Confessions Of A Maximum Security Prison Guard

prison guard outside open cell doorBy Paul Szoldra

Life behind bars is a challenge for prisoners serving time, but they aren't the only ones in maximum security prisons dealing with stress. Corrections officers responsible for overseeing prisons work in one of the most stressful and hazardous jobs in the U.S. -- topping the list of occupations with some of the highest nonfatal on-the-job injuries.

One Ohio CO took to the popular Reddit networking site to answer questions in an "Ask-Me-Anything" format, offering a very interesting (and somewhat disturbing) look at the life of a prison gatekeeper.

Some answers have been slightly edited for clarity.

On whether he has ever been afraid for his life while on the job:

I once denied access to chow 5 minutes too early and had 70 irate inmates standing in front of me pounding their fists. I called for backup, but at that moment I feared for my life due to their sheer strength in numbers.

I once was clocking out and was told by my supervisor that there was a riot planned in the block I was working that day and they planned to take a CO hostage. Thanks a lot, boss.

More: 10 Most Dangerous Jobs In The U.S.

On the dangers that officers face outside of work:

My wife and I have a code phrase. If we are out and about and I say "time to find socks," and quickly walk away -- that means I've spotted a former inmate that could possibly wish harm on me and my family. The life of my family and my life are threatened every day, followed by "I get out in xxx days." It only takes one to follow up.

He went on to say he's run into former inmates twice, but they ended "without incident." He also noted that "time to find socks" was not the actual code he uses.

On some of the unique weapons prisoners are able to create:

I see a lot of straightened, sharpened bed springs. A razor blade melted into a toothbrush handle. Tightly rolled paper and elastic band from a pair of underwear can be used to make a lethal bow and arrow.

More: Confessions Of A Prison Doctor

On what was the most disturbing contraband item ever discovered at his facility:

Cell phones are HORRIBLE. Gang leaders can quickly communicate and coordinate with other inmates at other institutions. Riots, murders ... Things like that. I've found steroids. Freakishly strong, insubordinate inmates that refuse to [do] anything you ask are dangerous. Especially when it becomes physical.

On how prisoners can possibly get such an item:

Staff bring in phones and in return are paid on the street by inmates' families.

I've heard [smugglers can be paid] $1500 for a smart phone. But I've never fully investigated. I value my career and livelihood of my family [too much] to do something impulsive like that.

On the importance of respect in prison:

The older gang leaders are respected by staff if they give the respect. They don't have to lift a finger on the compound. Their soldiers get them food, clothes, press their clothing, do all their work really. Older inmates that are respectable are called "convicts." A young gang banger is an "inmate."

More: A New Career Option For Ex-Cons: White-Collar Jail-Prep Tutor

On how prisoners find out about convicted child molesters and rapists:

When they call their families, they have the family member look up the inmate by name or number on the state offender search Web page where charges are listed. Child molesters normally have a very distinguishing look to them.

He agreed that inmates generally despise rapists and child molesters, saying "they are preyed upon and extorted very much."

On how to survive your first day in the joint:

Mean what you say and say what you mean. If you tell a guy you will get him something, get it for him. If you tell a guy you're gonna slam him if he doesn't go back to his cell, well ... get busy.

On whether he ever feels pity towards any of the inmates:

It does break my heart when I see an inmate holding his kids in the visit room. Those children did nothing to have their father taken away. A father is a protector and a mentor. Those children are missing all of that.

Ted Koppel:

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I thought I would weigh in on this debate. I have two degrees at the undergraduate level as well as extensive experience working with people. I have done direct supervision in Segregation, General Pop as well as a Differentiated Needs Unit. I bring with me two principles into every unit and each situation I find myself in: Respect and Responsibility. First, everyone is a person, worthy of a basic level of respect and civility. I expect inmates as well as my peers to conduct themselves with a level of respect; for me, for themselves for their peers who share the same unit as well as for MY peers who happen to enter that subunit. When people who are incarcerated "**** the bed" (make a poor decision) and trust me, more than a few of them do; my expectation is also that they are Responsible or Accountable for their conduct.

