“What’s a PTA mom doing in this line of work?” they asked me at the Corrections Officer Academy. Good question.
I shrugged. I needed a job, I told them. Really, I just wanted to see if I could do it. Law enforcement has always interested me. I wanted to be a cop at some point, but the timing was never right. At 37, I was pretty sure those aspirations were behind me.
I applied. I passed the written test. Only missed one. I passed the physical ability test (barely). I passed the polygraph, the psychological examination, the background investigation, and finally, had an interview with the jail commander. They offered me the job.
I had no idea what to expect. I’d never been in a jail.
On October 18, 2007 at approximately 1935 hours, I, Correction Officer Senter and other Booking staff observed Inmate #47788 hitting his head repeatedly against the cinder block wall and the window glass of holding cell B.8, where he was on a 10-minute suicide watch (all of the soft cells were occupied). I observed blood on the window, smeared on the walls and dripping from his forehead.
After two weeks of orientation, four weeks at the academy, and six weeks of field training, they assigned me to a housing module filled with 64 inmates; I was on my own. In a direct supervision environment, you sit at a desk in the dayroom with the inmates when they are out of their cells. On swing shift, they are all out of their cells. I look out for trouble and for those violating the rules, but there is no way one set of eyes can see everything.
On November 25, 2007, I was assigned to the F4 module. At approximately 1805 hours I was standing at my desk and observed I/M #30516 move across the module and sit down in the TV area. The next time I looked, he was quietly watching TV. Minutes later, I heard a commotion and looked over and saw I/M #30516 on the floor. Someone said he fell. Two inmates assisted him into to his chair. He pointed at I/M #98175 and said, “He hit me.”
The hours are shitty. Four p.m. to midnight, never a weekend off. No vacation available without seniority. I’m a single mom and the neighbors are raising my little girl. I ended up breaking up with my boyfriend of five years, because I rarely saw him. There was so little time. When I was with him I felt guilty that I wasn’t spending time with my daughter and vice versa.
It sucks, but at least my bills are getting paid. And it’s a lot of money for what is often glorified babysitting.
Upon conducting my initial headcount, I observed I/M #77911 on the floor in her cell with her head in the toilet talking loudly. When I indicated that she had been caught communicating through the plumbing to the males on the floor below, she was startled; turned red and said she was sorry. She pulled an almost-empty toilet paper roll out of the empty toilet bowl.
I didn’t sleep well that first year. I kept dreaming that I was sleeping on the job and I’d dream that I’d wake up and there were hours of time were not accounted for on my log and terrible things had happened that I had not documented nor been able to stop. Would I admit that I was sleeping, or forge the entries? My worst nightmare was that something bad would happen on my watch due to my negligence. I woke up. Each night. Repeatedly.
There were approximately ten incoming inmates sitting and standing in the booking intake area and one inmate in the sally port. I grabbed a property bin and went to the door to receive the inmate in the sally port. I/M #8482 was being brought in by two DOC officers. He was obviously intoxicated and had been medically cleared to book at the hospital. I/M told me he was “really fucked up” and had taken heroin, meth and lots of Klonopin. I asked him if he was trying to kill himself and he replied that he would have taken a different blend of heroin if he wanted to kill himself.
It isn’t pleasant to be in jail for forty hours a week—which feels like doing a thirty-year sentence, 8 hours at a time—but it’s even worse when they don’t let you go home. I’ve learned to hate the word “ratchet.” Ratcheting is the process in which a vacant position is filled when the voluntary overtime sign-up list is exhausted. When someone calls in sick, someone gets stuck working in the post. Usually, it’s a crappy post (funny how often those working the shit jobs get sick), and if you’re low-man on the totem pole, guess who gets it? It used to be that you could be ratcheted over and over as long as it wasn’t more than twice in a row. In the early years, I would work a sixteen hour shift, go home and get three or four hours of sleep and come back, only to get ratcheted to another double. I would be so exhausted by 6 a.m. on the second double, I had to stand and stare into space in a bleary stupid to stay awake. This was before things improved a little and we were allowed to watch TV or read or go online.
