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Behind Bars: The relationship between prison inmates and their jailers

By Brian Wood - | Mar 21, 2016

The relationship between prisoners and their jailers is a unique one. There exists an “us versus them” mentality that is not likely to change any time soon, especially when you take into account the parties involved. I am hard-pressed to think of another situation in which the balance of power is so one-sided. Inmates are expected to follow any command given by an officer at any time. Inmates are expected to be courteous and respectful towards officers, even when an officer may be intentionally goading an inmate. This does happen on occasion inasmuch as we are talking about people.

There is a system in place in which an inmate can formally write a grievance about an officer. By all accounts, from inmates, guards and other staff, this is a bad idea. Not only is it unlikely anything will be done, but when a prisoner does this, he is picking a fight, one he has no hope of winning. Some inmates still do it out of principle, and maybe they enjoy the fight. Even “pro-inmate” staff members admit writing a grievance paints a target on your back. It’s like the fox is guarding the henhouse and you grieve the fox because he’s eating the chickens. You’re likely the next chicken to be eaten.

I’m sure some inmates would disagree with me, but I think the best solution is to just accept it, as I put myself in this situation. I’m learning what it really means to not let the small stuff bother me. Now I’m not comparing my situation to Viktor Frankl’s, but it was said best in his book “Man’s Search for Meaning” — “You cannot control what happens to you in life, but you can always control what you will feel and do about what happens to you.”

I’m not going to cite any specific interactions I have had with officers, as it would detract from my point. I first wrote a draft of this article and used a bit of sarcasm and other inflammatory comments, taking some cheap shots at officers with a little humor. After receiving some constructive criticism from someone I believe has my best interest in mind, I took them out. I was being petty and in doing so, came across as insincere. I obviously still need to work on controlling what I feel and do in these situations.

I have asked if this line of work draws those who may enjoy control over others. I would say there are officers who fit that description, and fair or not, that is the stereotype. Of course, not all or likely even a majority of officers who work here are like that.

I’ve had a conversation with a floor officer who does not fit that mold. He seems to me rather disenchanted with his career choice. He said when he started, he figured he would feel a sense of honor, duty and dignity. He wanted to help people, but things are different than he imagined. He claimed at first he sought to change the perception prisoners have of him as an adversary, but admitted he is tired and his efforts seem to go unrewarded.

He explained it’s so disheartening to be convinced by an inmate that he didn’t do something, and then he watches the cameras and sure enough, the inmate is guilty. After inmates have repeatedly solidified their negative stereotypes with bad behavior, he has, for the most part, lost hope for the general prison population and possibly a little faith in humanity in general.


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