They’re Prison Guards, Not Correctional Officers

By · Monday, February 9th, 2009

Readers have sometimes criticized me for referring to those who staff prisons as prison guards. They don’t like the term prison guard. They would prefer that I used the term Correctional Officer.

When I was living in Lompoc’s Federal Prison Camp, Officer Smith told me that he found the term prison guard demeaning. He said that as a Correctional Officer, he had received professional training. That may have been the case. Though after more than 21 years in federal prison, I have yet to see any efforts to “correct” anything.

I do not use the term prison guard to disparage anyone’s livelihood. That term, however, seems much more accurate of staff functions. The prison literature asserts that all staff members, from the Warden to the receptionist, are correctional officers first. My experience, however, suggests that they are all prison guards. Let me provide some example to validate my observations.

In the prisons where I have been confined, guards perform functions. They perform census counts several times each day. They hold keys to lock and unlock doors. They search for contraband. They question and investigate prisoners. They lock prisoners in segregation. They charge prisoners with disciplinary infractions. They terminate visits when prisoners kiss their wives. They ration how much food a prisoner may eat. They issue prisoner clothing. They tell a prisoner where he must sleep and with whom he must share space.

Prison guards determine what mail each prisoner may receive. They authorize what books a prisoner may read, and what access he may have to education or vocational training. Prison guards tell a prisoner whether he may pull blankets over his head while sleeping, or when he may leave his shirt untucked. While a prisoner visits with his family, prison guards authorize when a prisoner may pee, and they will monitor the act itself.

Does anyone dispute that these duties and descriptions are inaccurate? They are the responsibilities of those who guard the policies, and infrastructure of every institution. Their purpose, as several high-level administrators have told me, is to protect the security of the prison. “We don’t care anything about what you do once you’re released.

If those who staff prisons have a different perspective, I would welcome an open dialogue. Such transparency would be consistent with the professionalism of an officer. Yet in prison, guards tell me that they are not at liberty to discuss the logic behind prison policy. In fact, they admonish and threaten me with disciplinary infractions for my efforts to apprise American taxpayers of my perspectives about what goes on inside prison boundaries. Prison staff members aspire to guard the policies of the tenebrous subculture they represent.

I would much prefer to have served my sentence in a prison with correctional officers instead of prison guards. Correctional Officers would demonstrate an actual rather than a specious interest in presiding over environments through which prisoners could work toward emerging as law-abiding, contributing citizens. Correctional Officers would not dismiss the use of incentives as a tool to encourage positive adjustments.

Prison guards repeatedly ask me not to write about their activities. My so-called counselor is very nice, though he doesn’t counsel. He dictates where a prisoner sleeps, works, and with whom he can visit. He warns me that I am not authorized to promote the books I write or conduct business. He strives to guard the policies of the institution, though he repeatedly says I should not write about him.

Why not? As a prisoner, I am proud of the work I do to prepare for the obstacles that await my release. As an American, I strive to contribute to the lives of every American citizen by writing about this $60 billion waste of public funds. If Correctional Officers rather than guards were staffing these prisons, it would seem to me that they, too, would feel proud of their work. It is the culture of the guard, however, that strives to obscure the nefarious culture of the prison.

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17 Responses to “They’re Prison Guards, Not Correctional Officers”

  1. Andrew says:

    Hello Mr. Santos,
    Do you believe that every person on the prison’s staff is out to control and not to help the inmates?
    I believe that it can go either way. I have met many people who go into the job wanting to help rehabilitate those in need. I was curious to know if you have run into any of the staff that actually did care.
    Also, statistics show many of those who are released from prison re-offend. Do you believe that most prisoners would rather serve their time and leave, instead of trying to become law-abiding citizens?
    I do cannot fully understand how you feel so I can only make assumptions but do you think that those in prison should be under a the type of treatment? If a person breaks the law, shouldn’t they feel some sort of punishment (loss of freedoms most have)?
    I have enjoyed your articles thus far, and hope to read more.
    Thank you for your time.

