Life on the Installment Plan: Careers in Corrections

By Shaffer, John S. | Corrections Today, December 1999 | Go to article overview

Life on the Installment Plan: Careers in Corrections


Shaffer, John S., Corrections Today


In a very real sense, correctional employees serve more time in prison than many inmates do -- they just serve their time in eight-hour installments. As criminologist James B. Jacobs noted in his 1983 book, New Perspectives on Prisons and Imprisonment, "A career officer, in effect, commits himself [or herself] to a life sentence in prison."

In the foreword to Lucien X. Lombardo's, Guards Imprisoned: Correctional Officers at Work, Hans Toch made a similar observation: "Prison guards [correctional officers] are truly imprisoned. They are not only physically confined, but are locked into movie caricatures, into pejorative prophecies (sometimes self-fulfilling), into anachronistic supervision patterns, into unfair civil service definitions, into undeserved hostilities and prejudgments of their actions. Officers are imprisoned by our ignorance of who they are and what they do, which is the price they pay for working behind walls ..." This leads to the question: Why would a person voluntarily choose a career in corrections?

POPULAR IMAGES OF CORRECTIONAL EMPLOYEES

The popular image of people who work in corrections generally is quite negative. It is shaped in part by movies that characterize prison employees as corrupt, cynical brutes who manage inmates through force and fear. Kathy Alderman wrote that correctional workers are viewed by the general population with " ... a little awe, a little admiration -- but it's more akin to what one feels toward a lion tamer or snake charmer: A fascinating way to earn a living, but who would really want to do it?"

Social commentators also have painted a negative portrait of the typical correctional employee. In her book, Kind and Usual Punishment, Jessica Mitford wrote, " ... beyond those men and women who become guards because they have no alternative, this occupation appeals to those who like to wield power over the powerless and to persons of sadistic bent." Mitford called this the "guard mentality" and she asserted that, "... the guard mentality ... is not only a natural outcome of the job but a prerequisite for it."

In his 1988 book, Prison Officers and Their World, Kelsey Kauffman noted, "In those rare instances where (correctional) officers are discussed in sociological literature on prisons, it is frequently their characters that are in question."

Even the legitimate television and print news media tend to focus on negative images of corrections. Prison riots, assaults, suicides, murders, employee corruption and escapes always attract media attention. These relatively rare occurrences help fuel the public's negative perception of correctional institutions. Although it is true that negative events occur in the prison environment, and these events are newsworthy, the fact that these stories are not balanced with the more positive aspects of corrections leaves the general public with a distorted image of reality. The dominance of negative imagery has been a disservice to corrections. A distinction must be made between popular negative images and the reality of the profession if the field is to attract qualified, competent people.

THE "REAL WORLD" OF CORRECTIONAL EMPLOYEES

In contrast to the negative popular imagery, Jacobs noted, "It is simply not necessary (and probably not possible) for a guard to rely on force or threat of force to carry out job responsibilities ... Each guard is far outnumbered by prisoners, and the need to coexist for months and years with prisoners places a premium on maturity; leadership; self-confidence; judgment; and effective interpersonal relations."

The "real world" of mature, confident individuals with well-honed interpersonal skills is in stark contrast to the popular image of correctional employees as crude brutes who manage inmates by force and fear.

In a 1981 Federal Probation article, author C.T. Mangrum suggested that correctional employees not allow others to influence their perceptions of the profession. …

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