At approximately 0005 hours, while conducting my headcount, I found Inmates #32787 and #40509 in the lower bunk, which belongs to #32787. The inmates were under the covers and their bodies were touching and their eyes were closed. The inmates were one behind the other, both facing the door. #40509 stated that it was innocent and they fell asleep while talking.
For the first year and a half, I was assigned to the female psych/behavioral unit at least a few days per week. Those women drove me to the point where I needed to be committed to a psych ward. During the last rotation, I was assigned there four nights a week. I dreaded coming to work. I wanted to shoot myself.
At approximately 2120 hours, I/M #87593 accused me of trying to kill her by denying her medication. When I inquired what type of medication she was awaiting, she replied, “allergy medication and medical marijuana.” Neither substance is authorized in the facility. During one of my watch tours, I told her to stop rattling her door, which she had been doing since the beginning of my shift at 1600 hours, agitating the other inmates. She asked me, “are you spinning, bitch?”
The general population inmates were out for rec time when I conducted a routine module check at about 1918 hours. When I was on the upper tier of E1A, I came around the corner, near the shower area and I observed I/M #82844 showering in the left-hand shower, which had no shower curtain whatsoever. She was completely naked and facing the wall. I quickly went back around the corner and asked her why she was using a shower with no curtain. She said the others were being used. I explained to her that that was not acceptable and she had to wait until a shower with a curtain was available.
On October 20, 2008, I was assigned to the E1 module. At approx. 1640 hours, I was feeding dinner to the A-side and came to cell 123, which houses I/M #46717, currently on a 3-day sack meal restriction for throwing her tray out the cuffport at an officer. When I attempted to hand the I/M her sandwich through the cuff port, she said, “I need a tray, cunt. I want a tray, cunt….mother fuckers!” When the module workers and I came back through to collect trays, she also called the module worker a “bitch” and a “cunt.” After feeding the A-side, I went to the B-side and began meal service. Shortly after I began, I received an emergency call on the PDA from cell 123. I left the B-side dayroom and went to the speaker in the office to answer the call. I/M #46717 yelled, “I want out of here, bitch! I’ve done nothing wrong! Bitch, I want out of here!” She pushed her button continuously and demanded release. As a result, I was unable to properly supervise the inmates during meal service on B-side. When she finally stopped pushing her button, I returned to the B-side. I could hear I/M yelling and banging. When I returned to A-side, she had spit all over the inside her window.
For some reason, when the opportunity arose, I elected to get firearms qualified. I do hospital transports for people who are seriously ill or get into fights that require the stitches, which is dangerous because I have no backup (except for a weapon I never want to use). I take males and females, but do more transports than most because it’s policy to have female officer in the room when intimate procedures are being done. I transport the heroin addicts to the hospital to have their babies, which happens more often than you would think.
At approximately 1715 hours, I was informed by Officer Keller that I/M #65554 handed him a piece of hard plastic approximately 1 by 2 inches that appeared to be a part of a hospital cup, the rest of which she claimed to have ingested. She also claimed that she removed approximately 40 anti-diarrheal pills from her vagina that she said she had acquired on a previous hospital transport and consumed them. I transported I/M #65554 to the ER.
In booking one night, I did a total of seventeen strip searches. “Open your mouth. Pull your top lip up, your bottom lip down, lift your tongue. Pull your hair back, your ears forward. Remove all of your clothing, handing it to me. Yes, even your panties.” I took the clothes, and put them into the property bin, and inspected the underwear (soiled or not) for drugs or other contraband. “Here, you can keep your underwear, set them on the chair for now. You can’t keep your bra. It has wire. Face me. Lift up your arms. Lift up your breasts. Lift up your stomach.” Yes, some woman had huge saggy guts. Some had frumunda cheese in the creases. Some had sores and bruises and some smelled so foul, I wanted to vomit. “Turn around, face away from me. Lift your hair off your shoulders. Bend forward at the waist like you’re going to touch your toes. Oh, hold on.” I’d grab a biohazard bag and a tampon and hand them to the women (when necessary). “Here. Remove your tampon; place it in the bag… Okay, bend forward, spread your cheeks and cough twice. Hard. Harder.” I hold out a green striped uniform. “Get dressed. Come out when you’re done.” I would be perfectly happy to never see another vagina.