  2. Carole says:

    Hi Andrew,
    Thanks for writing. I’ve mailed your comments/questions to Michael and will post his reply to you as soon as I receive it back.
    Carole Santos

  3. Nick Sanchez says:

    Mr. Santos:
    In you’re article entitled “They’re Prison Guards, Not Correctional Officers” you indicate that the prison staff are there to perform mundane, everyday activities and “protect the security of the prison” as opposed to providing an environment that is conducive to releasing inmates as law-abiding citizens.
    My questions to you are why do you think they are so protective about what they are doing at work? In your opinion, why would they not want you to write about them?
    Also, Have you felt that there has been a shift in the attitudes of the guards over the course of your time served that indicate that they actually do care about whether prisoners become law-abiding citizens when they are released?
    I thoroughly enjoyed reading your article and look forward to reading your book “Life Behind Bars in America” in the near future. I appreciate the time you are giving and thank you for it.

  4. Hi Nick,
    Thanks for writing. I’ve mailed your comments/questions to Michael and will post his reply to you as soon as I receive it back.
    Carole Santos

  5. Carole Santos says:

    Hi Andrew,
    Michael responded to your questions here:

    Best wishes,

  6. Brenda Rodriguez says:

    Hello Mr. Santos,
    This article really caught my eye due to the fact that I have a friend who was recently released from prison and seems to be extremely traumatized by the way he was treated by these “correctional officers” while he did time.
    I have two questions for you:
    1. Do you think these prison guards were trained to be this way, or is it just an abuse of authority?
    2. Have you ever come across a prison guard who does not act this way?
    Thank you for your time, and I look forward to your response.

  7. Stephanie says:

    Hello Michael,
    I read your article and completely agree with what you wrote. I have heard many negative stories about the way correctional officers carry out their work. I was wondering if you have ever came across or know any correctional officer that is truly dedicated to the correctional aspect? If you have, are they treated with any kind of discrimination among the other correctional officers? What kind of mentality do they have, and how are they different from those who choose not to correct? Do you think that those who choose not to carry out correctional work are being taught to work this way?

  8. Angelica Cervantes says:

    Mr. Santos,
    In your article entitled, “They’re Prison Guards, Not Correctional Officers” you indicate that in order to be a prison guard one must be a correctional officer first. However the reality is that prison guards do not take on the role as correctional officers and instead watch the inmates every move.
    My question to you is why prison guards act that way, if deep inside they are correctional officers? Should not they want to help inmates to be prepared for the world upon release date? After all, the goal of corrections is to rehabilitate the offender. In addition, do new prison guards behave the way they do since their first day on the job, or does their attitude change over time?
    I really have enjoyed reading your articles and look forward to reading your book,” Inside: Life Behind Bars in America.” I thank you immensely for your time and I hope to hear from you soon.

  9. Sarah Dooley says:

    Mr. Santos
    I was very interested in your article entitled, “They’re Prison Guards, Not Correctional Officers”. I’m a criminal justice student at Long Beach State and also minor in sociology. In one of my classes we talked extensively about the mentality of prison guards and why they often abuse the power they are given and why they don’t deviate from other officers behaviors.
    Do you think prison guards behave a certain way due to the prison environment? It seems to me from your article that many guards just want to do thier “house-keeping” jobs and nothing more. Is this the result of the system of prisons or maybe the dispositions of the guards themselves? Do you think new laws or incentives to the guards would change thier attitudes and behaviors to actually help “correct” prisoners or are the behaviors set?
    Thanks for your response and I look forward to reading your book, “Inside: Life Behind Bars in America”.
    -Sarah Dooley

  10. Ryan Thomas says:

    Mr. Santos,
    I know there have been a lot of questions asked about this article already, I just wanted to add a few things if possible..
    Do you think that the institutionalized lifestyle of a prisoner is in itself a way of correcting some of the offenders that end up in prison?
    Since you say that you have yet to run across a “correctional officer” what do you attribute your changing your ways to?
    This blog has some great articles on many interesting topics that a prisoner goes through; I just wanted to thank you for taking your time and responding to everything that people write.
    Ryan Thomas
    CSULB Criminal Justice Major

