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Are you a guard or an officer?
By Judith A. Yates
Published: 06/29/2015

Correctionsofficer There are few things plaguing correctional workers; corrections demand a tough outer shell, keeping others from getting under the skin. One of the most annoying things is to be called a “guard.” We quickly correct it: “I’m an officer.” So, what is the difference?

I recall taking a criminal justice class on a prison tour. We passed by a few officers who kept their dirty boots up on their desks as they leaned back in their chairs; some wore rumpled uniforms, and a minority were either spitting tobacco or sneaking a cigarette (Each time I would whisper to my students, “I better never catch you acting like that…”). These employees were not “officers.” These people were “guards.”

Webster’s Dictionary defines “Guard” as “one assigned to protect or oversee another; as a person or a body of persons on sentinel duty.” Webster’s definition of “Officer” is “a person who has an important position in a company, organization, or government … one who holds an office of trust, authority, or command … one charged with police duties.” Every day you must ask yourself, “Am I a guard or an officer?”

An officer cares about their appearance. This means head to toe: grooming, uniform clean and ceremonious, shoes and gear shined and operational, intelligent communication, and authoritative, not condescending or arrogant. An officer will sign up for training to be the best they can be: CPR, inmate suicide prevention, leadership, and training offered by the institution, local colleges, or organizations. Officers care about their physical fitness, the ability to back up a situation, be it running, lifting, or self-defense. An officer is not afraid to request help, volunteer to help, become involved for a better workplace, and ask questions. An officer, most importantly, knows the boundaries between inmates and staff, understands and practices rules and regulations, and has a positive attitude.

A guard does what he or she has to do to get through the day. Appearance is a giveaway: if they do not care enough to iron a uniform or wash their hair, what else will they let slip by? Guards complain, belittle, nag, and gossip with limited language skills. They do not want to better themselves or their workplace. Guards are not the person to call for backup (I once called for backup during a dangerous situation; my “backup” leaned against the wall, not wanting to get involved). These are the people who can and will be eventually walked out, shaming us all, that one person who makes the profession appear substandard. Guard’s boundaries with inmates are obscure, they do not practice rules or regulations, and their attitude has potential to damage security and safety.

We all work with some guards. We should all strive to be officers. At the end of the day, turning in keys and walking away from work, we should be able to say, “it was a good day; no one was hurt,” rather than say, “I don’t want to come back here.” The next day when we report to duty, picking up keys, we should ask ourselves: “Am I a guard or an officer?”

Be safe out there. Be there for each other.

Corrections.com author, Judith Yates, is a criminologist who has lectured on domestic violence prevention for over 20 years. A former Correctional Officer Specialist and trainer with the Bureau of Prisons, she is now a true crime writer and a trainer available for guest speaking engagements. She can be reached at judithayates@yahoo.com.

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