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Guard vs. Officer
By Dr. Susan Jones
Published: 09/11/2017

Coandinmate

Anyone who works in corrections knows that most corrections officers are insulted when they are referred to as “guards,” even though this is the term most often used in the media. This change in the job title has been pursued because the duties of this position have changed. The work of the corrections officer has evolved from being just a keeper of the keys to a person who is expected to manage complex correctional facilities and situations, and to model pro-social behavior to inmates.

During the 1990s, corrections professionals began an all-out assault on the label of “guard” when the American Correctional Association ratified a policy in January 1999 regarding the term. In that policy, ACA committed to promoting the term correctional officer in all of their publications and communications (ACA, 2014). It was hoped that this policy would help to improve the professional status of corrections work in ways that would improve staff retention, benefits and salaries.

The fascinating thing about the evolution of the term—from guard to corrections officer—is that now there appears to be a shift back to guard in some agencies. The process is similar to the movement from the labels of convict to inmate. I have worked with many prisoners who took great pride in being called a convict, as if that meant that they were more honorable than the other inmates. I even worked with staff that would affirm which prisoner was an inmate and which was a convict. The message was clear: the convict garnered more respect.

I was surprised to see this same type of dialogue play out in front of me when I was visiting a western state correctional system. I was able to talk to an officer who was adamant that he was a prison guard, not a corrections officer. This person was heavily involved in the corrections officer union and explained that the union was taking a stance that the line staff should be called guards. It was very clear to me that this stance was a matter of honor; that the belief was that there was more honor in being called a prison guard than a corrections officer.

This conversation shocked me. I had retired from another system, where the mere mention of a guard was cause for distress. Now I saw first-hand a group of corrections employees who were embracing the term as if being called a corrections officer was an insult.

As I travel throughout this country and talk to many different corrections employees, I reflect upon this conversation and wonder about the meaning of these terms. Will there be a shift back to the term guard? Or perhaps the bigger question is: “Did we ever really shift to the term ‘corrections officer?’” The media certainly never got on the bandwagon and embraced the term. I even heard our own Governor use the term “guard” in a public event.

Perhaps the bigger question is, “Does the label matter?” In my career we changed from calling the prisoners convicts then inmates then offenders. The only difference this change in label made was in policy. The prisoners still acted the same.

What do you think? Does the label matter? Does it affect our self-image or the value of the job that we do? Does it affect the ability to do the job?

I would love to have your feedback on this issue. Please email me at sjjcanoncity@gmail.com.

This article as been reprinted with permission from the September 2017 Issue of Correctional Oasis, a publication of "Desert Waters Correctional Outreach".

Dr. Susan Jones retired from a warden’s position within the Colorado Department of Corrections. She worked in a variety of corrections positions in Colorado for 31 years, including: community corrections, correctional officer, sergeant, lieutenant, manager, associate warden and warden. Dr. Jones research interests have focused on the issues that correctional employees face on a daily basis. Visit Dr. Jones's Facebook page "A Glimpse Behind the Fence".


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