I address maladaptive behaviour as soon as I witness it. I normally don't charge inmates unless circumstances absolutely require me to do so. Rather, I prefer discussing the matter with the person who finds themselves on "the hot seat". If, during the course of our discussion, I witness remorse and I get a genuine sense that they would act differently if they could rewind the clock, most are told to go and enjoy the remainder of their break and "miscue no more" as I say. Sometimes, at either the request of the offender or as a result of my personal intervention, a work booklet that covers the nature of the transgression will be recommended in lieu of charges.

Often these booklets are from John Howard and they provide a more than satisfactory consequence. So, if someone has made a poor decision and referred to me in a derogatory manner, I might impose a work booklet entitled "Making Better Decisions", for instance. This allows the person to complete the readings and reflect upon what they have do, or not done. It also allows them to walk away from the exchange without having their sense of self worth further impaired. My God! These people are in jail; they know they've made mistakes, they have already been marginalized and made to feel as though they are second class citizens. They certainly don't me reminding them yet again that they are somehow

At the end of the day, I can say that I really do enjoy my work. Sometimes it has challenges but there are very few occupations that are free from stresses and trials. I don't believe that I am a weak staff and my peers, many of whom have far more experience than I have referred to me as a "strong officer". I deny nothing to an inmate unless their behaviour or some external assessment warrants restrictions (SUH and removal of utensils for instance). I get mildly hassled from a few of my peers however I conduct myself at all times with the parameters of what is allowed by the unit rules and my rejoinder, "that person has an entitlement to a bar of soap, or reading material" is a phrase that fellow officers have a hard time rebutting.

We work with human beings.

Tuesday at 4:38 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

How long will it be before prisoners go union? I hear unions are needing members. That way they can negoiate who can sleep with who. lol

May 30 2013 at 5:14 PM Report abuse -1 rate up rate down Reply

I worked inthe prison system for 25 years 21 of which was in supervision . 16 years in a maximum and the remainder in a medium facility. I found that many employees were just as problematic as the inmates. The minute I had time enough to retire I did. I still have bad dreams but they got fewer and fewer as the years have gone by.

May 30 2013 at 9:57 AM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply
i hate cops

I think jail gurards are just as corrupt as the local alley cop.

May 29 2013 at 10:22 PM Report abuse -2 rate up rate down Reply

Now look, I was a CO for 10 years. Yes, it is a stressful job, but not for your own safety but the safety of the inmates. It took me about 2 years to understand the dynamics of the job. They don't teach you the psychological aspects of the job in the academy. You have to learn that on your own. What it boils down to is very simple. Yes, the inmates are the scum of the earth. They lie, cheat and steal. But, when you are in their world in the facility you have to recognize who your dealing with. If you're fair and show respect to them, they will do the same to you. If you go in and expect to bust heads and brow beat them you will lose. My biggest challenge was not with the inmates but with co-workers who were lazy and incompetent. In my facility there was no coordination between shifts. I would come to work and find nothing had been done in the previous shift. Then I had to deal with the complaints from the inmates. There is so much that goes on that the public doesn't realize. Geesh, just had to vent!

May 29 2013 at 12:28 PM Report abuse +2 rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to Bill's comment

By the way, I quit because of the bull I had to take from the administration and the disgust I had for co-workers, not because of the inmates!

May 29 2013 at 12:34 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply
Tom P

You know the hazards when you take the job so quit your whining. You are dealing with criminals not choir boys

May 29 2013 at 11:43 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Goes both ways! It aint easy doing time!

May 29 2013 at 9:59 AM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to Sammy's comment

Then don't be a criminal.

May 29 2013 at 10:19 AM Report abuse +2 rate up rate down Reply

Life in prison should be ALOT harder than it is now.
When there are ex cons that want back in, that should be a very telling sign.

May 29 2013 at 9:11 AM Report abuse +3 rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to appalled_patriot's comment

True, but our society makes it very difficult for offenders to get on their feet. Try finding a job fresh out of prison. No one wants you. So what do you do for money? Something that may get you in trouble again. I think once the sentence is served, and you've paid your debt to society, your background shouldn't weigh down your future.

May 29 2013 at 10:52 AM Report abuse +2 rate up rate down Reply

To boldly walk where street cops fear to tread. Alone and unarmed.

May 29 2013 at 4:56 AM Report abuse +3 rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to Mike's comment

so true

May 29 2013 at 8:17 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Myron E Holley J


May 29 2013 at 3:58 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

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