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A Guard’s-Eye View Of Jail

cell block common area with tables and benches, Ouachita River Correctional Unit, Malvern, Arkansas
photo courtesy Gordon Incorporated

The ongoing controversy over Sandra Bland’s death hinges on several issues, including the fact that few of us know what goes on behind the walls of our country’s jails and prisons.

Bland, a 28-year-old woman from the Chicago area, was arrested in Waller County, Texas, on July 10 and died in her jail cell three days later. Nearly everything else about what happened is disputed. Earlier this week, the release of a dashboard camera video showing her arrest raised immediate questions about editing or manipulation from some media outlets and observers. And many who knew Bland personally remain deeply skeptical of the idea she would take her own life. For now, the investigation into her death is being treated as a murder investigation, according to Waller County District Attorney Elton Mathis.

I do not know what happened in that Texas jail; almost no one does for sure. And to be clear, the video of the state trooper pulling her over and arresting her, regardless of its integrity, does nothing to shed light on her cause of death. But as Max Ehrenfreund pointed out at The Washington Post, even confirmation of suicide would raise questions about what steps were taken in the facility to keep those in custody safe.

Nor is this an isolated problem. The suicide rate in local jails is about three times as high as in state or federal prisons, according to federal statistics. And we can hardly blame those who are skeptical of the official story of Bland’s death, considering reported abuses by corrections officers in facilities like Rikers Island.

So how do C.O.s see their job, which critics and supporters of the current system alike can agree must be challenging and dangerous?

For those of us who don’t know any corrections officers personally, a recent Facebook thread offers some insight. CorrectionsOne, a trade publication, recently made a very constructive request on its Facebook page. In preparation for a future article, the publication asked, “What would be the single biggest change you’d make at your facility if you were in charge?”

The very first comment was representative of many in the thread. The respondent wrote, “I would make the staff the number one priority not the inmates.” Many commenters echoed the sentiment. With so much of our population locked up, this is another way of saying: Run the jails and prisons for the staff’s benefit now, and let society bear the costs later - which is, incidentally, good for business, since it sends more people back to the same place eventually.

But, like most discussions of complicated topics, the Facebook discussion is not a monolith. Here are a selection of some representative answers to the question, in a discussion that offers an unusually candid look at a subset of correction officers who chose to weigh in. (The full post is public to view.)

“get rid of management?”

“Get rid of politics”

“Remove the liberal mined (sic) people”

“I would remove the direct supervision model and provide programs and opportunities to inmates who want to change.”

“No special privileges tv air etc”

“Stricter punishments for inmates for misconduct reports and visitors caught bringing in contraband”

“Have the inmates stay locked in 23 hours a day”

“Get rid of immagration (sic) detainees. We have changed so many rules and functions to make it easier on them in jail.”

“Bring back the chain gang make them be productive to for the public not a threat”

“More staff!!!!!”

“Do whatever possible to RETAIN staff!!!!!”

“Treat staff with respect!”

“K-9 units and better camera coverage!”

“I would believe my officers over the inmates. And probably get rid of some of the cameras. There’s way too many.”

“I would boost morale and get rid of the micro management it is NEVER helpful.”

“Increase officer camaraderie to avoid favoritism, so that job rotations can be fair.”

“Better retirement, better and more effective training for officers.”

“Go back to a standard 12 hour shift schedule.”

“Make sure all staff begin as officers so administrative staff understand the daily challenges of correctional officers.”

“Find out which country has the smallest prisoner population per capita and implement every policy they have instead of ours.”

“Run the prison like a prison and not a daycare”

Like employees anywhere, most C.O.s just want to make their world better. The people who pass through their doors are, for the most part, pretty much secondary.

Larry M. Elkin is the founder and president of Palisades Hudson, and is based out of Palisades Hudson’s Fort Lauderdale, Florida headquarters. He wrote several of the chapters in the firm’s book, Looking Ahead: Life, Family, Wealth and Business After 55. His contributions include Chapter 1, “Looking Ahead When Youth Is Behind Us” and Chapter 4, “The Family Business."

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