Sunday, January 10, 2016

That's Correct! An Interview with a Corrections Officer: Information for Writers with Harriet Fox

Amazon Author Link

ThrillWriting welcomes HARRIET FOX who comes to us today to give insight into the life of a corrections officer in a jail system in California.

Here's a handy link to my article with an explanation of the differences between jails and prisons etc.

Fiona - 
Corrections officer - can you tell us how you arrived in your career?

Harriet - 
I have been a correctional officer starting my 14th year. No one ever says they are going to be a correctional officer when they grow up. 

I wanted to be a dentist, a brain surgeon and a race car driver when I grew up. I worked 6 years in the law enforcement field prior to becoming a correctional officer. I applied for this job as a stepping stone to becoming a police officer and never left. 

I think society truly does not know what a correctional officer does. In television and movies and in stories covered on the news, correctional officers are usually heard to be corrupt, heavy handed or abusive with their authority. That is far from the truth. While there are bad apples in every line of work, correctional officers are not the bad people we've been portrayed as being.

The work on a daily basis dealing with violent and manipulative criminals is challenging but I do know I am protecting society from the evil and potential harm. The teamwork and camaraderie in law enforcement is a way of life, a brotherhood, lifelong friendships, and I have made some of the best friends I have ever had in this job.

On a daily basis, not only are we making sure inmates do not escape or harm anyone, we wear many hats. We are authoritarians, disciplinarians, parents, counselors, helpers. Our hats may change at the drop of the hat, many times through a single shift.

Fiona - 
How long does a shift last? 

Harriet - 
Some jails work 8 or 10 hour shifts. I work 12 hour shifts, graveyard. We call it the dark side. It is a very different way of life, not only working nights, but working inside the walls of a correctional institution.

Fiona - 
So you write as well, do you find what you learned from working in the jails informs your writing?

Harriet - 
I write for a nationwide corrections website, and I use my daily experiences to do so. 
I use my experience to write about things I think other correctional officers can benefit from. It's a stressful job, always having to be on guard, ready in the event someone wants to attack us while we are doing our daily duties face-to-face with these inmates. We can learn from each other and I am constantly learning each and every day, even after all this time.

Fiona - 
Why kinds of things does your job entail?

Harriet - 
The job itself is so complex. It includes: 
  • Conducting daily duties, making sure inmates receive their necessities which are laws and regulations governed by the state that we follow, along side of our facility policy and procedures 
  • Conducting Safety and Security Checks hourly to make sure all inmates are alive and not ill 
  • We do investigations 
  • We handle crimes committed in our jail
  • Medical emergencies 
  • We deal with assaults and contraband. 

Fiona - 
Does media get it right when they show a jail setting? 

Harriet - 
One thing that the media usually shows or implies is that inmates are housed behind bars. This is the old school way of jail. Since about the '90s, jails use a different style of jailing. Direct supervision is one of the terms where inmates are in a 2-man cell but when they come out for their recreation time, they are all around the deputy station where we work, type, sit, eat, etc.

Fiona - 
Can you give us an example of an "out of the blue" event a "holy cow" moment?

Harriet - 
I don't get the "holy cow" feeling during an event. If it is a really stressful situation, I sometimes feel the “holy cow” after the adrenaline wears off. Every day we have to deal with so much that you get used to just subconsciously changing your hat and diving in.

I recently had an inmate who was banging his forehead on the metal bed. He has mental issues and apparently the psychiatric medications weren't controlling this problem. You do your best to negotiate and try to get through to an inmate in crisis. This inmate did listen thankfully and stopped inflicting self harm. You learn the gift of gab in this job. We call it verbal judo, and it is fulfilling when you are able to talk someone down from a violent state.

Training kicks in (and we get a lot of it) and you get to be creative when handling situations. You try to become a problem solver in so many ways. I guess the only holy cow moment I can think of is fighting with inmates who are trying to harm you and you're attempting to gain control and restrain them as its happening.

Another holy moly moment could be something like this: an inmate who is severely mentally ill and hearing voices and does not recognize pain. He continually bangs his leg on the metal stool in his cell until there is blood everywhere just so he can get a trip to the hospital for better food or for a field trip.

