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Thinking back to the days prior to working in law enforcement I recall the intense desire to become a police officer.

I especially wanted to work in a sheriff’s office. However, openings in the local sheriff’s office were as scarce as hen’s teeth. It was a job that deputies loved and there they remained. Sure, I’d applied and I’d spoken to the sheriff to express my eagerness to become a deputy. But his reply was the typical “I’ll keep you in mind if an opening becomes available.”

So, while impatiently waiting, I decided to apply for a job as a corrections officer within Virginia’s state prison system. And, soon after applying I received a call directing me to come in for an interview.

The day for the initial meeting finally arrived and I was escorted inside to a small conference room. To set the stage, a three person interview panel were seated behind a long table. The chair where my escort indicated that I was to sit, was positioned approximately eight feet in front of the trio of white-shirted ranking officers—one captain, a lieutenant, and a sergeant. No one had passed out smiles that morning.

The captain spoke first, introducing himself and the others. He then asked me to tell them a bit about myself and my background and why on earth did I want to work in a place that could be described as hell’s stinky armpit.

Could you, would you?

When I finished my opening spiel, the real questioning began. “Have you ever belonged to a gang?” “Do you personally know anyone who’s in prison?” “Have you ever been struck, punched, or physically injured by anyone?” What are your views on the death penalty?” Could you shoot another person, if necessary?” Could you bring yourself to shoot a coworker if they’d been taken hostage by an inmate and that shooting through the fellow officer was the only means of preventing the escape?” “Could you?” Would you? And why?”

A few weeks later I received another call instructing me to report to the prison for a physical and a drug test. Two weeks after the exam and drug testing I was officially hired and was scheduled to report for orientation and assignment of uniforms and other equipment, including the first badge I’d ever pinned to a uniform shirt.

Then I received my duty assignment, a prison in the middle of nowhere that consisted of four separate sections, with each building surrounded by a tall, razor-wire topped fence. The four individual areas were contained by a double set of larger fencing that encompassed the entire place. Towers were strategically positioned around the perimeter and an asphalt drive circled the prison, just outside the fence.

Armed officers drove around the compound on a never ending loop. I found out during my orientation that this particular prison was where the state housed many of the inmates that other prisons couldn’t handle.

The prisoners were divided into four categories—those with medical and mental problems, bad-to-the bone dangerous, younger inmates, and finally a mixture of “not super rowdy but were there anyway.” Inmates classified as either of the four groups were housed appropriately—medical and mental were assigned to C Unit, younger inmates to D Unit, the mean and nasty to B Unit, and “the rest” to A.

The Guard Shack

An officer’s station, a small building, sat in the middle of the main compound yard. Inmates were allowed inside this area only when moving from place to place and under controlled circumstances—medical department, visiting room, etc. Each individual section had it’s own recreation yard. The inmates were not permitted to mix (No As with Bs, etc.). The only exception would be during visitations and medical visits.

Nurses delivered medication to each unit. It was at this time when prisoners were permitted to address their medical needs. They would then schedule an appointment to see the prison doctor who, by the way, only visited the prison only once or twice per month unless there was an emergency.

Okay, so I’m at work on my first day and they’ve assigned me to the main compound. My job was to check the passes of inmates before manually unlocking the gates to allow them outside of their designated unit yards. Yes, each gate was locked with a large padlock and I carried a huge ring of keys, many of which I never learned their purpose.

When I arrived at the main gate that morning, an officer used a key to open the lock and let me inside. We walked to the “guard shack” where he gave me a quick briefing about the goings-on during his shift (nothing at all) and then handed me the keys. We walked back to the gate where I opened the lock to let him out. On the way we passed by large man wearing jeans, work boots, a green long-sleeved shirt, and a bright yellow hardhat. The officer spoke as did Mr. Hardhat. Then I snapped the lock closed and returned to the guard shack.

Belly of the Beast!

I was in the process of entering a bit of information in the logbook when “Hardhat” poked his head inside the door. He said good morning and offered his name and mentioned he’d be around if I needed anything. Of course, I appreciated his presence since I felt as if I’d been shoved into a caged arena as the star of a Roman execution ad bestias, “to the beasts.”

Assuming Hardhat was a prison maintenance worker I gladly took him up on his offer and he joined me out on the yard to advise me as to where and when inmate movements should take place. He also kindly provided whispered information regarding which prisoners could be trusted and which could not.

An hour or so later Hardhat suddenly made himself scarce when he spied a sergeant on his way to check on me. Everything was in order—inmate movements were flowing smoothly, logbooks were in excellent shape, keys and other equipment were present, etc. He was pleased.

As my supervisor started to walk away he stopped and turned around to say, “By the way, if you see an inmate walking around wearing a hardhat, send him to C Unit. He didn’t show up for an appointment. Not unusual for him, though, so not to worry. He often hangs out in this area. But he’s as wacky as a box of Fruit Loops. Sometimes he thinks he works here.”

Believe me, the call from the sheriff’s office didn’t come soon enough.