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Behind the scenes on Christmas Day

A glimpse into the challenges correctional officers face working through the holiday season



It was the night before Christmas, and the correctional officer was snuggled in bed, but had no visions of sugar plums dancing in their head. Tossing and turning all night, knowing the Christmas shift roster would be very tight.

The officer realized working holidays comes with the job, and, just like all first responders, it is their duty to serve and protect the families in their community on holidays and every day. It was just the thought of not being able to see their family wake up in the morning with big smiles and yelling, “Merry Christmas everyone.”

You see, the officer would be on the way to work, headed for the jail or prison hours before sunrise, and would not be home until after sunset. The family will save a plate of the Christmas meal for the officer that evening, but Christmas is just not the same without everyone at home. The holidays may heighten the anxieties at home, but a strong family will learn to adjust to their correctional officer’s way of life.

The officer arrives at work and walks through the control room door with a “Potluck” dish in hand for the shift Christmas lunch. Someone yells, “Just place the dish on the meeting room table. We will try to get everyone up here around noon to get a plate of food.”

The officer goes to the dorm and properly relieves the night shift officer who is so eager to get home for Christmas Day, he is almost at a full run to get to his car. Count has cleared, and the inmates are still sleeping; soon, the dorm will be in full action with inmates yelling, “Hey C.O., I need this,” and “What time is it?” and “Do we get turkey or ham for Christmas this year?”

Mid-morning, master control announces over the radio that the approved citizen volunteers have arrived with Christmas gifts for the inmates, and you supervise accordingly. Afterward, the midday count takes place, and the chowtime for the inmate population is conducted.

During the count, the officer finds an inmate hanging in his cell. The officer announces via radio that assistance is needed as an inmate is attempting suicide. The officer grabs the inmate by the legs and pushes up, taking the pressure off the inmate’s neck. Other officers arrive with the “Emergency Cutting Tool” and cut the bed sheet off the inmate’s neck. The inmate is taken to the medical department and survives. Christmas day and holidays bring about spikes in depression, suicides, and violence among the inmate population, making holidays extremely difficult for officers working their shift.

The life-saving officers working the suicide have finished their written reports and now are properly relieved to go and get a plate of food from the “Potluck” Christmas meal. The food must be re-heated in the microwave, but that does not matter to the very hungry officers. The officers sit and think about their families back home on this Christmas day. Suddenly, they hear the sergeant say, “Eat up, let’s go. I have to get two more dorm officers relieved for chow.”

Back in the dorm, the 12-hour shift slowly moves on, and it even seems slower on this Christmas day, with families eagerly awaiting the safe return of their correctional officer. The afternoon count approaches, and the inmates have had their Christmas meal and are watching TV, playing cards, or sleeping after burning some energy in the recreation yard. The officer yells out, “Count time, count time, the sooner you’re in, the sooner you are out.” After a clear count, the inmates are allowed out of their cells, and it is getting close to going home time for the officer.

It is now 5:36 p.m., only 24 minutes left before the relieving shift comes on duty. A fight breaks out in the dorm. The officer calls for assistance and waits for back-up before entering this dangerous situation because the officer is outnumbered a hundred to one. Once officers have taken control of the situation, everyone is checked for injuries by the medical department. Now, once again, it is report writing time. All the officers that responded to the inmate fight will be late getting off shift on this Christmas day.

The officer finally arrives home late on Christmas day evening after calling ahead, explaining why they would be late. With open arms, the supporting family greets their loved one. The officer must set aside all the incidents that occurred at work on this day and walk into the family home with a big smile. This Christmas day evening will go by very quickly for the officer, as they must return to work at 6 a.m. the next day.

We must all take a moment over the holidays to recognize the brave men and women who work behind the walls to protect our families and citizens. They control the inmate population with only handcuffs and pepper spray, seriously outnumbered, sometimes more than a hundred to one. The dangers are real! Lord, protect our fellow officers, our unsung heroes.

Thank a correctional officer today!

Gary York, author of “Corruption Behind Bars” and “Inside The Inner Circle,” served in the United States Army from 1978 to 1987 and was honorably discharged at the rank of Staff Sergeant from the Military Police Corps. U.S. Army Staff Sergeant Gary York completed the 7th Army Non-Commissioned Officers Leadership Academy with a 96.6% in the Train to Train method of instruction. Gary received the Army Commendation Medal and Soldier of the Quarter Award while serving. Gary was a Military Police shift supervisor for five years.

Gary then began a career with the Department of Corrections as a correctional officer. Gary was promoted to probation officer, senior probation officer and senior prison inspector where for the next 12 years he conducted criminal, civil and administrative investigations in many state prisons. Gary was also assigned to the Inspector General Drug Interdiction Team conducting searches of staff and visitors entering the prisons for contraband during weekend prison visitation. Gary also received the Correctional Probation Officer Leadership Award for the Region V, Tampa, Florida, Correctional Probation and he won the Outstanding Merit Award for leadership in the Region V Correctional Officer awards Tampa, Florida.