Reflections of a Former Federal Corrections Officer
“Welcome to gladiator school,” I tell a freshly transferred inmate as smoke from a fire in the cell block fills the corridor and ten of my fellow guards trod by in heavily armored riot gear. We pick him up off the ground, and I note his terror and confusion. This place, buried behind endless layers of concrete and steel, reeks of tension, fear, and despair. There is a smell to this despair: a hopeless stench of iron, emptiness, and shit. It can be felt like a dense, transparent cloud, especially in the corridor leading to the Special Housing Unit (SHU), or segregation, in one of the highest security and most violent penitentiaries in the federal system. It can be heard as the solid metal doors slam open and closed. We escort the inmate through the faded green corridor and into the deepest hole of this detached society. Here, completely isolated from the civilized world, an estranged community is separated by only a few layers of brick, some rolls of razor wire, and gun towers stocked with automatic high-powered rifles.
In segregation, inmates are treated with intense institutional contempt. They’re stripped of everything, literally and figuratively, and given only the necessary essentials. They’re placed in a box with no way to tell time other than the slow shifting of the sun, rarely viewable through a four-inch-wide window. Movements outside the cell only occur under heavy restraints and with multiple guard escorts. Their material goods are strictly regulated to prevent any fashioning of weapons. The psychological hardening of this forced isolation is astonishing. Physical hardships are of no comparison to the toll that solitude has on the mind. Many break down, physically and psychologically, while very few develop any useful emotional qualities from their time in SHU. Those who thrive in this environment certainly earn a peculiar respect, but more often than not, this raw dismantling of individuality, forced isolation, and psychological torture inspires fear and neurosis.
Memories and reflections like these, gathered from my time spent as a federal corrections officer, will stay with me for the rest of my life, along with quite a few more. For instance, I found out very quickly that unlike the strict oversight the prison system maintains over SHU residents, the penitentiary general populations often control themselves. Gangs will regulate their own members to prevent unwanted attention or embarrassing situations. This also allows them more freedom to pursue illicit activities. In one instance, during a shakedown, or cell search, I pulled two knives out of the mattress of a Sureno gang member. After locking his cell and returning to the office, I turned around to see J.G., a Mexican Mafia Black Hand (General), standing in my doorway. He apologized and told me that the inmate in question was from Victorville and things were run differently over there. After a short talk, we decided that instead of being put into storage, the individual who possessed the knives would lose all of his personal property, to include food, clothing, and books. His property was divvied out to other members, after an intense verbal reprimanding handed out by J.G. to the other gang members. The repercussions handed down by the gangs are commonly worse than those administered by the prison staff.
In order to bridge the gap between prison politics and federal policy, I had to develop my own set of rules. To successfully function as they did in this unconventional society, I became one of them, to a degree, by adapting to the politics, social networks, and lingo. I quickly figured out who hated whom, and why, even if it made no rational sense. I worked to transcend irrational motivations and accept the unorthodox morality of prison politics. I had to accept that despite witnessing a female guard getting attacked, inmates wouldn’t prevent it, due mostly to anticipated repercussions.
Thus, to survive mentally and physically, I had to become a part-time resident of these societies, sometimes utilizing cunning and forceful disciplinary strategies that responded to their societal codes while not violating federal law. Unconventional tactics were necessary in maintaining the functionality of those societies. Norms applied to civilized cultures were broken for the sake of maintaining order. So were laws regarding humane treatment. For instance, I was once taking too much static from a DC Black inmate. Given our high number of DC Blacks, I decided to pick three other gang members’ cells on either side of his and destroy them. By the book, I filled dumpsters full of excessive contraband, most of which took months or years to acquire. The following day, after the standard dinner lockdown period, I left him in his cell while I released the rest of the inmates. He raged, kicking his door and screaming at me. I stood there while a handful of the biggest, meanest gangsters stood around me and watched. Fight or flight. I opened the door to him huffing with clenched fists. He shook his head slightly and walked past me. They knew he had crossed the line, and this is how he was dealt with. Each cell block was different, just as each guard was different. For me, keeping them inside the walls and maintaining civility were my top priorities, and I used whatever means necessary to achieve that. Subsequently, that bridging of ideals led to an unfamiliar sense of similarity.
Many inmates own a core set of values they cling to no matter what, and they will fight to the death to maintain them. Ironically, the higher echelon military can often relate more closely to a high-max security inmate than to an ordinary citizen or guard. When someone looks at the primordial elements of a tight-knit military organization, they’ll notice that their basic values are not that different from those of the Mexican Mafia or other criminal groups. Your men and your group are held higher than yourself. Core values create a psychological conflict with other societal norms and often explain why unimaginative, by-the-book guards can’t function effectively in those societies. When inmates were causing excessive strain on some of the guards, such as perpetual verbal and physical attacks, the more perceptive and pragmatic guards would often wage their own unconventional wars of excessive harassment, food manipulation, and sleep deprivation against the offending parties. Many of the inmates understood this. They saw the prison side come out and knew we were taking care of our own. In many instances, the only thing separating a well-adapted guard from an inmate is the color of his clothes. As an Aryan Brotherhood member in SHU once told us, “You two are just a couple of fucking thugs in cops’ clothing.”
Above all, the most important aspect in these strangely dysfunctional communities is the individual respect one can acquire. Fear doesn’t work. Threats don’t work on a man who has two life sentences. The only way to adapt to any of these societies is to be a solid individual. The men in khaki generally have a better understanding of individual respect than the men in blue uniforms. Individual respect is something that will allow anyone to walk through any cell block unwaveringly. And that respect isn’t gained from being an arrogant or unnecessarily disrespectful guard. Many will treat an inmate as a subhuman animal and then question why that person lashes out in response. On one occasion, an overly zealous guard decided to confiscate a pornographic magazine from the prison’s leader of the Crips, in full view of the entire cell block. The Crip, who has two life sentences, handed the magazine over, then stood up and broke the guard’s jaw with one punch. In terms of prison politics, that guard deserved his punishment because he attempted to enact blind authority in a situation instead of compromising and producing better results for both sides. Accordingly, there is a fine line between enacting your authority as a guard while still making decisions that benefit your small society as a whole. If you come to develop that respect, you now have the ability to walk into any of those societies, no matter how far detached from the normalcy of outside civilization, and control it.
I left the prison after two years with an adapted sense of normalcy. I saw humanity in the most unusual places and learned that what we perceive as right doesn’t always work. I discovered a new set of communal politics without ever leaving my own country and was educated by the most complex of societal structures. Despite having been surrounded by perpetual despair and violence, I left the prison unscathed and more aware of some of life’s core dynamics.