How to survive day one of the correctional officer training academy

Getting through day one of the academy is just the first of many challenges for correctional officer recruits

By Major Luis R. Soto

It is a bitterly cold morning in February when the first vehicle rolls into the parking lot of the Correctional Staff Training Academy grounds at 6:30 a.m. A senior correctional officer dressed in his Class A uniform, looking mean and determined, greets the driver of the vehicle. The CO asks for documentation and instantly reprimands the driver for not wearing his seat belt. “Are you aware of the laws here in the state of New Jersey?” the CO asks. The driver, not knowing what to say, only nods.

Parking lot perils

These are some of the toughest weeks of your life.
These are some of the toughest weeks of your life. (AP Photo/David Goldman)

The CO gives the driver specific instructions on where to park the vehicle, to stay inside the vehicle, to leave the driver’s side window down and to wait further instructions. This ritual is repeated with approximately 200 new recruits entering their first day at the academy.

Once every recruit is correctly parked, loud instructions come from a police vehicle’s PA system: “Get out with your keys in hand and stand in front of your vehicle.”

The recruits – dressed in their business attire – stumble out of their vehicles trying to get to the front of their cars as fast as they can.

The instructions keep coming, telling recruits to move quickly and gather all the belongings they brought in their vehicles for use while at the academy.

The recruits gather uniforms on hangers, shoes in boxes, luggage and bags out of their vehicles. They are assembled into lines with all of their belongings and marched to the barracks where they will spend the next 16 weeks in training.

Dormitory distress

Once inside the barracks, the recruits get a glimpse of the 20 bunk beds per dormitory that will be their sleeping quarters for the remainder of their training. On each bed are blankets, sheets and a name identification magnetic tag that designates each recruit’s bed.

Officers continue to scream as they try to get the recruits to put their belongings on their assigned bed and stand in front of it. At this point you can see the sweat pouring down the recruits’ faces even though it is cold outside.

Once everyone is at their assigned bunk, the COs call out one item at a time of the required list of things recruits are supposed to bring with them. All recruits reach inside their luggage or bags to retrieve each item. As recruits struggle to be back at the position of attention in front of their bunks with the item mentioned, penalties are issued for not moving with purpose.

Most of the time the command of, “Front leaning rest position move,” is heard from the officers when recruits fail to meet the time constraints. This means the recruit goes down on the floor and assumes the push-up exercise position.

For many recruits, this is a gut-wrenching experience as it seems like the yelling and screaming will never seize. Finally, they are asked to change out of their business attire and into the blue uniforms they brought with them to the academy and be ready in 60 seconds or less.

As they change their clothes, you can hear officers yelling for recruits to hurry as there isn’t time to wait.

Many recruits feel exhausted not only from the early morning drive, but from the stress that is put upon them by the officers who are trying to instill in them a sense of purpose.

Most of the recruits are able to cope and be dressed in time, but at least a couple of recruits approach the officers and utter the words, “I don’t want to stay here.” The officers order them to gather their belongings and go speak to the sergeant who is standing right outside the dormitory’s door.

I can attest it is best for an individual to realize that if they cannot cope with a little stress put on them by officers who have no intent on touching or hurting them then maybe the job of correctional officer isn’t for them.

Classroom challenges

After the recruits are dressed in their new uniforms, they are marched into a large classroom that seats 200, or should I say 198, recruits for the first day of orientation.

As Academy Lieutenant, I greet them from the podium and congratulate them for embarking on this new career. I explain what is expected of them throughout their 16-week training, which will consist not only of classroom material, but also a lot of physical endurance.

The entire rule book is read out word for word so everyone understands what is required to succeed.

I express that this will be some of the toughest weeks of their lives, but their success is guaranteed if they give 100 percent effort and work as a team.

I explain that only by passing the required exams on all subject matters, participating in physical training, learning defensive tactics, meeting requirements at the firing range and completing on-the-job training during the last two weeks of the academy, will they be able to become fully fledged correctional officers sanctioned under the Police Training Commission.

Mess hall mishaps

After almost four hours of stressful incidents and orientation it is finally lunchtime. You would think that this is the easiest part of the first day, but the recruits quickly find out it is not.

The recruits are again assembled in straight lines since they have not learned how to properly march to the mess hall. They are walked quickly to the entrance of the mess hall and told not to speak unless spoken to. “Head and eyes straight ahead,” you hear from the officers who are directing them inside the mess hall.

Recruits form single lines against the mess hall walls and the only noise is that of the officers barking out orders.

As the food trays are filled, recruits have to go through a gauntlet of officers directing them where to sit. All six chairs at each table have to be filled before the entire table can sit down to eat. The recruits hurry to eat their meals without talking as there are 198 of them and only 30 minutes to eat.

Once again, the feeling of moving with a purpose is the lesson to be learned.

As the recruits leave the mess hall, they are assembled outside and marched back to the orientation classroom to complete required paperwork.

End-of-day reflections

In the classroom I once again pose the question: “If there is anyone who feels they cannot continue with the training please stand and see the sergeant at the back of the classroom.”

To my surprise another three individuals stand and request to withdraw from academy.

The sergeant takes them away to perform an exit interview and sign off on required paperwork.

Working for a correctional department requires mental fortitude from the individuals who aspire to make it a career. If this exercise of stressors makes an individual think twice, it is best they withdraw and seek another career path.

As the afternoon comes to a close, the recruits are introduced to their sergeant and officers who will be in charge of them during the evening hours. During these oncoming hours, the recruits are instructed on how the dormitories need to look every morning before breakfast. Beds need to be made, floors swept and mopped, bathrooms cleaned, shoes and boots polished, and lockers organized. All of this must be accomplished prior to the 6 a.m. formation for breakfast.

When the day is finally over the recruits are given the opportunity to call someone and let them know they are ok. Recruits are informed that cellphones are not allowed in the barracks and pay phones are available for them after the training day is over. Most recruits make it to bed by 10 p.m., which is lights out on all dormitories so they can be well rested for their challenging day ahead.  

Every detail of the recruits’ stay at the academy is regimented for the efficiency of training. I am confident that the manner in which our recruits are trained prepares them for the professional career that awaits them after graduation day.

About the author
Luis R. Soto retired as a major from the New Jersey Department of Corrections. He is currently a professor in the Criminal Justice Program at Rutgers University.

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