  11. Carole Santos says:

    Hi Nick,
    Michael responded to your questions here:
    Best wishes,
    Carole Santos

  12. Katie says:

    Mr. Santos,

    Reading your article, “They’re Prison Guards, Not Correctional Officers” got me thinking. You stated that the guards perfom tasks such as searching for contraband, questioning and investigating prisoners or even searching prisoner’s mail, and that this is part of what makes them prison guards, as an outsider I would think that duties like these are necessary in order to avoid conflict within the jail. If it is tasks like these that are done to promote order that make the guards, prison guards and not correctional officers what kind of duty and policy changes would you enact in order to consider them correctional officers. Also, if the policy changes that you would make are more lenient, how do you think prisoner’s behavior would change? Would their behavior change for the postive or negative?

    Thank you!
    Katie A.
    CSULB Crim Major

  13. Noel says:

    Mr. Santos,
    In your opinion, what do you believe correctional officers should do differently to actually try and “correct” inmates? What do you feel they should STOP doing? How much of a difference do you think correctional officers could actually make for inmates?

    Thank you!

  14. Dora says:

    Mr. Santos,
    I understand your argument and agree with you based not only on statistics but on your very own examples and first hand experience. I am a strong believer in the Rehabilitation Model of “corrections” and am not only disappointed but also frustrated at hearing the way in which our correctional system has let down our community of offenders. My question to you Mr. Santos is, with the lack of “correctional officers”, how is it that you yourself have been corrected and rehabilitated? I am no expert, but after reading your book and your blogs, it is my very own personal opinion that you have been rehabilitated. What is it that caused this change in you that caused you to persue an education, publish books and reach out to the very community that will perhaps some day upon release reject you?

  15. Michael Browning says:

    Mr. Santos:

    In your article, “They’re Prison Guards, Not Correctional Officers,” you take the stance that prison guards do little to attempt any type of corrective behavior upon the offender. While I agree with your position, I believe the dangerous institutions requires prison guards to behave in the manner in which you describe. Any type of correctional behavior couldn’t be applied if the facility itself is not secure.

    Can correctional treatment be applied in a sub-culture like prison where violence is prone to happen on a day to day basis? It just seems hard for me to comprehend trying to be a correctional officer in a violent institution where the constant threat of violence preempts any type of positive corrective behavior. It would make more sense to act like a prison guard to protect yourself and the facility from the violent surroundings. Therefore, do you believe it is possible for a prison guard to make the leap to a correctional officer when the security of the institution remains the top priority?

    M. Browning

    p.s. I’d like to thank you for taking the time to field all of these questions from students like me. Its hard to get an idea of the prison sub-culture from a textbook, but your book opened my eyes to things I never would have thought occurred in prison. Thanks again!

  16. Lisette Temblador says:

    March 12, 2009

    Mr. Santos,

    In your article entitled “They’re Prison Guards Not Correctional Officers” you indicate that prison guards are not correctional officers, due to the fact that prison guards merely secure the prison rather than “correct” the offender to law-abiding citizens.

    My question to you is that do you believe that prison guards are actually correcting the prisoners through disciplinary actions, by that I mean removing every means of freedom.
    Also, I understand incentives are created to encourage prisoners to actually want to become better people but if incentives only promote early release for the prisoners then why institute incentives? The real purpose then would be to leave early and not reflect on their real purpose why they got incarcerated. Please let me know how you view that.

    I really appreciate your work and your contributions to society. I am currently reading your book and you have me with eyes wide open in shock. It is incredible to read the things you have experienced and the people you have run into.

    Thank you,
    CRJU major-CSULB

    P.S- You have a wonderful wife; she truly loves you and cares about you.