First day: How a new CO handles taking the point on the mess line

Taking the point on the mess line is handed down to all new recruits as a test of their fortitude in the presence of danger and uncertainty

By Luis R. Soto, C1 Contributor

The mess hall is the testing ground for most new correctional officers. The room – full of stainless steel tables and black and white checkered floor tiles – feels clinical and cold.

As I prepare to enter the 100ft x 250ft mess hall, I hear the sergeant say, “Let’s have a good controlled movement.”

Every step I take makes my heart beat faster, which I swear can be heard throughout the mess hall.
Every step I take makes my heart beat faster, which I swear can be heard throughout the mess hall. (Photo/Pixabay)

It is hard to comprehend what he is referring to since I have never seen or taken part in a mess hall movement. Maybe it is my nerves that stop me from asking any questions, or perhaps my ego doesn’t want to show the fear inside every 20-year-old CO.

The sergeant’s stare and his order for me to take the point come as a surprise. I know just enough from my week-long orientation that the “point” means to stand at the front of the inmate line and keep inmates from cutting ahead of each other.

My 110-lb body starts to sweat at the thought of having grown men who have committed a variety of crimes choosing to obey my command to stay in a single line.

Unbeknown to me, this particular ritual is handed down to all new recruits as a test of their fortitude in the presence of danger and uncertainty.

A never-ending line of inmates

Housing units are beginning to empty out and inmates are making their way to the mess hall. While the mess hall only holds 325 inmates at a time, it seems like there is a never-ending line of convicted felons.

Inmates know the routine better than the recruit sweating through his brand-new uniform shirt. As they pile into the mess hall, I can’t wait for this to be over. Then the time comes for me to flex my miniscule muscles and attempt to control the line of inmates that is starting to get congested and seem more like a mob than a line.

As I walk toward the mob of inmates every step I take makes my heart beat faster, which I swear can be heard throughout the mess hall.

Finally, I find my voice

Not wanting to seem like I am scared of speaking to inmates, I gather all my strength to speak loudly using my deepest pubescent voice and express my discontent of the appearance of chaos in a normally single inmate line.

“Get in line, gentlemen. Get in line!”

I have no idea why I say “gentlemen.” I could as easily have said inmate, convict or any other reference I’ve had heard inmates called, but I chose that word. It seems to work. Inmates start to get in a single line and my heart begins to slow down. The fear never leaves, but it keeps me on my toes and alert.

While inmates take their usual seating arrangements along ethnic and racial lines, I maintain a vigilant eye for any sign of trouble.

I am wondering why inmates are given hard plastic trays that can easily be used as a weapon. My only defense is the new whistle that hangs on my uniform, which I am supposed to use at the first sign of trouble. It seems ridiculous that I would have enough time after seeing a disturbance to take the whistle and blow as loudly as I can.

An inmate tests my resolve

My attention is drawn to an inmate who addresses me by saying, “Hey, CO!”

As I turn toward the sound, I see an inmate about three times my size sitting at a table just three feet from me.

He asks, “What would you do if I threw this food tray at you right now?”

My knees get weak and a lump starts to grow in my throat. What should I say?

I could call it quits and turn in my badge to the sergeant, or stand my ground and deal with the consequences.

What witty remark will stop this inmate from throwing a full tray of food at my neatly-pressed uniform? What have I got myself into to?

I can hear my mother’s remarks in my head as I left for my first day of work as a correctional officer stating that I might regret this job. I have to think quickly, control my fearful instincts and respond to this threat.

“I guess we will just have to find out, won’t we,” is my reply.

The inmate cracks a smile and returns to eating his lunch, not giving me another thought.

Relief and accomplishment flood through me. I start to feel confident I can return the next day and approach a whole new set of obstacles and teaching events.

Will I be as brave when I have to work a unit with 80 inmates by myself? That is the scheduled post for my next 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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