How should you interact with prison staff?
by Nicholas Fox
“I hate cops.” This is a common opinion uttered about guards (“cops”) in jail and prison. It’s an understandable opinion. Dynamics between “captor” and “captive” can be problematic, to say the least. But, it’s important for system-impacted people to realize that guards are very different from the police. With that in mind, how should you interact with prison staff?
When you interact with prison staff, remember that they are human too.
Guards are often earning close to minimum wage. They work long, miserable hours in very difficult and dangerous conditions. Most of them are working long shifts, trying to survive while pursuing some dream of a pension after 40 years of dutiful service. If you could offer them a better alternative, most of them would take it. Most guards are just people.
So, whether you’re in booking, or you’re watching them do headcount for the 5,000th time, remember: They have kids, family, hobbies, dreams, ambitions and principles. Most of them understand that they are a small part of a very large broken system, and they will be happy to be a small agent of “good” if you just give them the chance.
Guards can be your greatest allies.
Good friends in jail or prison are valuable. But your average guard has much more power over your quality of life than your average incarcerated peer. Guards can extend your yard time, get you your mail more quickly, extend library time and enforce quiet hours (or not). There’s no end to the list of discretionary power a guard or a team of guards have.
Not only can they influence these small aspects of life, but they can even influence life and death situations. From assaults and inter-prison abuse, vocational programs, write-ups and parole hearings, guards can have a massive influence on your life, for better or worse.
Knowing this, when you interact with prison staff, understand their humanity and go out of your way to connect with their humanity. Behave with assertive dignity and they will likely return the favor.
Also, don’t try too hard. You’ll annoy your fellow incarcerated people and you’ll annoy guards. If you try too hard, they’ll likely be hard on you to make an example of you.
Many guards do have biases and it’s important to know what they are.
While most guards have humanity and decency, they also have shortcomings. Many guards have biases—implicit and explicit—that shape their work as guards.
Some guards are straight-up mean and power hungry. It is no exaggeration to say that some guards got the job so they could serve a powerful organization or individual. Often, these actors organize around racial biases.
Understanding this, be wary. Don’t make assumptions or jump to conclusions. But, in the same way you’re cautious about choosing associates, be cautious about interacting with officers.
There is a chance for corruption. Don’t pretend that it doesn’t exist.
It’s also irrefutable that there are guards drawn into corruption. Whether it’s bringing in contraband or doing other tasks for bribes. Guards are corruptible.
This is dangerous for the person or people bribing the guard as much as it is the guard. But, it’s important to point out: those guards are bribable because they are being paid so little that they are motivated to seek kickbacks.
The important thing to realize here is that bribing guards motivates them to stay in an otherwise soul-crushing job. And, because of this, bribing guards is essentially co-signing their job: keeping you locked up. When you bribe a guard or traffic contraband, you are subsidizing a system that would otherwise be unsustainable.
Documenting names and badge numbers can be helpful, though it is risky.
Documenting the names and badge numbers of the guards you interact with will be worth it if you find yourself needing it. Take down the names and badge numbers of as many guards as possible—especially the guards that you suspect of abuse. It can feel like a hopeless situation when there’s an abusive guard around—they do have so much power—but the best recourse you have is information. If you don’t have their name or badge number, paired with significant documentation of abuse and other activities—your grievances will be difficult to address.
And on the positive side—if you have guards (like I did) who go above and beyond their duty to help you, how will you ever thank them?
Being incarcerated isn’t fun. But, acting out and antagonizing guards isn’t going to make things any better. Empathize with them, learn about them and let them see your humanity.