‘I Don’t Think Anyone Grows Up Wanting to Be a Prison Guard’

A corrections officer reflects on 15 years of working among incarcerated people

Photo illustration, source: 4x6/iStock/Getty Images Plus

Voices From Inside the System is a new GEN series where we interview people who have had firsthand experience in industries with especially fraught histories of systemic racism. We asked our subjects to think deeply about the role they played and the work they did. We asked them why they stayed or why they left, how they might be complicit, or if they thought they — or anyone — could fundamentally change the system.

This 38-year-old white corrections officer has been working in New York state prisons for 15 years. According to the Sentencing Project, one in three Black men born in 2001 can expect to go to prison in their lifetime. The prison population in New York is nearly 50,000, and the ratio of Black to white incarcerated people in the state is eight to one. This officer spoke with journalist Haley Cohen Gilliland about his experience.

I don’t think anyone grows up wanting to be a prison guard. I was going to school for my two-year degree in criminal justice and waiting for the local police department to call me. I had gotten a letter from New York state asking if I was interested in being a prison guard and I said no. Then about a month later, my wife goes, “Well, I’m pregnant.” So I called back and said, “Hey, are you still looking for prison guards?”

I remember the first day I was working alone. I was scared shitless. I pulled up to my first shift and I’ve got an inmate staring at me. I’m brand new, you can tell I am. I’ve got my shiny boots and my uniform is pressed and all that. I’m 22-years-old, and he looks at me and he goes, “What the fuck are you looking at?” My reply was, “You.” I didn’t realize that was a challenge. And he goes, “I’m going to kill you.” So I start thinking, “Huh, maybe he’s really here for killing someone and he’s got no problem doing it.” My first day. My first half-hour into my shift. And I’m like, “What the fuck did I really do with my life?”

But you get through it. A lot of times it’s just a facade. They want to see how you’re going to react. Now I would go straight to humor. If someone says, “What are you looking at?” I’d just be like, “Not much, but if that’s your tough guy face, go work on it in the mirror.”

There’s been a few guys that I could see myself being friends with outside of the place. Just because you do something stupid doesn’t necessarily make you a bad person. There was a guy who got into a bar fight. He ended up punching a guy and the guy fell and hit his head and ultimately ended up dying. And this guy was charged with murder in the second and he’s going to do a lot of time for a bar fight. So is he a bad guy or did he just make a stupid decision?

The racial inequities in prison are discouraging, I’m not going to lie. I don’t understand how 10% to 13% of our population makes up, give or take, a third of the prison population. [14% of the U.S. population is Black and 38% of incarcerated people are Black according to the Federal Bureau of Prisons.] It’s discouraging because you’re like, “Huh, I’ve got 45 guys in a block, 30 of them are Black. Why? How did this happen?”

My personal opinion is that it’s more socioeconomic. Can you afford to go to a trade school? Can you afford to go to college without taking on massive debt? Does someone care about you enough to push your ass through school? You know what I mean? But when you come to prison, you’re already there. The prison system itself? We didn’t do anything to put you there.

There’s racism within the system, sure. I remember seeing this one corrections officer, he took his shirt off at the end of the night and he had a swastika tattoo on his arm. How the hell did you get through the background process? Because you have to explain your tattoos. Lo and behold, he eventually got fired for his tattoo.

Have I heard racial epithets in prison? Absolutely. But it’s just one of those things where we’re already in prison. Should I correct the inmates’ behavior for dropping the N-word?

I’ve had people ask me, “Is prison intrinsically racist?” I go, “It’s just the system.” We only deal with what’s given to us. So if the police and the courts put nothing but minorities in there, I’ve got to try to exercise care, custody, and control. We are a necessary evil. On top of the stupid, minor drug possessions that we get, we do have killers in there.

It’s not bad work, but there’s no gratification. You can try to help people, and absolutely you should. If you’re going into it because you were the bullied kid in high school and you just want a little bit of power, you’re going into it wrong. If you just genuinely want to help people, good for you, but you don’t know the end of the story.

I spoke to hundreds, if not thousands of inmates in 15 years, and you don’t know if they’re using that little bit of advice you gave them. I remember there was one guy who killed two people in a robbery — he did 20-something years — and as far as inmates go, he was a great inmate. We bounced ideas off of each other. He’s genuinely smart. He’s earned degrees behind prison walls, but he left, and I don’t know what happened to him.

A lot of people base their perception of incarcerated people on movies. There aren’t too many jail shows, but in all of them, guards are the bad guys. You look at the Shawshank Redemption. We were bad guys. If you can tell me a prison show where we’re actually the good guy, I’ll go watch it. We’re not all the bad guys. I mean, yeah, I have your loved ones locked up and whether you think it’s justified or not, they’re there, but it’s not my fault that they’re there.

I don’t want any of my kids doing what I do. I’m the only one in my family that has worked in the prison system and it should stay that way. Other than the benefits, there’s no tangible thing at the end of the day that I can look back and say, “Look at that. I did that.” If you’re a carpenter or a plumber, you can look back and say, “Hey, I built that house.” At the end of the day, after punching out, I can just say, “Hey, I didn’t die today.”

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Writer. Words in @nytimes , @natgeo , @Outsidemagazine @VanityFair. Previously covered the American West + Argentina @TheEconomist . www.hcgilliland.com

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