Fiona - 
I'd say that would be a "holy cow" moment for sure. You're a woman working in a men's jail. What training helps you play your role successfully? And what's it like to be a woman in that position?

Harriet - 
I am very grateful for my experience as one of the only females on the Emergency Response Team. We are basically the SWAT team of the jail; highly trained. 

We respond to natural disasters or dangerous incidents including riots, cell extractions, any disturbances too dangerous for normal staff to handle. This has taught me much about the importance of training, preparation, the importance of teamwork, and has made me better at my job. I remain more calm and handle situations differently now.

I spent a majority of my career with men. I have done a few stints at the women's facility, and it's very different. While there are few of us women in the job per ratio of employees, I am proud that I work equally with my counterparts. 

I did have to prove myself as a female - that I could do the job; not all women in this line of work can. I worked hard to be as close to equal as I can be. I will never be as strong as the big guys I work with, but I can do the job just as well, just differently. 

I don't think about being a female. I just go to work and do my job. I think sometimes I may be able to handle an inmate more easily because of the respect some inmates have for their mothers and grandmothers who raised them. But at times, I can have an issue with inmates. It is apparent when one of the inmates has an issue with women or especially as female authority. It is quite fascinating actually to observe inmates. Many have mental health issues, many come from horrible dysfunction.

I will say an annoying part of being female amongst men is the gawking, but you get used to it. Some of these inmates have been locked up for years. Aside from the nurses and few female officers, they don't see women. I guess it's human nature. Usually once the inmates know me, it stops.

Fiona - 
Can you describe a modern jail set up? How the inmates day goes, what's available to them for passing time? Work?

Harriet - 
I can't speak fluidly for day-shift (I've never worked days). However, I do know on day-shift they:

  • Courts get pulled once in morning, once in the afternoon and inmates are transported to the courthouse.
  • Lunch is served 10am
  • Dinner at 3pm.
  • Staff usually relieves each other a half hour to the start of shift allowing us time to brief the oncoming team on what happened during the previous shift.

As for jail life, it is monotonous and very routine. Jail life runs on a set schedule.... in the midst of everything that goes wrong and fires that need to be put out and reports that need to be written and investigations that need to be handled. The job teaches you to be a multi-tasker master. Some shifts can have down time and some may feel like 12 hours is not enough.
  • Courts get pulled once in morning, once in the evening and transport to court. 
  • Lunch is served 10am 
  • Dinner at 3pm. 
  • My facility works days 6am-6pm, nights 6pm-6am. 
  • We usually relieve each other in the half hour window prior to 6pm allowing us time to brief on what happened during the previous shift.

At the beginning of shift, we:

  • Do Count and Inspection. We advise inmates over their cell intercoms (which can be activated from either end) to
  • Be awake and out of bed
  • Fully dressed
  • Have their armbands on (which have their picture, name and identification number)
  • Their property bins opened for inspection (rubbermaid style blue bins issued at time of getting dressed in and housed)
  • Nothing affixed to their walls (sometimes hang family pics or a calendar)
  • Have their beds made
  • Standing on the wall.
  • As we go by, we are checking their welfare, their property, as well as the walls and windows of their cells to inspect for damage and attempts to break out.
  • We need to check for hoarding of bread and fruit to ensure they are not making pruno (jailhouse alcohol).
  • We do more thorough searches for contraband, drugs, weapons at other times.
  • We have visiting and pill call (nurse comes to housing unit for medication) and the finger-stick nurse (checks diabetic levels/gives insulin, if necessary) within the first few hours of shift and the last few hours.
  • We have to conduct recreation where inmates come out of their cells in which inmates have the ability to: spend time outside on the recreation yard, watch TV, make telephone calls, shower, etc.
  • We have to finish before midnight because judges require inmates to have proper rest when attending court.
  • We have workers that go to the kitchen and they are housed separately.
  • We feed breakfast at 4am.
  • On a general housing unit, recreation is twice daily, once on day, once night. Time out of their cells could range from 45 minutes to 2 hours on average.
  • They can receive items off Commissary (Canteen is prison lingo) where they can purchase:
  • Hygiene products
  • Envelopes and stamps and writing paper,
  • Food
  • Some inmates stay busy with a self-made schedule for their down time.
  • Family can purchase books and magazines from the publisher so many read. They share their books with each other too.
  • Some have a workout regimen inside their cells
Fiona - 
What would you like writers to know before they write that character or scene about a jail and a corrections officer?

