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How not to be a ‘flight’ or a ‘fight’ officer

This job isn’t for everyone, but here are some basic tips on making the cut your first few years

Starting a job in corrections can be many things: exciting, intimidating, stressful, confusing. The environment itself is, for many, foreign. The fact that you are no longer in control of when you leave; someone else must open the doors for you to exit the institution. The view, rows of razor wire lining the fences. Groups of inmates in gray, orange, stripes, or whatever your institution’s uniform happens to be.

Dealing with the environment can be a task. When you first walk in and you hear the airlock door secure behind you, you realize, “I can’t just open the door and go home.” Someone else controls the door and when it opens. This is when some of us ask ourselves “what have I gotten myself into?”

When you walk out into the yard, you see double or triple fences, lined with razor wire. Razor wire stacked at the bottom of the fences. Signs warning that one could be shot for approaching the fence. “I could see someone shot for getting too close to the fence? Really?” Multiple towers surround the prison with armed officers to prevent escapes, quell disturbances. You have an armed, roving patrol that monitors the fence line to boot.

All of these sights are very likely new to you. For many, it does take some time to adjust. Until then, we come to work with heightened awareness expecting something to kick off any minute. In all likelihood, we are going to overreact to every situation we encounter, treating minor incidents like major security breaches. We’ll even talk it up afterward.

Step back, see the situation for what it is and remain calm. This is very hard for new officers, even more so for young officers.

Being severely outnumbered in the house, on the yard, and pretty much everywhere you go can bring on a “fight or flight” mentality.

Flight is where the officer will look the other way to nearly everything. Afraid to confront an offender and afraid of what the other offenders may do.

Fight is where the officer will overreact. He will be extremely aggressive when dealing inmates. It will even appear that he is attempting to instigate an incident. Settling in and learning to deal with inmates properly can be a difficult task for some new officers.

The spontaneity of incidents can be unsettling. Acts of violence can spring up without warning, and combined with the level of barbarism that can be witnessed in prison is enough to freeze a new officer. This seems to be especially true of officers who are overly anxious to be involved in some sort of incident. You cannot let yourself become overwhelmed. Assess the situation and respond to it.

Fitting in with other staff takes time. You will not be accepted right away; just deal with it. Trying to talk like you have been around and seen it all after six months will not earn you friends any faster. Be yourself and let people get to know you. Understand, you are in a profession with turnover so high, it’s sometimes a waste of time to get to know new people. We need to see that you are going to stick around. We want to know we can count on you. Until your coworkers are comfortable with those two things, they will limit how close they get to you.

Your first year in corrections will be trying from many angles. You have entered a violent, dangerous and thankless profession. The level of danger can be controlled by you to an extent depending on how you conduct yourself. The violence varies by institution.

It’s thankless because the corrections officer’s job is “behind the scenes” so to speak. The public doesn’t see us; they don’t know what we do. You’re not going to find glory here; you will find job security though. We have an endless line of customers waiting to come in.

This job isn’t for everyone. There’s nothing wrong with being part of the majority that this profession doesn’t click with. Most people that stay in this profession have a little something wrong with them.

Those that don’t will, well before they retire.

Charles Morgan started his career as a corrections officer at MECC, a level 3 facility, and then transferred to ERDCC, a level 5 facility. He eventually evened out at FCC, a level 3/4 facility. He works for the Missouri Department of Corrections and is currently a trainer.