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A Matter of Choices
By Raymond E. Atchley
Published: 02/11/2008

Maze From college to jail and how a former cop chose to return to the past

Professor Clovis de Frank looked incredulously at me when I told him my plans. His biggest question was why, after leaving thirty-two years of police work to return to college and complete a graduate degree, would I want to work in a jail? The easiest answer would have been admitting the reality of today’s economic situation — I, like most everybody else, find myself in economic need.

The occasional academic odd-job of tutoring and adjunct instructing, which I had been doing since graduation and grad school, just wasn’t keeping pace with my monetary needs. That situation didn’t appear anywhere near improving, such as a full time instructor position; college enrollments were down where I worked, prices continue to spiral upward, and nationally, most universities use part timers for more than half their staff. I had student loans to repay and full time employment was the requirement. A move elsewhere was not an option.

Certain events occurring since 2001, and more than just the attacks on 9/11, which must still be included, have contributed to our nation’s collective economic losses. From the Enron debacle, the cost of defense, rising fuel costs, inflation, and my generation’s children leaving for their own higher education, which actually includes my own daughter. But to say I am returning to a law enforcement job because I’m broke and this business is what I know best, wouldn’t completely explain my need to do more than just pursue the almighty dollar.

I sought relevance. The old adage: “If you can’t do it, teach it!” rang persistently in my ears. I had to prove I could still perform as a foot-soldier in the ranks. Besides, I had been teaching GED skills to inmates in the local “calaboose,” and it was like going home.

By outward physical appearances, I didn’t detect any huge changes in the law enforcement milieu than when I was still active. The paint was still peeling and the odor was still an institutional mix of urine, misery, and disinfectant. Undaunted, I approached the application process with just one further hurdle before submission—my ever-suffering wife of over twenty years, herself a corrections officer at another state’s jail facility.

Dr. de Frank’s reaction had been expected, but my wife’s was a total surprise. She at first was a bit disappointed, hoping my two associate degrees, a bachelor’s in human services, and a master’s in education would have propelled me to a higher paying position in the education system or maybe private enterprise. To return whence I came demanded some profound explanation. After some discussion she gave me the thumbs up along with an exasperated grin.

One of her concerns was valid. I am certainly, at 52 years old, not a spring chicken (or rooster), but I had quit a 30 year smoking habit six months prior and had started a régime of bicycle riding for the past four months averaging ten miles a day. I felt good, and more importantly I felt determined.

The letter of interest went to the Detention Center Warden. She replied that she didn’t have any teaching positions but invited me to apply for the position of detention officer. With résumé and transcripts in hand, I started the process. A Paperless Society? Not Hardly.

While there are in fact some companies that accept electronic applications, my county certainly isn’t one of them. The application packet appeared to be the same type that I had completed thirty years ago when I was searching for a job as a sheriff’s deputy but instead had accepted a city police officer’s position.

The application was typical in asking for personal information; name, residence, phone number, education, prior employment history and references. What was missing on the paper that was fairly common when I first entered law enforcement in the early 1970s was questions about my exact date of birth, replaced today by a single question of whether I was over 18 years old. Revealing my social security number was not demanded, but there was a caveat that providing such would make the application process move quicker.

I breathed a deep sigh of relief; there were no questions about my race, religion, or sex within the application proper. Sex and race questions were relegated to an EEO questionnaire, which was attached. Scoff if you will, but I remember filling out a job application in 1980 for a southern New Mexico village that boldly asked whether I attended church and where. Then there was employment history and mine was eclectic at best and 35 years huge at worst.

I worked at filling out the application for two full days, continually watching for grammatical and spelling errors, working at first in erasable pencil and finalizing with a black gel pen and computer printer. I worked to make sure the application was complete, easy to read, and neatly presented with all relevant and requested attachments stapled to the back.

After working as a supervisory detective and loss prevention manager I still retained my past conviction that the right way to get the job was to make a good first impression with an application that demonstrated an ability to know how to work. Too many people, old and young, fail to recognize this and then can’t imagine why they are not hired. Our society may be more informal and relaxed than when I first entered the job market 37 years ago, but that attitude doesn’t apply to today’s employment market any more than yesterday, especially for anything other than minimum wage.

If the hiring process had been based on the weight of the paper in my packet and my ability to fill in the blanks, my success was guaranteed, but I knew better and dug around in my closet for a sport coat and a neck tie. And certainly not the hound’s-tooth checked jacket and battery operated musical cravat from Christmas 1990 or my usual teaching attire of Hawaiian print shirts and Docker pants.

Application submitted, “go to meeting” clothes cleaned and ready, all that was left was the long wait. I wasn’t disappointed. The time from initial inquiry to a call for a face to face interview was about the usual time that I remembered; a very long two-and-a-half weeks. My anticipation was as bad as a little kid’s, and then one day as I was home and about to shower, the phone rang.

To be continued…

Raymond E. Atchley is a detention teacher coordinator at Curry County Adult Detention Center in Clovis, New Mexico.


  1. joann on 02/12/2008:

    This is a very good story and I can't wait to hear what comes next. I can relate to the age thing because I'm 48 and went back to school for criminal justice.. So after hearing his story so far, there's hope.

  2. lillian1 on 02/12/2008:

    I can't wait to hear the rest of this. We all have such different reasons to go into corrections, most of them have more then the usuall twists and turns. This is obviously one of them. He will bring more to the job because of his background and will be greatly appreciated, I'm sure. Lie

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