On December 28, 2010, I was working as a Response Escort Officer. At approximately 1920 hours, I was helping out in Booking and I was performing a strip search on I/M #19008. The arresting deputy told me that I/M had been found with heroin in her bra and that she said that she also had a needle on her that she thought was in her bra. She was searched in the field by a female deputy who did not find the needle. When I asked Inmate #19008 before my pat search if she had a needle on her she said she thought it was in her purse.
During the strip search, at the time of removing her underwear, she disclosed that she had the needle and pulled a capped syringe out of her vagina. I asked her if she had anything else, and she said she did not. I completed the search and did not observe anything else on her person. I took the needle from her, placed it in a latex glove and gave it to the arresting officer.
On May 15, 2011 I was assigned as booking officer. At approximately 1920 hours I was changing out Inmate #42871. When she came out of the change-out room, she set off the metal detector. I asked for strip search authorization from Sergeant Figueroa. Once I/M #42871 was back in the change-out room, she admitted that she had a small piece of foil, a lighter, and a “tooter” in her. She removed a blue glass cylinder and a lighter from her vagina.
When you work in law enforcement, you have to remain hypervigilant. At work, you’re always scanning the room for danger. You can’t let your guard down or you are someone else who can be hurt or killed. This doesn’t end when your shift is over. Inmates know you, and inmates are everywhere. I always treat inmates fairly and with respect, because it is my hope that if I am attacked in the unit, others will come to my aid and save my life and if I see them on the outside that I won’t be in danger. But there are those who must be disciplined and resent you for it and those who are mentally ill and have no conscience. Even when you are shopping or at the park with your family, you must be in a state of heightened alert, because you never know who will you run into. You might not even remember them, but they remember you.
On January 15, 2011, I was working in the Mental Health Observation Unit. On my second watch tour, at approximately 1600 hours, Inmate #91267 asked for juice. I told him he was not authorized juice as the juice was only for inmates on withdrawal watches. I/M #91267 immediately began yelling, kicking his door, throwing things around, calling me a “fat bitch” and a “fucking cunt” and every other name in the book. He then threatened me with violence and tried intimidating me by telling me he would harm me on the streets, specifically, “Wait ‘till I find you on the outs.”
I became a field training officer due to the constant pleading from an FTO who said I’d be great. Training student officers was extremely stressful for me. I felt as though I was never good enough, that I didn’t know enough, wasn’t competent enough. But I did it because I had witnessed some FTOs who were lacking and I wanted to work with the best-trained people.
Today was the beginning of your third week of field training and you worked in 2N, the male intake module. You were able to see how busy it can get on a weekday with pre-trial services, medication pass, classification interviews, incoming, releases, moves, etc. You maintained the board on the wall, the log and CoTS with very little assistance, even with many people coming and going.
You handled a situation with an inmate who was getting sick, and made sure he was evaluated by the nurse for withdrawal. The inmate lied to the nurse and she failed to put him on a withdrawal watch. The inmate continued getting sick and you had the nurse reevaluate him. After checking the medical records, it was discovered he had been in the jail a week earlier and had been withdrawing from heroin at that time. Good follow-up!
We discussed what to look out for in an intake module such as inmates who are withdrawing, inmates who might be having suicidal thoughts, especially those who are in jail for the first time, and those who should have been confined to more restrictive housing.
