The Untold Story of a Prison Guard’s Struggle

With a generator powering the house, my family reluctantly went through belongings at my sister’s home. While going through her bedroom, deciding what clothes to keep and what to donate, I discovered a journal containing my sister’s own words about her time as a prison guard. At the age of twenty-one my sister, Jami, went off to the California Correctional Academy with dreams of having a lifelong career. After completing and graduating from the academy at the top of her class, she received a job at Corcoran State Prison.

When it opened in February 1988, Corcoran State Prison was only the nineteenth prison established by the state of California since 1852. The opening of Corcoran, however, came at the beginning of an unprecedented prison build-up: California has built twenty-three new prisons between the years of 1984 and 2007.[1] With more than double the amount of prisons, one would expect that crime had dramatically gone up. In fact, the crime rate actually reached a high in 1980 and has since decreased—yet the prison population in California has increased 500 percent between 1982 and 2000.[2] From a financial standpoint, the prison system quadrupled its expenditures from state funds since 1982, going from 2 to 8 percent of California’s annual budget.[3] The prison system in California has become the number one employer of public employees, even surpassing the school system.[4] The growth of the prison system has contributed to the growing number of problems within prisons,  not only for the inmates, but also for the guards who watch over them.

Jami entered the male-dominated field of corrections in 2007. She was employed at Corcoran State Prison, one of the highest security prisons in the United States. Corcoran holds high-profile inmates such as the infamous Charles Manson and Sirhan Sirhan. Intimidation runs rampant through the halls of this prison, and my sister blindly fell into its grasp. Women prison guards tend to approach the job in different ways than men, building bonds with inmates to get them to voluntarily comply with their authority.[5] The women’s approach can generate conflict between them and their male counterparts. Most male guards do not support or cooperate with the ways in which female guards perform their jobs, and some even undermine their authority.[6] Male guards see women as a danger to the security of the prison, when in fact an escalation of violence can be caused by men more often than women; some scholars suggest that the presence of women might even reduce the level of aggression expressed in violent incidents.[7]

Never would I have thought that my sister, being the person she was, would get caught up in an act of violence on the job. However, the first entry in my sister’s journal—September 15, 2013—described her involvement, along with other guards, in the use of force that went unreported. After consulting with her male co-workers, she expressed her desire to tell the authorities about what had happened. However, her colleagues insisted that it was better left alone.

On September 26, 2013, Jami reported the incident and communicated with her union president. He insisted that he did not want any names, places, or details about what had happened; he even insinuated that this could cause her to lose her job. After about a week and a half, the union president informed Jami that she had nothing to worry about, and that the whole incident was going to blow over. Nothing however seems to stay quiet inside prison walls; word of the report she made spread throughout the prison, reaching each and every guard. Jami was affirmed by her higher-ranking officers that she had the right to work in a harassment-free environment, but like so many things in the prison system, trouble was bound to happen. Harassment would soon be the least of her worries.

On October 30, 2013, my sister wrote of her first encounter with harassment. A guard was going around accusing her of being a “whistle blower, and a rat” and said that she could not be trusted. My sister, being a strong-willed person, confronted her co-worker and defended herself by saying, “I was in fact brave… not only for going against what everyone else wanted to do but by doing what was right.” After that initial harassment, it became a regular occurrence in the life of my sister, affecting her at both work and home.

The climax of events in my sister’s journal happened on February 21, 2014, after being ordered to get inmates into groups for a cell-search. After asking for assistance and being denied by several guards, one person replied to her call for a partner, saying that “people don’t want to escort with someone that they cannot trust.” My sister then wrote: “I didn’t want [the commanding officer] to know that I felt so alone and harassed at a time that there needed to be work done…” My sister’s pride was too great for her to just stop and complain. Correctional officers’ “cultural rules” say not to ask for help, because it could be a potential death sentence.[8]

Being a correctional officer was the greatest thing to my sister; the badge was her life. Prior to joining corrections, my sister struggled to find her place in the world; the badge became her purpose. However, continuous harassment followed my sister, which made going to work, something she once loved, a dreaded part of her life.

Subsequently, two guards fabricated a story in which they falsely accused Jami of wrongdoing. The provoked an investigation. After months of investigation Jami and Corcoran State Prison had “separated.” After months of harassment and mistreatment, one false accusation ended my sister’s time as a prison guard. Facing all of this work-related stress, the loss of the job, and other personal issues, my sister decided to take her own life on March 29, 2016. In a note Jami left for her family, she wrote: “I just couldn’t do it anymore it is to hard I lost everything…” Regardless of whether my sister reported her harassment or not, she chose her own fate. The sad truth is that Jami’s story was just one of many correctional officer stories that resulted with this tragic end.   

The National Institute of Corrections has done research on suicide within the profession. In a recent report, it states that, overall, correctional officers have a 41 percent greater risk for committing suicide in comparison to the rest of the United States working population.[9] The same report showed that white male correctional officers had a 34 percent risk while their female counterparts had a 200 percent greater risk for suicide.[10] Stress is a prime motive for correctional officers to end their own lives. “The available evidence documents that stress among correctional officers is widespread and, in many cases, severe, according to the National Institute of Corrections,” which cites factors such as high demands with low control, the dangerousness of job, and low levels of support.[11] Post-traumatic stress disorder or PTSD is a common occurrence for prison guards, with 27 percent rate of guards showing symptoms.[12] These statistics should be alarming to the general public, but for some reason the issue fails to attract public interest.

There is a major problem growing in the California prison system, not only concerning the inmates, but the guards as well. While Americans have become increasingly aware of the plight of prisoners and the problem of mass incarceration, the effect of the prison system on correctional officers has taken a back seat.

Prison reform is needed in order to address the impact of a dysfunctional system on both prisoners and guards. As historian Ruth Gilmore asks in her book Golden Gulag, even if crime were a huge problem, which it is not, are more prisons really the solution?[13] Equality between male and female workers within the profession would help mitigate to the growing problem, sociologist Lynn Zimmer has argued.[14] In matters of stress among prison guards, the report on correctional suicide suggests more intervention from prison administrations is needed.[15] None of these possible solutions will ever bring back my sister. However, the concern raised by her loss—and the loss of many other prison guards—makes correctional officer suicide an issue that can no longer be ignored.

Tyler Caffee is a first-year undergraduate history major at California State University, Fresno. The youngest of three siblings, Tyler aspires to become a high school history teacher. His sister Jami passed away almost a year ago (March 29th), and Tyler is proud to share her story and bring awareness to this issue.  This piece is part of our Unofficial Archives series.

References

[1] Gilmore, Ruth Wilson. Golden Gulag: Prisons, Surplus, Crisis, and Opposition in Globalizing California (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2007), 7.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid., 8.

[4] Ibid., 10.

[5] Zimmer, Lynn. “How Women Reshape the Prison Guard Role.” Gender and Society. December 1987. Accessed February 17, 2017. http://www.jstor.org/stable/189635. 421.

[6] Ibid., 120.

[7] Ibid., 424.

[8] “New Directions in Corrections.” National Institute of Corrections. June 10, 2015. Accessed February 22, 2017. http://info.nicic.gov/virt/sites/info.nicic.gov.virt/files/Suicide-Behind-the-Wall-slides.pdf.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Gilmore, 24.

[14] Zimmer, 427.

[15] “New Directions in Corrections.”

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