World of Work in Prison
MY WORLD OF WORK IN PRISON
“The mind is its own place, and in itself can make a heaven of hell,
a hell of heaven.”
Working in prisons is not for those with a weak heart or for anyone with a fickle mind. It is not even for the enervated and faltering personality. One must be callous in the face of pain or deception and be out rightly unaffected to be effective in relating to the prison community. I have been in the prison service for 30 years, well 31 to be exact, and those were close encounters with toughness and cruelty. For how can you stand in front of an offender, prison rule booklet on one hand and in another a baton with tear gas, expressing understanding and promoting welfare of the human kind? You feel your presence as effective yet from the eyes of the inmate, it was just an instance of spending a day’s work.
The prison community is the most dangerous sector in our society. It is ruled not by security officers but inmates themselves, surviving by themselves through duplicity and pretense. The social norms are by itself cynical even if the community is managed with compassion. The fountain head of human rights, freedom, is nonexistent; thereby every act must conform to dupery and betrayal. An offender who has spent a considerable number of years in the penitentiary therefore is educated on the ways of hypocrisy and treason. This is the working condition, the familiar terrain, the communal occasion which any prison officer must continuously immerse with. This is my place, my employment milieu, my office and well, my source of livelihood as a paid correctional officer.
When I reported for work on my first day in the Penitentiary, I had no inkling how precarious it would be. At the gate where personnel were ushered in before entering the main camp, at that time, there was already a commotion. It was so dodgy a situation that I could not even look at the log book where I am suppose to write my name on. There were lots of shouting and worst, there was even a staccato of gun fired from within the distance adjacent the table where I was stationed for the moment. It was a scene straight from an episode of Crime Investigation (a TV series carried over Cable), but it was more gory and a bit suspenseful. As a result of the gun fire, everyone in the prison camp had to dive for cover. I still remember one of the guards shouting at the top of his voice to shoot those who are standing. I was also tempted to swim through the grassy lawn but prudence and perhaps embarrassment dictate that I should wait for others to do it first. The commotion provided a backdrop to confusion that preserving life takes precedence over poise! It was my first brush with prison riot and it would continue for the rest of the years in my profession in the corrections service.
Riots, uprising, noise barrage, unrest, disturbance; these are but a few expression of the inmate community while demanding something to make life bearable in an otherwise drab and unbearable condition of prison. Sometimes it is merely expressed just for the kicks. Most inmates lived a life in the free community under a regime of excessive liberalism that incarceration literally put a closure to such an episode. Some could not accept reality, while only a few resigned to their situation. Those who could not resist the intrusion of reality would co-opt prison officers to do their bidding and in failing, they would mount a rebellion. To catch attention, they would even attack each other or destroy as in burning the facilities where they regularly use. Seldom however would inmates assault prison officers. They see them as their link to the outside world. Prison officers for the prisoners are very much the same as their visiting friends or families. They are perceived with understanding, believing that they constantly share their situation although in a way, the prison officers are viewed in a manner which explicitly determines a master-slave relationship.
The prison community is a highly regimented society and the prevailing norm is highly totalitarian. For the prison officers like me, it is a marginal area. We spend 8 hours in that condition and thereafter, we change our outlook to live in a different milieu outside of the prison walls. For the prisoners, it is totally a different ball game. They have to accept everything. They have to live in a place where familiarity is a major attribute. They must be contented on almost every facet of a familiar environment, familiar faces, familiar corners, familiar everything. What makes life bearable is when the prison officer communicates with them. Or, when a visitor comes their way. It saves their sanity. It makes them whole.
On the other hand, for the corrections officer, prison is not an ordinary place of work. It is more of a station, a sanctuary, a place where one must constantly guard his perceptions. While he is expected to man the gates, patrol the corridors, operate the towers and supervise the population, he must also be vigilant in watching his shoulders, back, sides and that which is moving from above and those under. For those who retire from the prison service without any blemish in their character are worthy of a monument. I have seen quite a number of personnel dropping out of the service with nary a complete set of good judgment and sense accompanying their posture.
Corrective service apart from the fact that it is one of the pillars of the criminal justice system is also a world in itself. It is a field, a science that delves on a place where you find humanity in its simplest and rawest form. And the prison officer is not one of the scientists, but one of the species to be studied!