>Users:   login   |  register       > email     > people    


Behind the walls
By Brian Dawe
Published: 02/04/2008

Bulbs Editor’s note: Corrections veteran, Brian Dawe, provides a hard and realistic look at the challenges COs face today. This article was previously published in American Cop magazine.

Most of what the public believes about correctional officers comes from old Jimmy Cagney movies, ridiculous and brutal shows like HBO’s “OZ,” or the highly popular “Prison Break.” Prison movies such as “The Shawshank Redemption” and “Alcatraz” often portray us as crueler than the inmates themselves. More often than not some malicious “guard’ or unscrupulous warden is the ultimate bad guy in these depictions.

The only movie I have seen in the past 30 years that even came close to portraying us with any accuracy was “The Green Mile”, and even then the most despicable person in that movie was a CO. I find it sadly ironic that only in a story written by the nation’s premiere horror writer are we portrayed with any sense of truthfulness. Only in a horror movie, in someone’s worst nightmare, are we the “good guys.” This is an image that has done more damage to my profession than most people realize or care to admit.

When I was growing up, like most kids my friends and I often spent our days playing cowboys and Indians, soldier, fireman, and cops and robbers. Yet, never once can I recall locking my friends in the basement and playing correctional officer. In fact, after over 23 years working in corrections I can honestly say I have never met anyone in my line of work who planned to become a CO.

That, I believe, is one of the reasons why my profession is one of the most misunderstood and under appreciated in the nation. We often come to it by way of economic necessity, after a military career, or as a stepping stone to other more “respected” careers in law enforcement.

Our military men and women, our police officers and our firefighters are all highly visible members of the public safety community. Our parents taught us to respect the police, to admire our firefighters and to honor the military. No one ever mentioned how we should feel about correctional officers, except, of course, Hollywood and the headline seeking media.

I contend that rather than being looked upon as the doormat of the law enforcement matrix we should be hailed as the backbone. The men and women who do our job are the unseen heroes of law enforcement. Everyday we go to work in a society where all the citizens are felons, and we do it mostly unarmed, undermanned, ill-equipped and often with inadequate training.

Each year in this nation more than 33,000 COs are assaulted. In the last year, records were released on the prosecution rates of those assaults; it was revealed that only 10.9 percent resulted in prosecutions. Yet more than 20 percent of the officers assaulted required medical attention. How loud would the public outcry be if only one in ten assaults on our city streets were prosecuted when the assailant was clearly identified

What would the morale be like in our police departments if only one in ten assaults of our nation’s police officers were prosecuted? What would our communities be like if the criminal element knew they had only a one in ten chance of being prosecuted, even if we knew who they were and could prove they committed the assault?

The number and severity of the assaults we are seeing behind the walls has dramatically increased in the past decade. In the past six years, 47 of our brothers and sisters have died in the line of duty. With continued overcrowding, understaffing and the advent of more and more violent gang members being incarcerated, it’s only going to continue to get worse. Nevertheless, assaults are hardly the only problem we face.

Behind the walls, the AIDS/HIV rate is more than three times higher than on the streets. The Bureau of Justice Statistics reported that at year end 2003, there were 23,659 inmates who tested positive for HIV, with nearly 6,000 confirmed cases of full blown AIDS. Yet in many jurisdictions officers are denied access to inmate medical histories— even if they have come in contact with bodily fluids as a result of performing their jobs. From 1996 to 2001, we saw a 958 percent increase in the number of inmates detected with TB, and currently more than 25 percent of the inmate population is estimated to be infected with Hepatitis C.

As a result of budget cuts and the closing of many state mental institutions, more than, 200,000 inmates now in our care suffer from major depression and the National Commission on Correctional Health estimates that anywhere from 22,000 to 44,000 are schizophrenic.

Regardless of these horrendous conditions we work under, every day more than 400,000 of us punch the clock and go to work in our nation’s hellholes. At some of our facilities, raincoats have become standard issue behind the walls to protect us from being “gassed.” (In prison parlance being “gassed” is when an inmate combines urine, feces, semen, vomit, mucus, blood and whatever other bodily fluid they can collect and throw it in our faces.)

Is it any wonder that as a result of these conditions we have the second highest mortality rate of any occupation in the nation, or that on average our last birthday is our 58th, and that we have a 39 percent higher risk of suicide than any other profession? You’d think it couldn’t get much worse, but it does.

