Stay Alert, Stay Alive

I’ll never forget my first shift in prison. My uniform was ironed crisp with freshly stitched on patches. I had a brand-new L.L. Bean lunch box, which was actually a small soft-shell cooler loaded with food in case I was held over to the next shift. It was evident I was a rookie, but thankfully I wasn’t the only one. I came “on line” with 25 other fresh recruits.  

I walked into the building, going through a series of gates and before stepping foot into the inner walls of the prison read the words, “stay alert, stay alive”. That is when things really hit me that this was the real deal. I was 24 at the time and had absolutely no idea what I was getting myself into but I was determined to succeed. You have to be somewhat fearless to work in a prison or at the very least be able to compartmentalize the real dangers. The facility I worked in held 2,000 male inmates and on second shift, there were about 50 officers. Needless to say, the odds weren’t in my favor. I stepped out of the final gate, found my post and made my way down a long concrete hallway and to my assigned unit.  Prison has a unique smell that I will never forget, almost like a weird spice mixed with body odor. A smell that would always be burned in my nostrils and on my cloths many hours after leaving.  

My first post was G-Dorm, a housing unit with about 60 unsentenced inmates. We were all in the same room, with a desk being the only thing separating us. Every 30 minutes I would get up and walk around, going up and down the aisles of the bunks, peering in the bathroom to ensure no one was having sex and still breathing. The smells were awful, it was June and the facility had no air conditioning or airflow. It would get so hot in the summer the walls and floor would sweat. The “touring” process took all of about 4 minutes.  The rest of the half hour I sat there trying to find ways to pass the time and trying not to let them see it was my first day on the job. I was nervous, I didn’t know what to do with myself and quickly learned the answer was nothing. The hours passed with minimal talking to anyone until just before 9 o’clock an inmate came up to me asking for a razor. Monday, Wednesday and Friday the facility hands out single blade razors so inmates can shave, except for this Friday. Despite my uneventful evening other parts of the facility were busy breaking up fights and processing inmates into segregation, leaving no time to hand out razors. I broke the news expecting him to nod his head and walk away. However, he handled the news about as well as a three-year-old learning they won’t be having dessert tonight because they didn’t finish their peas.  He began yelling, demanding to speak to a supervisor, I was baffled and stared back at him stone face not saying a word. I’ve always had a difficult time dealing with people’s stupidity, which I quickly realized was prison in a nutshell. I finally cut him off and plainly stated, they’re not coming and I’m not calling. He huffed, spun around, threw up the middle finger, walked away then proceeded to glare at me the rest of the night. I could have written him a ticket for flipping me the bird but I already knew that wasn’t the type of officer I wanted to be. I would figure out another way to gain respect.  

As the night crept to an end there was a looming fear of getting held to the next shift. It was a Friday night on a pay week which meant at least one person was calling out.  I had a solid buffer of officers lower in seniority but the list was growing smaller and smaller. Midnight finally hit and I made it, I was just waiting for my relief from post so I could go home. The minutes ticked on by and no one came. At 12:30 a lieutenant told me they couldn’t find my relief and reassigned me to another housing unit, I was in for another 8 hours. Beyond annoyed by the news I grabbed my things and made my way to the new post. A three-story celled housing unit with over 200 inmates. At least all the walking would keep me awake. One o’clock came around and that same lieutenant walked in the unit and told me to go home. I was so ecstatic I didn’t ask any questions and booked it out the door. Later finding out the officer that was supposed to relieve me popped a few too many pills in the parking lot in between shifts and fell asleep in his car. The perimeter vehicle found him drooling, shook him awake and sent him inside where I can only assume, he slipped back into his REM cycle. It wasn’t long after that moment I realized this was going to be a very long 25-year career.  

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