|In Harm’s Way|
|By Caterina Spinaris|
A while back I got a call from a dear friend, a CO. I picked up the phone casually, expecting a run-of-the-mill conversation. What I heard on the other end left me speechless, my heart aching for my friend and his wife, who is also a CO. (I’ll call them Vic and Christine. Even though what I am about to describe is public record, I still feel more comfortable not using people’s real names.)
Vic got to the point right away. “A few days ago I was viciously stabbed—totally unprovoked—by an inmate on my shift. It’s only by the grace of God that I survived.”
Let me tell you now that Vic is no rookie. He has invested over 10 years of his life in corrections. This is the career he has chosen for himself. Vic consciously and purposefully takes extra pains to be professional and well-informed about the corrections field. He also cares deeply about the welfare of fellow COs.
On the phone, Vic went on to explain that an inmate walked up to him in his office while Vic was doing paperwork and asked for help with something. Vic answered, “Sure, I’ll help you with this.” Immediately the inmate pulled a weapon that resembled an ice pick and started stabbing Vic, on his head and face, while Vic was still seated at his desk. (The weapon, it turns out, was homemade from copper wire and tape.)
The attacker was relentless. His goal was clearly to kill my friend and not to stop until he had accomplished his dreadful goal. Immediately Vic’s fellow CO ran to call for help on the radio.
Vic grabbed his chair to fend off the inmate after he had fought his way out of the Officer’s station. In sheer desperation, he began wielding the chair like a lion tamer fending off a bloodthirsty lion. All the while the inmate kept coming after him with his ice pick. The inmate eventually also picked up a chair, and they fought with the chairs until they broke. At that time another CO—a true Godsend!—flew in. In a flash the inmate turned his attention away from Vic and started chasing the other CO. That officer had his flashlight in his hand, but dropped it when he ran. Vic drew his own flashlight and also picked up the other one off the ground while pursuing the two of them to the front of the housing unit. At that point the inmate began trying to stab the other officer after he had trapped him in a corner. A blood-soaked Vic then used the two flashlights like clubs to bring the inmate under control.
The attack—the battle for two COs’ lives—lasted about two minutes. Vic told me that it seemed a lot longer when he was going through it, as if time had slowed down.
Vic received six puncture wounds. Two in his scalp, three in the right forearm, and one in the left forearm. His nose was bruised and bleeding. He also had a raised welt on the back of his head traveling down his skull where the blade followed the curve of his head, and some other bruising on his upper body and face. It is a miracle that Vic did not lose one of his eyes. The inmate wielded the ice pick in Vic’s face and hit his glasses. One of the lenses was crushed and pushed inward, but, thankfully, did not get into his eye.
The suddenness and the unpredictability of the attack left me with a heavy, cold feeling at the pit of my stomach. While listening to Vic’s account on the phone, I remember feeling my muscles tensing so much so that I was unable to take a deep breath. Once again, a CO, a person whom my husband Ted and I value, had encountered murderous evil face to face. My friend could have easily bled to death feet away from his desk. I kept thinking to myself, if I get affected to this degree just listening to Vic’s story, how does living through such a violent, near-death experience affect the survivor? How were the other officers impacted? How was his wife, Christine, affected?
(By the way, during his sentencing almost one year later, the inmate stated that picking Vic as his target was just “incidental.” He was not assaulting him personally. He was attacking the uniform, the position, the authority vested in Vic as a correctional officer. Indirectly, the inmate was attacking the whole judicial system and the society—us, you and I—who put him behind bars for his criminal behavior.)
To me this attack drove home the point that anybody working in corrections is a potential target. We in the “free world” have no grasp what it is like to go to work not knowing how high a degree of violence and treachery we may encounter that day.
My friend Vic returned to work 5 days after his attack. He stayed home long enough for the bruises on his face to clear up before he started dealing with inmates again.
Recently I asked Vic what kept him going as a CO. He said, “I see my job as service to the community. People drive by the prisons and feel safe out there because they know that we, the corrections officers, keep the inmates securely locked up in these facilities.” I asked Christine the same question, what ultimately kept her in this profession, and got the same answer: “Helping the community.”
Vic and Christine credit God for his narrow escape, and they are deeply thankful.
I don’t know about your response to Vic and Christine’s desire to be of service. Mine was gratitude and respect. Thank you, Vic and Christine, for putting yourselves in harm’s way so we don’t have to look over our shoulders all the time. And thank you that you risk your lives daily so the corrections branch of the criminal justice system can function smoothly.
The inmate who assaulted Vic was sentenced to an additional 20 years, to be served after he completes his prior sentence. We are thankful that the message went out loudly and clearly: “If you attack a CO, you will pay with severe loss of your freedom.”
The following is an excerpt from the Vic’s victim impact statement, shared with permission. In it he describes his PTSD symptoms. I am happy that he reports that these symptoms have now subsided in part thanks to psychological treatment specifically designed to desensitize and process traumatic memories.
For the year 2002, Corrections USA reported that eighty-eight (88) staff members a day were seriously assaulted in the correctional environment. That is nearly four (4) per hour, thirty-three thousand one hundred fifty seven (33, 157) per year. A Correctional Officer can expect to be seriously assaulted at least three times in a twenty-year career.
On ___, 200_, I became one of the eighty-eight who were seriously assaulted on that day. I was nearly killed by Inmate X. Inmate X, without provocation, tried to stab me to death with a weapon that he had made. To this day I do not understand why he chose me to carry out this act of violence. I do, however, understand that this crime against me has changed my life forever.
Nearly a year has passed by and I am still plagued with nightmares surrounding this attack. I have had difficulty sleeping and I have experienced heightened levels of anxiety.
My relationships with my wife, my children and others have become strained since this incident has taken place. There are times that my wife and I do not sleep together because I wake up in fits of panic thinking that I am fighting Inmate X.
I am easily startled and often tense in crowds. I now prefer to be alone as opposed to spending time with others. I have had to seek the counsel and advice of doctors and psychologists to overcome these problems that have developed since the attack.
I often wonder if I will ever overcome the paranoid and on-guard feelings that I have performing routine duties with inmates on a daily basis.
I can only hope that my family can remain together and support me since I have become a different person due to the unprovoked attack that I was subjected to.
Visit the Caterina Tudor page
IN CASE YOU MISSED IT