One of the most depressing issues facing my profession today, and one that illustrates just how far we have yet to go, is the lack of recognition and respect we receive from our own brothers and sisters in the law enforcement community. In Colorado, the Law Enforcement Memorial Committee refuses to allow the names of correctional officers who have been killed in the line of duty to be placed on the law enforcement memorial wall. What happened? Did the inmates all of a sudden become good guys when they went to jail? The same convicts that murdered their fellow officers also murder mine. Why is it any different?

There are many who believe that correctional officers are not law enforcement officers. I wonder if they would be willing to deal with hundreds of convicted murderers, rapists, child molesters, gang-bangers and armed robbers with nothing but a side handle baton. In the housing unit where I worked in Massachusetts I alone oversaw 44 convicted felons.

For protection I had my training, a one way radio, and a pen. In Pennsylvania one of the most powerful police organizations in the nation actively sought, and indeed did help to kill, legislation that would have granted Peace Officer status to Pennsylvania State correctional officers. If passed, the bill would have meant better training, better equipment and more recognition for those Correctional Officers. Why the opposition?

We have a deep respect in my profession for the police in our communities; it is unfortunate that this respect is all too often not reciprocated. Nevertheless, it’s not all bad news. As is evident by the recognition we receive from the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund and their Chairman Craig Floyd, we are making progress. The NLEOMF does recognize and memorialize COs killed in the line of duty each year in Washington, DC at their annual memorial service.

It is my hope that many of you who have read this article, and who find yourself at odds with the contention that we are an important part of the public safety matrix and law enforcement community, will think long and hard about that misconception.

We ask that you remember this: we know the police catch them, but COs are the ones who keep them. It’s all about protecting the public, and we are all in this together.

Brian Dawe is co-founder of the American Correctional Officer Intelligence Network. He also is a founding member of Corrections USA and served as their Executive Director until August, 2006. He has been in corrections for more than 24 years, and served as a Massachusetts CO from 1982 to 1998. Dawe co-founded the Massachusetts Correctional Officers Federated Union where he served on the statewide Executive Board for nine years, and served as Grievance Coordinator, Executive Secretary and Vice President. He can be reached at ACOIN1@aol.com.

Other articles by Dawe:

Turning off the hot wire, 12/13/07 http://www.corrections.com/news/article/17333


Comments:

  1. amorbam on 04/09/2010:

    I have always thought to myself and outloud, that Correction Officers do not get any repect at all. I hate to be refered to as a Guard. I have been in Corrections for 20 yrs , I have moved up the ranks to Capt.(Shift Supervisor). I have been pulled over several times on my way to work and as soon as the Police Officer notices my Uniform, I get additude from them, telling me I need to tell my people to learn how to drive and we are not law enforcememnt. I have worked in the private Corrections industry , so I really get shit on in the public. We are currently under a U.S Marshall contract and we deal with the worst of the worst. The inmates that other agencies do not want to deal with. I started in the private industry working for Corecctions Corp of America. The Facility was Northeast Ohio Correction Center, by the way , go ahead and google that name with the year 1997 and you will see what I was dealing with. My last year at that place, we made it on 60 minutes , 20/20 and Fox news.We had a contract with Washinton D.C and they sent us 2000 of the worst inmates in the Country. In 2 years we had 37 staff assaults , 6 escapes , 2 staff rapes and 2 murders. As a C/O we were literally afraid to go into the housing units for fear of getting the @#$@ kicked out of us. Now if that doesn't deserve repect, to face your fears everyday and go into a housing unit full of murderers of 60 or more then I dont know what deserves repect and my way of thinking is way off. BUT I DONT THINK SO. AMORBAM

  2. musipilot on 10/16/2008:

    Dear Cos and Friends, I enjoyed your article very much, and I agree with everything you said. However, I wish to offer another side of the coin which you as a body of professionals need to address. I spent an unplanned week among New York's Boldest recently due to some problems with the ex-wife. White collar stuff, and I fully accept responsibility for it, and it gave me the chance to see the inner workings of two large facilities in New York. For the most part, the COS were professional and proper. However, I repeatedly witnessed COs behaving terribly, taunting prisoners, yelling and screaming at inmates behaving no differently than others, racial slurs, sexual slurs, and other abusive, unnecessary and improper behavior to the point sometimes the uniform was all that separated felon from CO. In one case, a CO that objected to the sound of the showers at his normal duty station locked down an entire dorm so he could "read the paper in peace". I understand that if questioned he could invent some reason for doing so, but everyone in that room knew it was just a simple case of "because I can". I understand that there are bad apples in every bunch, but in these situations the behavior was widespread, rampant, and witnessed by management level officers with no reaction whatsoever. I believe you guys have a harder job than the police. I believe your role is vital. But before universal respect and recognition can occur, the house needs to be cleaned from the inside. Respectfully, Dave (NYC)

