers. Would they be willing to deal with hundreds of convicted murderers, rapists, child molesters, gang-bangers and armed robbers with nothing but a side-handle baton? In the housing unit I worked in Massachusetts, I oversaw 44 convicted felons. For protection I had my training, a oneway radio and a pen. In Pennsylvania, one of the most powerful police organizations in the nation actively sought, and indeed helped kill, legislation granting Peace Officer status to Pennsylvania State Correctional Officers. If passed, the bill would have meant better training, better equipment and more recognition for those Correctional Officers. Why the opposition?
My profession has deep respect for the police in our communities; it’s unfortunate this respect is all too often not reciprocated. Nevertheless, it’s not all bad news. By the recognition we receive from the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund and their Chairman, Craig Floyd, we’re making progress. The NLEOMF does recognize and memorialize Correctional Officers killed in the line of duty each year in Washington, D.C. at their annual memorial service.
It’s my hope those of you that believe Correctional Officers should not be included in the law enforcement community will take the time to reevaluate the position. Please remember this: we know you catch them, but we’re the ones that keep them. It’s all about protecting the public — we’re in this together.