How a supermax prison transformed an officer's law enforcement career — and life

Paul Valentino wanted to be a third-generation law enforcement officer, and fortunately, his first stop along the way was a supermax prison


I was hired by Florida State Prison in October 1987. I was a transplant from Ohio who just recently graduated from college with a degree in criminal justice. I was your typical blue-collar kid who was raised in a hard-working family, all of whom lived within a two-mile radius. I was your typical college athlete with dreams and aspirations, and I felt very fortunate to have completed an externship with the Pennsylvania State Police and have my first taste of public service.

I was going to be a third-generation law enforcement officer. My grandfather was a military police officer during World War II, and I also had an uncle who was the chief of police for my hometown. I was inspired and wanted to follow in their footsteps, so when I walked into the prison for the first time, I was filled with the anticipation of starting my law enforcement career. 

I was hired as a NAT, which was an acronym for "needs additional training." My first post was X-Wing, which was a three-tiered housing unit with two rows of cells numbered 1 through 19 on both ends and on each floor. When I first stepped onto the unit, which was secured by a large steel door with multiple locks, I remember seeing a sergeant and two officers. I also remember the hallway sergeant saying, "You guys got a NAT. Here you go," at which point the steel door slammed and I knew my life was going to be changed forever.

Florida State Prison at sunset in Raiford, Fla. Tuesday, Oct. 23, 2012.
Florida State Prison at sunset in Raiford, Fla. Tuesday, Oct. 23, 2012. (AP Photo/Phil Sears)

There was no introduction, no "hello, how you are?" Just three dead stares and cold distant eyes looking at me. The quarter deck was on the second floor and the noise was overbearing to your ears.

After what seemed like an eternity, but was probably only a few minutes, the sergeant looked at me and said, “Where you from, boy?" When I answered, the two officers said, "Good God, we got us a Yankee." The sergeant then wanted to know whether I was a wrestler in high school. "Boy, you are a big kid," he said. 

"No, sir," I replied. "I was a fullback on the college football team." He then looked at me and said, "First, I'm not a sir, and second, you're going to be a good addition to our cell extraction team." What was already an uncomfortable situation for me just got worse.

The sergeant then said something to me that I couldn't forget if I tried. “Remember, boy, we are not corrections officers," he said. "There is nothing in this prison we correct. We control and we guard. At any time, this place could erupt and the only thing you have is a set of keys, your abilities, me and these two officers. You got me?"

I responded yes, but I was starting to realize I was in a world I was not prepared for, which was only compounded by what came next.

One of the officers looked at me and wanted to know when I graduated from the academy. When I responded that I had previous training in another state and only had to spend a few classes at the academy, the other officer looked at me and said, “Well, whatever you learned, forget it, because in here you will fight for your life on a daily basis.”

a lesson in survival

My first assignment was going down the row for security checks, inmate counts and humanitarian delivery of hygiene supplies. There was no main floor with exterior doors with trap doors to open and close as we see in a modern facility. Not this wing; this was a long corridor with a catwalk where my shoulders touched the bars on the outside and the individual cell block containing inmates as I walked down the corridor.

Another officer opened the row door and yelled, "Officer on deck." I guess this was the warning for inmates to stop whatever it was they were doing because an officer was walking down the row. The only thing that prevented an inmate from reaching out of the bars and assaulting me was the inmate himself.

My transition to prison life and working in a maximum and super-maximum facility, with death row also part of the prison, began day one of my first week, at which point my survival instinct took over or what we refer to as the sixth sense. I now became a student all over again. I saw officers and supervisors who were cold, callous and jaded. I saw wardens and administrators who were disconnected from the officers and what was impacting their employees. 

The prison was a city all its own. Respect, and trust, was earned and not just given on both sides of the prison – inmates and staff alike. I lived and worked in an environment that was brutal, violent, nasty and mean. I learned about expectations and survival techniques that were going to carry me through my entire career. And what I learned working in this environment set the tone for me to go from an officer to sergeant to lieutenant in a correctional setting to ultimately retiring as a police chief.

So, why exactly was this transformation so powerful? Well, for starters, I developed a keen sense of when things were normal and when they weren't. I also quickly learned about control: You only control what is in your immediate area and nothing more. You grow to also understand that patience is critical; things happen in a sequence of events, and through each of those sequences, there is time associated with it, so sit back and go with it.

I also learned proxemics, verbal and nonverbal clues, the art of manipulation as well as what was later known as verbal judo. I learned survival tactics not with weapons or technology, but with mental toughness, perseverance and a willingness to listen to, train and develop staff who were professional and ethical.

I learned about respect for human life and not just about position or authority. I learned I controlled my environment by professional and ethical behavior.

I learned how to deal with personal attacks and injury, riots, yard fights, death house operations, transports and so many combat situations I cannot count. Care, custody, control, officer safety, survival, fight or flight response and human interaction dynamics was a daily part of life for me and my fellow colleagues.

Supermax life also provided me with experience, skills and abilities that helped me be a better person, not just a better law enforcement officer. I still to this day hold a very close connection to corrections and being a trainer in a correctional environment.  

To all correctional staff regardless of where you are in your careers, your contribution to law enforcement, our criminal justice future, and the restoration of our profession has not gone unnoticed. And remember, what we sacrifice for day in and day out will get you where you want to go. What many would see as not a very desirable position so many years ago really did turn into a lifelong learning lesson, which developed me into the officer, and man, I am today.

NEXT: How a warden brought humanity to the Supermax prison facility

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