You let go of your keys while keying the door, and once you set them down on the counter, but you quickly realized what you had done and picked them up. You must have the keys in your hand or on your keeper at all times. If you don’t have control of your keys, you don’t have control of your module. You did an excellent job of staying on top of watch tours, and didn’t need to be reminded even once. You had very few problems looking up information on the computer and consulted your notes when you forget how to find something. You interacted well with inmates.
When an inmate stayed on the phone at lockdown, you reprimanded him, and handled the situation very well. You performed thorough pat-searches on inmates returning to the module and assisted with orientation of new inmates from booking.
Dealing with people who are going through crisis, people with mental illness, drug addiction, people with no morals, people accused of rape, murder, identity theft, child molestation, and robbery begins to change the way you feel about humanity. I don’t lie and expect others to refrain, as well. But inmates will look you right in the eye and tell you they didn’t do something that they know you just watched them do.
At about 2045 hours, I observed I/M #90974 trading commissary with another inmate. I had I/M report to my desk so I could confront her about the rule violation. As she was talking, I noticed that it looked like she had a tongue stud in her mouth. I asked her to stick out her tongue and she refused. She walked away and I ordered her back to the desk. She didn’t return and put her shirt up to her mouth. Finally she came back to my desk and I asked her to produce the jewelry. She said she didn’t have anything. Finally she produced the stud, which was in her shirt pocket, and said that it wasn’t hers, she found it on the floor. I/M has violated Major 205-Disobeying, Major 206-Lying, and Major 210-Contraband.
Law enforcement is for extroverted type-A personalities. I’m not one of those. I am a solitary person. I like to be alone. I hate confrontation. I am not a disciplinarian. But in a housing unit, I have to be confrontational. It’s required in order to maintain discipline. Interpersonal communications skills are the staple of my job. I have to get unwilling participants to do what they don’t want to do, preferably without getting physical. Although there are times when IPC skills don’t help at all.
Officer Donaldson was escorting I/M #14649 toward the F1 sally port when he began to be disrespectful and yelled to Officer Ramstead that he was a “punk ass bitch.” Officer Donaldson secured I/M against the door, but the inmate turned and resisted. Officer Donaldson brought him to the ground. I placed I/M’s legs in a figure-four hold. He continued to resist and was sprayed in the face with OC by Officer Ramstead. I/M continued to yell and began to spit toward Officer Donaldson. A response team arrived, placed #14649 into leg restraints and escorted him to booking, where he was given the opportunity to clean his face. He continued to be agitated and resistive in transport.
“No one ever gets naked and smears poop on the walls at my job,” my sister said to me.
I responded to a call on the radio that an inmate in E1 had made suicidal statements and needed transport to booking for a 10-minute watch. When I arrived at cell 124, I observed that I/M #38949 was naked in her cell and refused to put on her clothes. Officers Anderson, Areta and I entered her cell with a safety smock and asked her to put it on. We attempted to assist her in putting on the smock and she would still not comply. Attempts to place her in handcuffs resulted in a scuffle, at which time she rubbed her hands on our arms, saying she was putting her “pussy juice” on us (I/M had placed fingers in her vagina when we entered the cell). We assisted I/M #38949 to the floor, in a prone position, so we could put cuffs on her. She was still resisting and Sgt. McCleary had to step in and do a hair hold on her so we could cuff her up. C/Os Anderson and Areta had her arms and I restrained her legs. We restrained her, dressed her in the smock and escorted her down to a safety cell in booking.
I kept getting raises. I’m making more money than ever before. My job is perfectly secure. The benefits are very good. As much as I want to leave, with my education and skillset, there are no better options for me.
#53650 was yelling loudly and repeatedly about Jesus from his cell in medical housing, where he was on a 1-hour detox watch. During med pass, he was being given his meds through the cuff port, when he grabbed the nurse’s stethoscope. He broke it and began throwing pieces of it out the cuff port and at the window in the cell door. Module Officer Donaldson was not able to convince I/M to give up the broken pieces, which posed a danger to himself and others. The response team was called and after again refusing to give up the stethoscope, he was sprayed with OC by Sergeant Beard at about 1915 hours. The inmate refused to comply. Officers Washington, Welty and I put on response gear and extracted the inmate from the cell at about 1930 hours. Leg and waist restraints were applied; I/M was placed in the restraint chair and brought to booking without further incident.
