A watchtower rises above the maximum security complex at Pelican Bay State Prison in Crescent City, Calif. A guard at the prison recently described how it has changed his life.
A watchtower rises above the maximum security complex at Pelican Bay State Prison in Crescent City, Calif. A guard at the prison recently described how it has changed his life. Ben Margot/AP
In the movies, prison guards aren't often seen as heroes. And that can mean their motivations are never examined. For a report by member station KALW's blog The Informant, a corrections officer at California's famous Pelican Bay Prison agreed to tell his story.
In an article titled "Drinking whiskey with a sergeant at California's securest prison," Luke Whyte speaks with the officer about working with some of America's most dangerous criminals. Their conversation spans from drinks at a bar to dinner with the officer's family.
As for why anyone would take such a job, the officer, whose name is not revealed in the piece, says it was a matter of needing a job — fast.
"You don't grow up wanting to be a correctional officer," he said.
The officer's original goal of joining the highway patrol was put on hold when his wife became pregnant. It would have taken him six months to finish training for the highway patrol. But the department of corrections' academy took only six weeks.
Now he's at Pelican Bay — as Whyte describes it, "the end of the line, designed to contain and isolate California's most dangerous inmates. In the event of an earthquake, its walls are designed to collapse inward."
The officer paints a picture of an emotionally charged environment, where guards are sometimes pelted by balls of feces and other bodily materials, hurled by inmates who may have hepatitis or AIDS.
The attack, he says, is called "gassing."
"We've probably had more officers lose their mental well being because of a gassing than anything else," he said.
NPR has covered Pelican Bay before — in 2006, Laura Sullivan filed a series of reports from the prison.
In one report, she described its solitary confinement facility, the Security Housing Unit — or SHU (pronounced "SHOE").
"With more than 1,200 inmates, it's one of the largest and oldest isolation units in the country," Sullivan said, "and it's the model that dozens of other states have followed."
Sullivan also spoke with an inmate who was in solitary, a 39-year-old named Jason:
"A lot of guys go [crazy], really, and sometimes I ask myself, 'Am I losing it, right?'" Jason says behind his small cell-door holes. "It breaks you psychologically, right? People do develop phobias. You start thinking people are talking about you when they're not."
When inmates do go crazy, there is another part of the prison for them — the psychiatric SHU.
In the piece for KALW, the officer told Whyte, "There's a joke out there, 'I go home today knowing I saved that child molester from that serial killer.' And that pretty much describes the job satisfaction we get."
Reporting its most recent statistics on America's prison population, the Department of Justice said that at the end of 2009, 7,225,800 Americans were "under correctional supervision" in America — or about 1 in 32 adults.
That number accounts for those on probation and parole, as well as those in prison or jail.
UPDATE/Correction at 6:56: The initial reference to the Justice statistics in this post incorrectly suggested that the figure of 7,225,800 reflected the U.S. prison population of 2009. I apologize for the error. The ending of the post has now been rewritten to clarify the statistics.