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Stan Moody

POB 240
Manchester, ME 04351
626-0594

Prison Myth No. 4: “All Prison Guards Are Brutes!”

January 1, 2010

Being a prison guard is a thankless job.


The shroud of secrecy that envelopes a prison system feeds the public perception that guards are
schoolyard bullies who never grew up. They cannot repair that image because the public never sees
what really goes on there. You have to ride tall in the saddle to come to work every day, be faced with
emergencies that demand the right action and know that you are there to back up a prison
administration that wants to keep everything secret and under control without getting their hands dirty.
In my experience as a chaplain at Maine State Prison, I have to say that I have never met a more
dedicated and professional group of people than probably 80% of the guards there. Here is what these
people have to face every day:

Until the recent change to 12-hr. shifts, they were mandated to come in on short notice, raising
havoc with their home lives but fattening their paychecks. With all the overtime, some guards were
able to make upwards of $80,000 a year, albeit with a divorce or two along the way.
Prison administration operates under the principle that a good day is one in which there is no
crisis. Thus, you don’t always get promoted at MSP by insisting on doing the right thing but by how
you handle crises, too often self-instigated. Promotion often depends on the leverage you can exercise
with an administration that is physically, emotionally and legally detached from the trenches.
Walk into the lobby of the prison, and it is immediately clear from the plaques on the wall that
the most valued asset staff members bring to the job is longevity – how many years you have put into
the system. With a turnover of some 100 officers a year (nearly 40% of the total), “staying the course”
has become a badge of courage.
The ability to stay the course for the duration, however, requires a deftness of foot. When
something goes wrong, the blame will always be placed on the people lowest on the food chain – never
on anyone from the front office where internal investigations are manipulated to present Corrections in
a positive light.

How, then, can a prison guard come in there every day with a smile on his or her face, remain
objective and keep the rest of life in perspective? It takes a real professional to do that while knowing
that it is likely that you will never be thanked. Here are a few examples of character that make a
difference in prison:

I was visiting a prisoner who had spent the last few months of his bid in solitary confinement.
This was to be his last day. There was a guard standing at the cell door, quizzing the prisoner on a
history of science course that he had started teaching but was not permitted to continue. The care that
this guard demonstrated in trying to offer that prisoner some pride and dignity to take with him out the
door was astounding.
A model prisoner was appealing for a sentence reduction after some 22 years of confinement
that evolved from a crime committed in his youth. The number of prison guards that went the extra
mile to write letters advocating for him was very impressive. They were among the guards that I hold
in high esteem from my short term there.
There are guards at the front lobby who take great care and patience to assist family members
coming in to visit and volunteers coming in to help.
There are other guards who carry a friendly smile every day and who attempt to advocate for
the prisoners under their jurisdiction. Over and over again – every day of every week – you witness
acts of kindness over and above the job requirements.

History will validate, however, that none of the above is likely ever to be promoted to Sgt. and
on up the line. Job security as a guard is a nail biter – often a conflict between doing the right thing and
doing the expedient thing.

There is another type of guard who turns a blind eye to beatings by inmates of weaker inmates
and routinely makes derogatory statements about certain types of offenders. That is the kind of guard
who would put an injured inmate like Sheldon Weinstein in solitary confinement for his own protection
and let him die of injuries, alone in his cell. That is the type of guard whose philosophy of
incarceration is reflected in the saga of Abu Ghraib. Caring and human decency to that kind of guard
are considered to be weaknesses.
The climate created by that kind of guard is reflected in the attitude of a prisoner currently
incarcerated at Oregon State Correctional Institution:

The men and women who hold the key to your freedom (the prison guards)
should be considered your enemy. There is a reason that surveys on job status and job
satisfaction often rate being a prison guard as the lowest job a person can hold. No one
respects prison guards, and they know it. What kind of man or woman would want to
examine body openings for contraband, turn keys, and stand around and do nothing for a
living? Prison guards hate their jobs and blame prisoners for their unhappy and
unfulfilled lives…
The Golden Rule to remember not only about prison guards, but about anyone
that works inside the prison in which you are held captive, is to stay as far away from
them as possible and avoid even talking to them unnecessarily. Even if you happen to
run across a prison guard who appears to be halfway human, don't befriend him…Don't
make eye contact with the people who work at the prison because if you avoid eye
contact they will leave you alone. The less contact you have with prison employees, the
better off you will be.

The Golden Rule for this inmate, then, is to do for others nothing under any circumstances,
period! That is a sure path to repeating the same failure of respect for authority that got him there in
the first place.
Respect for human dignity demands a maturity that may be too much to ask of a guard culture
selected at random from the general public. There are those, however, who know what it means to be
tough but fair and consistent without losing their cool when things go south. That is the kind of attitude
that engenders respect and establishes role models that increase a prisoner’s chances of success upon
release.
Boundary issues for both guards and prisoners are very acute within a prison. How to be
respected without being pushed around is a fine balancing act. What we can hope for, however, is that
both prison guards and prisoners will get through their bids better human beings than when they went
in.
The taxpayers and society expect that from both.
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