  3. Tom on 08/26/2008:

    I'm not sure what brought me to this artical;However I'm sooo happy that I ended up here.I never relized how awfully true this all is.Mostly how CO's are not at all reconized at all as heros of our country.After all "what is the sence" of locking up these criminals if we didn't have these brave men & women to contan & controll them..I never new CO's did not carrie a fully loaded wepon..this just turns my stomic,what in the hell is wrong with our goverment officails?? Now one of you gov.officils PLEASE tell me way it's ok for this freind of mine to obtain a personal-protection-permit & carrie a gun w/him , when going into Detroit Mi. to install cable T.V. becouse he is in a "bad" town for a few hrs. w/a co-worker,never the less in bruad-day light?? I just don't understant our goverment..Lastly why do we not have the death penalty across the board??? Thats commen sense too me.When I was a kid if one of my bro.'s was cought doing something wrong an bing spanked.I certantly did not try samething..I feel if we would have electric chair on public T.V. it would make half theses criminals think twice.Our childeran would certainly see right from wrong. An don't dare tell me it's too rated "R". When t.v. is a huge reason behind half the crimes commitied hear in U.S.. Well I can honestly say I'm 38yrs.old an feel like I learned a full sem. of goverment class from this articall. thank you so much Officer Dawe, please keep up your exolent work!! I promise I will think of all you C.O's of America everday of my life.If there is anything I can do to help out,votes,or what ever please post it hear I will be to this sight freakquiently!! good luck team Tom.o Brighton, Mi.

  4. prisondoc on 02/21/2008:

    As a mental health professional working within the NJDOC training correctional officers, much of the information from this article was no surprise. It's part of the courses that I instruct. But in my experience, the men and women I have had the privilege to know and work with are exceptional individuals working an environment that can turn into a pressure cooker within seconds. They protect the public, each other, the inmates and people like me with just a baton. Since I am also the daughter of a retired cop, I admit to being extremely sensitive to criticism of those who lay down their lives on a daily basis. That doesn't mean that there aren't problems. I've often disagreed with my officers and yes, I have met a few who should have chosen a different job...but in the course of my career, I've also come across some in the mental health field who could seriously benefit from some intensive therapy. So, thank you to all the corrections officers who, despite all the shit they have to endure, show up every day prepared for whatever comes their way. I couldn't do what I do without you. Good lookin out!

  5. Blissharshman on 02/21/2008:

    I respect you totally, but all I hear is the bad, I have a person in Prison who I love and is a very good man, I hear his stories too. There are some good Criminals I believe as well as good CO's....and bad on both sides also. I wish somehow they could put all the good criminals together and name them #1....put all the bad together and name them #2 and then pay CO's more money for dealing with #2 and give more benefits to the criminals in #1 for thier behavior. Maybe #2 would see what it takes to have a better quality of life and then the CO's would know what to expect and thier lives would be easier.

  6. psturn on 02/08/2008:

    Every word in this artical is true. We as Corrections Officers are not looked at as being in law enforcement. I work for the State of Florida and the only time you will here about the Department of Corrections is when something bad happens to one of the Inmates. When we walk behind the fence we don't know if we are going home or not. The police have a gun, I don't have anything but a radio and a set of key most of the time. We don't care gas unless you are working on the yard. I work in dorms where there is a population of 50 and up. If anyone thinks this is an easy job then I invite them to join me. We as Corrections Officers need better representation in our goverment. The goverment needs to let the people of this great country know that we are Officers and deserve the same respect they give ther police and fire fighters. They should also not judge all Corrections Officers as bad for what a small number of bad officers do. Thanks and stay safe Officer Patrick Cross Zephyrhills Corretional Instatution Zephyrhills Florida


Login to let us know what you think

User Name:   

Password:       


Forgot password?





correctsource logo




Use of this web site constitutes acceptance of The Corrections Connection User Agreement
The Corrections Connection ©. Copyright 1996 - 2018 © . All Rights Reserved | 15 Mill Wharf Plaza Scituate Mass. 02066 (617) 471 4445 Fax: (617) 608 9015