Poem: The Iron Gate

Are we doing enough in corrections to create a welcoming and supportive environment for new staff members?

By Kevin Smith

This poem was written to encourage correctional staff to recognize the importance of all staff members and to work toward developing a more receptive and understanding attitude toward new staff and the amount of time they need to adjust to the correctional environment.

Discussion questions are included at the end of the poem.

The Iron Gate stands for the cumulative hardness in the hearts and minds of seasoned correctional workers that can build up through years of working in such a unique environment.
The Iron Gate stands for the cumulative hardness in the hearts and minds of seasoned correctional workers that can build up through years of working in such a unique environment. (Photo/Pixabay)

The Iron Gate

Atop a hill so bright and shining, almost as if an illusion
Stood a place, a soul-filled place, a great and grand institution

Stone walls like granite rose up high, to meet the sky so great
At the front of this strong fortress, stood an Iron Gate

Acre upon acre stretched out about, surrounding this old place
Birds and creatures of all kinds ran; and stallions gave chase

Many lives walked through these buildings; important, mediocre, minimal
This fortress upon the hill, was there to hold the criminal

Steel fences wrapped themselves around this fortress full of iron,
Daily workers passed in and out, as if summoned by a siren

Then one day the inhabitants began to fight and stir
At first it was so shocking, the workers weren’t so sure

A great and mighty assembly of criminals came together
They pushed, shoved, leaped and bound; broke free of their tethers

The workers tried with all their might to put down this great rebellion
But the strength of those surrounding them was like a mighty hellion

So, when at last the workers saw that weakened, they should flee
Their fear welled up and burst their hearts, as now they turned to see

That there was not ONE WORKER left to free them from this fate
And now between them and freedom stood this Iron Gate

They had lashed and bashed so many workers with tongues of flaming fire
Crushed their spirits, conspired against them, with lies of filth and mire

Now as this great and mighty multitude approached
They found themselves bound; trapped in their own reproach

For when they should have contemplated more mercy in their minds
They chose to harass and bully the newest of their kind

They caused these workers, who tried to join their force
To be perplexed, distraught, to seek a different course

For who would want to work there; to stay or to remain
Around these seasoned workers who caused them so much pain

So, a message to all who labor, behind those strong and steely gates
Be thoughtful of that single soul, YOU may decide your fate

Realize that if you cause them to quit or walk away
That ONE WORKER may not be there, when you need them on that day

You may have thought that it was fun to jest or plot in pride
But in that moment, you will wish, they were standing by your side

And as your fingers clasp, that cold steel fence that day
You’ll wish you hadn’t driven, so many of them away

And thoughts of how you should have acted will come a bit too late
As you stand there trapped, inside the Iron Gate

Questions to ask after reading “The Iron Gate”

1. Why is it important for other staff members to succeed?

2. What are some of the common reasons staff members might be targeted by other staff?

3. What can be done at an institutional level to foster a better understanding of how to work with other staff members?

4. What are some of the difficulties a new staff member may face as they try to adjust to the correctional environment?

5. If you feel you have a valid concern pertaining to a staff member’s ability to properly perform their job in corrections, what steps should you take?

6. What are the proper channels for reporting bullying concerns?

7. Symbolically, what does the Iron Gate in the poem stand for?

Possible answers

1. Helping new staff succeed can eliminate critical staffing concerns. This helps maintain minimum staff numbers without excessive overtime, and enables all staff to take vacation and leave. Higher numbers of available staff also creates a more secure environment and workplace in corrections, especially during critical incidents. 

2. There may be prior issues of prejudice toward a staff member’s race, gender, physical attributes and stature, or pre-conceived ideas of what a successful staff member should look like. There may be alternative motives that are not work-related, such as a different social lifestyle or status outside of the job. Current staff can already be established in groups or cliques. There can be concern about advancement being affected through hiring of new staff.

3. Several actions can help foster teamwork in corrections such as affirmative action teams and training; personality training; mentoring of new staff; and health and recreation activities among staff.

4. New correctional staff can face many difficulties including general adjustment issues within the correctional environment; getting used to “the job”; difficulties with the training process; line staff teaching different ways to do the job or a variety of methods for doing the job; set standards or policies not being followed correctly; general personality issues with other people; and actual harassment or bullying.

5. If you feel a new staff member is not performing adequately, report your concerns to your immediate supervisor.

6. Report bullying to your immediate supervisor, who will start the proper process at an institutional level to address those concerns.

7. The Iron Gate mentioned in the poem is a mindset. It stands for the cumulative hardness in the hearts and minds of seasoned correctional workers that can build up through years of working in such a unique environment. This often keeps correctional staff from being accepting of new staff, thus perpetuating many of the problems that could be solved by having more manpower available. It keeps many seasoned workers “trapped” in wrong ways of thinking that they don’t recognize because it has become such an integral part of their life. It not only affects the workplace, but often many other areas of that person’s life and experiences. This mindset traps the workers because they fail to see the importance of how much it has affected them.

Copyright 2007 Kevin P. Smith. Permission for use is granted by the author. No changes may be made to “The Iron Gate” poem. Lesson plan may be adjusted as necessary by individual institutions as needed.

About the author

Kevin Smith has worked as a correctional officer for the State of Iowa for the past 19 years.

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