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The Keeper and the Kept

The carceral system dehumanizes not just the people we condemn, but also its massive workforce.

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I have been going in and out of jails and prisons across our nation for 25 years. My focus has been on increasing educational opportunities for people who are incarcerated and changing the dehumanizing ways we punish. But on my way to classrooms, I usually ask the jailers how they are doing. They look at their watch and say something like, “Well, three years, seven months, two days, and four hours until I retire.” Or, they say they are “doing time in eight-hour shifts.” It is a dirty secret. The carceral system crushes not only the people we condemn to jail and prison but also the people who work there. The system forsakes us all.

A woman who worked in a state prison for more than 30 years told me that she has given mouth-to-mouth resuscitation to a corpse. More than once. (She was not authorized to speak on the record and requested anonymity.) “We are not medical doctors,” she told me, “so we cannot pronounce anyone dead.” An officer’s duty, she said, is to do everything in their power to make sure the incarcerated population is safe. And so even if a body has been cold and stiff for half the night, the officers are required to attempt cardiopulmonary resuscitation — placing their open mouth against the corpse every fifteen seconds and exerting chest compressions at the rate of 100 per minute. (CPR guidelines have since changed.) 

Imagine having to pretend, in the name of public safety, that you can revive a corpse. You kneel in your uniform and perform CPR knowing well rigor mortis has set in. Then, after your shift, you return home and embrace your children.

“Why do they do this?” I asked Stephen B. Walker, who worked on behalf of the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation for 35 years. “What is the point of forcing corrections officers to act as if they are resuscitating people?” He explained, rather matter-of-factly, that the prison administration “doesn’t want that body on their count.” 

It is bad for public image. When people die in their custody, the agency has failed. They would rather the [dead] person go to the hospital with an officer and paramedic performing CPR. Once when I was a responding officer who cut someone [who had died by suicide] down, the agency made me stay with the body until the coroner arrived. They did not want the person declared dead on state grounds.

In that instance, Walker recounted, he sat alone for six hours with the person who had died. 

This macabre exercise is not limited to people who die by suicide. Mike Jimenez, former president of the California Correctional Peace Officers Association, which has 31,000 members and is one of the most powerful labor unions in the state, says it’s a form of bureaucratic convenience. “If you have any death in prison it becomes a crime scene and the prison has to go on lockdown,” he said. 

The prison system loses control and they don’t like that. We are all taught that the only time you are allowed to declare someone dead is when the head is removed from the body. Short of that, do CPR. We were all trained to do CPR until we are exhausted and someone else can take over. We are not medical doctors. Horrid experiences are part of the job.

Aside from a groundbreaking 2017 survey on officer health and wellness, there is very little research on how carceral environments traumatize everyone. Professor Amy E. Lerman and her team at UC Berkeley have documented that prison officers are exposed to violence at rates roughly comparable to military vets and, compared to average Americans, have a high incidence of serious stress-related illnesses. Suicide rates among prison officers are alarming, and jailers all too often suffer PTSD in silence. All of the studies conclude that we need more robust research.

Walker, a self-described U.S. Marine and a Black man, served 11 years as a line officer before he transferred to becoming the director of correctional health for the California Peace Officers Union. He told me that day-to-day work is “the most toxic component” of a corrections officer’s life.      

I’m slowly being poisoned over a 35-year period and no one tells me. You think it is you when it manifests in your life: obesity, domestic violence, suicide, alcoholism … . Our primary responsibility is to safeguard people and we don’t have a name for trauma because there’s no training, so people associate [their own trauma] with deviant behavior. … And then the [state] agency tells you that the injury you suffer can’t be solely identified to work. … If the public really knew the kind of disconnect for humanity.     