It’s dangerous work. Not only are you exposed to HIV, TB, hepatitis, MRSA and other life-threatening disease, but you risk debilitating injury during a use of force, or even murder by a deranged criminal. Not to mention the psychological effects: those who work in law enforcement have a very high incidence of alcoholism, divorce, domestic violence, post-traumatic stress disorder and obsessive-compulsive disorder. I have a small problem with germophobia, to which everyone who knows me can attest.
Also, ever since a fight that happened in the male behavioral unit (filled with young, angry, testosterone-overloaded guys) when I was a new officer, I go into fight or flight mode every time I hear one of those plastic chairs scrape concrete, even if it’s only the chaplain getting up to leave.
After I had to wrestle down a 300 lb. naked drunk urine-soaked combative suicidal woman on my birthday (couldn’t get the day off), I decided it’s time to go back to school and change careers.
I was working as a Response Escort Officer when I was called to booking to assist with an incoming combative female. I was told that the inmate, whom I immediately recognized as I/M #09312, had urinated in her pants at the pat-search wall. I was also told that she had made suicidal statement and I was to assist Officer Gillig in changing her out into a safety smock. As I approach I/M, she said “What the fuck do you want?”
I/M was verbally resistive about going into the soft cell, but did comply. However, once she entered the cell and was directed to remove her shoes, she kicked one at Officer Gillig, at which time we engaged and took her to the ground. Sgt. Martin entered the cell and with much difficulty we removed her wet clothing as I/M continued to struggle and threatened to kill us.
“You work at the jail? What do you do there? Wow. Do you like it?”
“Well, it’s entertaining.” That has been my standard answer. Sure, it’s entertaining, but it’s so many other things, also.
I was in booking at approximately 1612 hours when Officer Richardson called for a response to the F4 module for a possible suicide. When I entered cell F422, I saw I/M #80021 with his head near the edge of the upper bunk and a sheet tied around his neck. Officer Madsen was holding him up while Officer Richardson was trying to loosen the sheet. Deputies Landry and Parsons arrived in front of me and began assisting. Officer Landry called for scissors. Officer Parsons obtained a pair from a nurse and began cutting the sheet. The inmate was then laid onto the lower bunk, breathing, but unresponsive. Officer Donnelly and I carried him out of the cell and laid him on the floor so medical could attend to him.
Guns, football, paintball, video games, jail antics, hunting, muscle cars, MMA, and more football are the topics of conversation in the break room day after day.
It’s my practice never to get personal with inmates, but I don’t get personal with my co-workers, either. It’s not intentional. I got along with them. I sometimes have fun with them on the job, although I tend to be more serious than most. But I’m not friends with my coworkers outside of work, which makes me kind of sad, because it seems like everyone else is the best of friends. I really like a few of them, but we don’t have much in common. I enjoy quiet solitude, reading, arts and culture, and film (and I’m not talking about Lethal Weapon 37).
After Officer Denny took I/M #35462 to the ground, the I/M yelled that he didn’t give “two fucks” about Officer Denny and that was nothing but a “fake cop” and he would show Officer Denny what he thought of him when he saw him on the outside. He was so upset that a pool of spit had formed under his face from yelling. “Just wait until someone tries to take these off! (meaning the handcuffs and leg restraints). “You’re a punk ass bitch!” he yelled.
I was chosen Corrections Officer of the Year, last year. I was embarrassed about it. I’m not exceptional. I just show up and do my job and don’t cause any trouble for my supervisors to deal with. It made me think, though. If I can excel at something for which I am ill-suited and don’t enjoy, imagine how successful I could be at something I love doing.
