The television newscast tells of a prison guard who had to wrestle an inmate who had gotten out of control. A movie from the 1950s shows a convict who goes "stir-crazy" behind bars and calls desperately for a guard. From the six-o'clock news to movies, comedies and even cartoons, those who work in state and local prisons are called "guards". Unfortunately, the media has influenced many of us to believe that's the right occupational title.
But it's time to correct this terminology. The men and women who patrol, control and, at times, console in the halls of prisons nationwide should be properly called "correctional officers". To them, "guards" play on a football team or work at school crossings. They are federal law enforcement officers employed by the U.S. government.
These men and women receive continual law enforcement training throughout their work years and are empowered by the United States Government to enforce federal laws, rules and regulations of the Department of Justice. Their work area is heavily populated by convicted felons who, habitually and/or violently, break laws, rules and regulations. Each individual officer is outnumbered by as many as 100 to 1 at various times of their work day; exercise yards and mess halls create the most dangerous scenarios for them. Yet, they have to control the population and keep violence from occurring without the use of weapons or firearms. Should an infraction occur, their roles in controlling the situation will be scrutinized by their superiors to ensure they performed in accordance to policy.
These officers have families, friends and a life outside the prison walls, yet realize that time for any of these can be compromised at a moment's notice. If a fellow officer, for whatever reason, can't make it to their shift, every personal plan goes on "hold" as they're called in. If an inmate has to be transported to a hospital or mental facility, they have to be available to drive the vehicle or accompany the prisoner to his destination.
If that inmate must remain in a hospital for medical treatment, operation or observation, an officer has to stay with him at all times unless he's actually being operated upon. The assigned officer must be vigilant at all times, watching both the prisoner and anyone who enters or nears his room. Sleep is not an option, no matter the length of the felon's stay.
Another, and often overlooked, facet of a correctional officer's life is the tremendous emotional impact that the job can levy upon his or her psyche. Facing the possibility of prison violence, anger, congestion and inmate angst on a daily basis can become so stressful and negative that officers, themselves, may seek psychological help to deal with the inner pain and worry. The worst of these times come, obviously, at Christmas and Thanksgiving, when both officers and inmates wish they could be with their loved ones. The prisoners are more apt to become distraught, suicidal or violent at those times -- and the correctional officer has to know how to control and de-fuse these situations.
Yet, throughout the tension, congested cells, verbal or physical violence and more, these officers are bound by their departmental and governmental rules and regulations. While a prisoner might threaten others and become unruly, there are only certain measures they can take to subdue the inmate and return order to the cellblock. No matter how urgent, angry or anxious they may feel, they must suppress those feelings and utilize only the amount of force, movement and techniques allowed them by those regulations.
Often, you won't see these officers out-and-about after their shifts. Having finished a shift filled with controlling and working with stressed-out and angry inmates in an overly-populated cellblock, all they want to do is head home to a quick shower, some decent food - and sleep. Though you'll never see these men or women on TV's "Cops", they are law enforcement professionals. They are hidden from public view, doing a dangerous job, hoping someday to receive the respect and approval from the public that they serve. It's about time we showed each and every one of these OFFICERS that we appreciate their devotion to duty, safety and honor.
They are most certainly more than just "guards".