“I read your article and I have a question,” she said.
“Really? What did you think?” I’m always a little surprised when people tell me they read something I wrote, especially prison staff. It’s not that I think it’s a secret, only that I forget I live in a fishbowl.
“It’s good. Why do you call us ‘prison guards’?”
“Um. Because you have not been correctional officers in nearly 40 years.” The NCDPS in fact changed their name from the Department of Corrections about a decade ago to reflect this. “Besides, it’s not like I appreciate being called an inmate. I have a name.”
“But that’s what you are” she said. “I’m not calling you a piece of garbage – just an inmate.”
The woman seemed genuinely concerned that I referred to her as a “prison guard”, as if somehow this was a pejorative. “What would you prefer?” I asked. “Correctional officer?”
“I tell you what,” I said. “How about we agree to use each other’s name and I’ll write about this on my blog.”
The ironic thing about this conversation is that I had been reading “The Toughest Beat” by Joshua Page, a book about the California Correctional Peace Officers Association’s influence on the field of penology. In the opening chapter Page explains the transition from corrections to confinement.
“For most of the first half of the twentieth century, the central purpose of imprisonment and related forms of punishment was rehabilitation. But from the mid-1970s onward, the central aim and logic of incarceration switched to retribution and incapacitation. With rehabilitation no longer a major aim of imprisonment, funding for educational, vocational and treatment programs dried up making it ironic that states still refer to their prisons as ‘correctional facilities’ and their penal agencies as ‘departments of correction’”.
For those of us who have been incarcerated for the last two decades it does not take a book on penology (albeit a very well written book on penology) to tell us what we already know: the prison system stopped caring about keeping people out of prison and instead became this place where no one seems to leave. Staff “guard” us and are reprimanded for anything beyond cursory conversations. “Corrective” action is more often a form of castigation intended to corral.
A great deal of meaning and history is tied up in words like “inmate”, “guard”, “convict”, “CO”, “prisoner”, and “screw”. The prison system to quote a fairly knowledgeable writer by the name Charles Norman “uses ‘correctional officer’ as a euphemism for ‘prison guard’ although it is more than that. The negative connotation of ‘prison guard’ does not infer the so-called inflated status of ‘correctional officer’, a prouder term that elevates a historically lowly position.”
In my writing I tend to use “guard’ – a person or group that protects, watches over, restrains, or controls somebody or something – because it’s an accurate, neutral summation of the people who maintain the prison. Guards stand on the walls with shotguns at the ready for any prisoner dumb enough to climb the razor wire. Guards patrol the hallways with batons and canisters of mace. Guards lock the doors, keep the gates, and enforce the rules. Guards count bodies – living or not – without any care for where those bodies come from or where they eventually go. I am not saying there is an utter lack of care for a fellow human being, only that a significant distinction exists between who lives in prison and who merely works there.
If it is easier for a person to identify by a particular label then far be it from me to gainsay that decision. Personally, I do not call myself a prisoner unless referring to part of a group or to lend greater understanding in my writing. At the end of the day, no matter our position in life, we are all human beings who want a little respect and consideration.