I pause here to consider Cedric Robinson’s concept of racial capitalism, which produces stark inequality among human groups by using historically white institutions, like plantations and prisons, to exploit people of color for economic value. Racial capitalism is endemic to mass incarceration and the prison industrial complex writ large, as many jails and prisons employ Black and Brown officers to then subjugate others who look like them. Walker continues:

It’s so insidious because their recompense for damaging your mental capacity and the resulting physiological damage — stroke, heart attack, diminishment of quality of life is, “Well, we pay you really well.’” … There is absolutely zero comfort to the surviving family, spouse, children. The agency doesn’t give a shit about officers because we are disposable cogs that can be replaced at a lower cost.”

A clinical psychologist for the New York City Department of Corrections assigned to work with officers at Rikers Island, the nation’s second-largest jail complex, was blunt in her assessment of the plight of those in her care. “It’s Brown people guarding Brown people,” she told me. She also requested anonymity to protect her job. “You are at the bottom of the totem pole. If it was NYPD or FDNY, then things would be different. You would have greater resources. People would care. But that’s not the case.” 

Largely hidden from the public’s consciousness is the reality that the keepers come from the same socioeconomic communities, if not the same families, as the people who are locked up. Many officers, especially near cities, are Black and Brown. They are not the power elite; they are trying to put food on the table. They did not plan to work in a prison. “I landed in the Department of Corrections by accident,” Jimenez said. “I was being sponsored to be a deputy sheriff but took advantage of that [financial incentive]. At that time, the DOC paid $200 more a month.” Once officers get their foot in the door, and financial security and the prospect of a public pension are within reach, it is not unusual to hear them reduce their remaining service to raw numbers. They count the minutes until they can retire.

Some may be familiar with the landmark study about how the vast majority of New York’s entire state prison population comes from and returns to seven specific neighborhoods in New York City. Less discussed is how interrelated the prison population often is — the people who are incarcerated and the people who work there. The officers and many of the people who are incarcerated know each other. They grew up in the same communities and often have family in common. The community of keepers and kept is also intergenerational. While I was teaching at Sing Sing Prison in 2004, it was not uncommon for two generations of family to be employed as officers at the same time, and three generations of one family to be locked behind bars. One imaginable outcome of such connectedness is greater care within the prison population. That is not our reality. Not at present.

The human toll of mass incarceration is unspeakable. The carceral system desecrates the most sacred moments of a human life. When you work in the system, you are complicit in the desecration. Despite federal law, the prison where you work may require a pregnant woman to strip when she goes into labor and then you have to shackle her to a table while giving birth. You know the intimate disconnect of inhumane punishment. Routine cavity searches, which qualify as state-sanctioned sexual assault, are also part of your job, as Angela Davis reminds us. You are ill-equipped to respond to psychotic crises. Like the rest of the prison population, you are being exposed to disproportionate rates of COVID-19. You are forced to lie about a moment of death.

How do we attend to this trauma, as we redress the structural injustice of the system as a whole? Do we have a vision for how people maintaining the carceral state are going to transition, both from a healing and mental health perspective as well as an economic, need-work perspective? 

We need a whole-system vision for dismantling mass incarceration that includes everyone — the keepers and the kept.

Kaia Stern

We need one. We need a whole-system vision for dismantling mass incarceration that includes everyone — the keepers and the kept. I am an abolitionist at heart, inspired by Ruth Wilson Gilmore’s articulation of abolition as building up healthy relationships and structures, not just tearing down ones that cause harm. Even if we do not embrace a vision of abolition as life-giving, inclusive, and healing, we cannot ignore the massive labor force in jails and prisons across our nation — which includes officers, administrators, health care professionals, and subcontractors of all kinds. When a prison closes down and a prison officer loses her job, how is she going to pay rent? 

States and localities have begun working to adjust to a smaller prison footprint, to divert funding to invest in safer communities, to imagine new realities. So, too, should the business known as corrections acknowledge that the damage it is doing to its own is unsustainable. “We need the warning label like with cigarettes,” Walker told me. “This is hazardous to your health.”

Image: Unsplash