‘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
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…