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Running naked: Why correctional officers should wear a stab-resistant vest

Why are there still so many willing to take the risk of “running naked” on duty, when the stakes are so high and the inconvenience so minimal?


Today’s stab-resistant vests are as soft and manageable as the newest bullet-resistant vests.

AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli

I have twice had to call an officer’s spouse to let them know there will be a car at their house to take them to the hospital to visit their injured beloved. I will do everything I can to make sure this never happens again.

If you’ve passed as many birthdays working on the inside as I have, you probably remember those “turtle shell” stab-resistant vest that we used to have to wear. They were hard-paneled beasts that made it nearly impossible for a correctional officer to move.

Thankfully, technology has come a long way and today’s stab-resistant vests are as soft and manageable as the newest bullet-resistant body armor. And yet, there are still correctional officers who choose not to wear them.

If I could go back in time and offer one of these new vests to an officer waddling around in a turtle shell, they would gladly wear it all day over the prospect of wearing a turtle shell for even an hour.

So, why is it that there are still those who take the risk of “running naked” on duty (without their vests), when the stakes are so high and the inconvenience so minimal?

Recently, I asked several officers who choose to not wear vests why they do it. Here are some of their more frequent excuses:

Excuse 1: They are too hot! I am going to die of heat stroke sooner than get stabbed to death.

I am banging my head against my keyboard just thinking about this. Remember, a coffin is always much hotter than a vest.

Try thinking of it this way: a hot vest as an excuse to crack open a fresh Gatorade in the yard or to enjoy a crisp beer when you get home.

It is true that your vest may make you sweat and they have the potential to raise your core temperature, but simply staying hydrated can stave off most adverse side effects. If you are working in a truly hot environment – like my last assignment in the high desert – a $40 investment in a camel pack will solve your problem.

It beats getting stabbed with a weapon laden with hepatitis C, doesn’t it?

Excuse 2: If I wear a vest, the stabber is just going to go for my neck, so why bother?

Do you remember the North Hollywood shoot-out with the two heavily armed and armored bank robbers? The gunfight lasted more than 40 minutes and the robbers fired in excess of 1,800 rounds. The primary reason it took so long to stop the suspects was that they were both wearing body armor.

This incident proved wrong the theory that a head shot was an easy way to defeat body armor. Brave LAPD officers tried to land a head shot with rounds landing within inches of their mark including dozens of hits to the body armor.

The point here is clear: A vest dramatically shrinks your area of vulnerability.

While an attacking inmate will know that the most effective target is your neck, they will have a difficult time reaching it on a vigilant officer. It is always easier to protect just your neck and face than to be simultaneously worrying about your vital organs.

In my years, I have watched dozens of knife attacks – most of them have been inmates stabbing each other – and most attacks start and end with as many body shots as possible. There are very few exceptions to this rule.

Excuse 3: The vest is uncomfortable and immobilizing.

Try wearing a turtle vest for eight hours when it’s 105 degrees outside!

Vests today are pliable and fit nicely under a uniform and although they can limit your upper body’s mobility slightly, you’ll retain most of your range of motion. I have yet to run into (or hear of) a situation in which a new vest stopped someone from fighting effectively.

Excuse 4: The vest rides up and chokes me.

There are two reasons for this problem and both are easily resolved:

  1. The vest is not a proper fit. Your vest should be custom-fitted for your body. If at all possible, request a fitted vest from your supervisor, or contact the manufacturer directly. Remind them that it’s your safety, and the safety of others, that is at stake.
  2. Sometimes if the vest is a good fit but it still rides up, it could be that the straps are too tight. Try loosening them (a vest is not a corset). This may sound counterintuitive but it works, especially for those of us who have what I call “battle-weight,” which is typically found around the midsection. As a rule, if you’ve got gut and the vest rides up, loosen the straps. Make sure however that the side panels still touch because you do not want to leave your side exposed.

Excuse 5: The vest makes me look heavy.

This was the second most popular response I received, and frankly, I don’t even know where to start.

Yes, you look huge. Now, get over it. You’re here to run across the yard, not walk down the runway.

You might be shaking your head right now, wondering where I found these people. But the truth is that they are regular officers (working in a variety of states) that I have befriended over the years.

If you know anyone who has ever used any of these excuses, please share this article with them. If you do not want to wear a vest, go find a desk job. If you know a CO that refuses to wear their vest, tell them that you don’t want to be the one taking questions from their grieving spouse as to why they were unprotected.

A vest is not a Superman cape, but it will tip the odds in your favor. It is not fair to your partners, your spouse, your kids, or yourself to refuse to wear the protection you have been offered.

This leads me to the last response I heard:

Excuse 6: I don’t need a vest; I’ll just kick the inmates butt.

You want to be a real man or woman? Good, then wear a vest and ensure you can go home tonight to kiss your family.

Do you really believe that if something happens to you, your family will take comfort in your ability to be tough? I didn’t think so.

Take care of yourselves and each other. Look out for your partner; make sure they vest-up all day, everyday. If there is anyone who still thinks they don’t need a vest, feel free to E-mail me and I will be more than happy to answer your excuse. If you have a real problem with a vest, contact the manufacturer for help; they can often make suggestions and help you resolve issues so that you get the protection you need.

As always, be safe, watch your six, and for the love of all that is good and holy, vest up!

This article, originally published April 2009, has been updated.

Sergeant Barry Evert has been with the department of Corrections since 1999, and has worked several high security prisons. Sergeant Evert is currently assigned to Pelican Bay State Prison, and has worked as a Sergeant since 2005. Sgt. Evert has 10 years experience in dealing with both street and prison gangs. His book, “Scars and Bars” is due out anytime, and is dedicated to helping new Officers efficiently survive their first two years on the job, both on the job and at home. To Sgt. Evert, correctional officer safety is paramount, and is the core of what he writes and teaches.