At approximately 1640 hours I was getting on the elevators when I heard Officer Richardson call a fight in the F1 module. I proceeded to the F floor and I heard central control state that the fight was on the upper tier. I was the first person to enter the unit. I saw two inmates on the ground in a huddle just to the right of the stairs on the second tier. I immediately yelled several directives for them to break it up and get on their stomachs. I pulled out my OC spray and began to ascend the steps.
By the time I was on the steps, the inmates had disconnected from each other and stood up. I repeated my directives for them to get on their stomachs. I/M #423380 did so immediately. When I got to the top of the stairs I/M #90292 was standing by his cell. I ordered him again to get to the floor, which he did. I put handcuffs on #423380 and held him there per Sgt. Eilander’s orders. Officer Donaldson got on the other side of him and once responding staff restrained the other inmate, we escorted #423380 to the maximum-security unit.
Last month I missed my daughter’s final homecoming dance, her soccer game, a writers’ conference, several meetings of a the volunteer group of which I am a member, many evenings at home with my daughter giving her the help she needs with her homework and a once-in-a-lifetime trip to Disneyland with my daughter, sister, cousins and their kids.
I read a quote the other day. It said your children only have one childhood. Not only am I sad that I’m missing this time with my daughter, but I think I may have fucked it up, and it’s probably too late to fix it.
At about 1831 hours I heard a medical emergency call on my radio from Officer Quincy in the E3 module. Officer Watson and I met with several nurses en route who were also responding. When I arrived in the module, Nurses Milson, Hewitt, and Granger along with Officer Holiday were beginning to attend to #63985, who had jumped from the upper tier and was now lying on the main floor under the edge of the upper tier. Blood was issuing from a gash on her forehead as well as from her left elbow area. She did not respond initially, but soon became responsive and began verbalizing pain. Nursing staff monitored her vitals, assessed for injuries and maintained her position, including head stabilization. 911 was called; aid arrived and transported I/M to the ER.
I was getting my teeth cleaned last week and the hygienist asked me what I did. When she asked me, “Do you like it?” My answer was “No.” Flat out no. I could not muster the standard answer of, “Well, it’s entertaining.” Or, “It’s a challenge.” I couldn’t answer “most of the time,” or even “sometimes.” Because the truth is, I don’t like it anymore, if I ever did. There was a time when I liked it sometimes. I liked aspects of it. But at this point, the negatives far outweigh the positives. I still have nightmares, but now they’re of me “losing it” in a module: screaming and cussing at the inmates and crying out of sheer frustration.
I was preparing to let the inmates out for the evening meal when #79406 pressed his emergency call button and said there was something really wrong with his cellmate. He said he was shaking and wouldn’t wake up. I went immediately to cell F302 and opened the door. I called out to I/M #49838. He did not respond.
I made a medical emergency call on my radio and entered the cell. I/M’s eyes were open. I attempted to elicit a response from him by talking to him and moving him by touching his back. I felt for a pulse, but could not feel one.
I don’t know if I can sit in an office and do a normal job. I’m not sure if I will die of boredom without all the stimulation I get at the jail, but I’m willing to give it a try. I want to work 9-5 with weekends off like the rest of the world. I want to be able to take a day off now and then or go on vacation when the opportunity arises. I want to be able to enjoy holidays and birthdays and special occasions. I want to work with people who share similar interests. I want to deal with people who are not in crisis; people who are generally happy with their situation and are hopeful for the future.
I need to get out of jail.
End of report.
About the Author: Mary Senter writes in a cabin in the woods on the shores of Puget Sound. She earned certificates in literary fiction writing at the University of Washington and holds an MA in strategic communication from WSU. She is working on a historical novel set in the Pacific Northwest. Her stories and essays can be found in Six Hens, FewerThan500, WORK, Red Fez, Stratus: Journal of Arts and Writing, and Heater. Visit her at www.marysenter.com.