Harriet - 
As for writers, I guess I would say it would be nice to see correctional officers written in a positive light. There is such a negative stigma in the media, with law enforcement in general. People tend to forget we are normal people too, working a very hard job. We have personal lives, families, a life outside of the job. We work long hours and weekends and holidays. We miss family functions many times. You learn in this way of life to celebrate on days before or after the actual event. We spend more time at work locked up in jail then we are home, or so it feels. For writers, things to think about...

Imagine going to work every day where people hate you, want to harm you, attack you, con you. Imagine having to do this career in a negative, dank, monotonous environment. Imagine having to have two identities in a way: a superhero wearing every hat imaginable to switching it all off and coming home to being a husband, father, wife mother. Imagine always having to watch your back since it is unknown if you will run into an inmate on the street that you had a problem with inside. Imagine trying to balance family or personal life and errands when you're working graveyards and finding time to sleep. Imagine having to be responsible for the health, safety and welfare of 100 inmates at a time (in prison, maybe more per officers' responsibility).

Fiona -
Thank you so much for sharing that. At the bottom of this article Harriet has include a handy glossary for us. First, Harriet has a true crimes book out.

Amazon Link

Preying on middle-aged Native women in Vancouver's Skid Row district, Gilbert Paul Jordan's insatiable taste for drunken sex led to at least ten cold blooded killings. 
Unlike any others in the known history of serial homicide, Jordan used alcohol to murder his victims. All of these young women were found dead with blood-levels many times over the safe range. The driving force behind Jordan's evil was his egocentric desires that led him on a fifty year criminal record path causing havoc along the way. Delving into Jordan's crimes, alcoholism and mental illnesses, his life tells a story all his own, and it is no wonder why, Gilbert Paul Jordan became one of Canada's most notorious serial killers.

GLOSSARY of some handy jailhouse lingo - 

•Snitch: rat. give information/talk to staff.

•Shank: handmade knife

•Kite: small note, usually with very small handwriting passed from inmate to inmate for communication purposes, usually gang related.

•On the wire: talking on telephone or through cell vents

•PC: Protective Custody; housing unit or in terms of what type of inmate one is

•Write up: jail reports written; can be disciplinary

•The Joint: prison; we say “on the joint run” if some is leaving on bus in morning

•Hole: solitary confinement, disciplinary housing

•Mule: someone moving contraband

•Boot: new CO (corrections officer)

•Jailhouse lawyer: an inmate who knows legal stuff or has received some form of training/class, maybe in prison

•Schooled: taught the jail way of life

As always, a big thank you ThrillWriters and readers for stopping by. Thank you, too, for your support. When you buy my books, you make it possible for me to continue to bring you helpful articles and keep ThrillWriting free and accessible to all.


  1. I haven't written a lot yet that takes place inside of prison walls but the info is fascinating. My own son is just starting out in corrections. He's been at it for about 5 months and, already, he can tell some stories. It's nice to get an overall perspective like this and not just the crazy things he's seen as he works 2nd shift (8 hour shifts) at his facility.

    1. Thank you, Anne. It is in fact a very interesting world in there. I hope you and your son have some wonderful conversations over the years. We do like sharing the odd, weird, memorable stories which usually are a little crazy. Best of luck to him for a successful career.

  2. I've always remembered what an old-time CO told me on the first day of my jail rotation as a deputy: "You deal with them eight hours a day, five days a week but they have twenty-four/seven to think up ways to deal with you." I lasted a week. Claustrophobic, dark and yes, terrifying, to face potentially fatal encounters every minute. In that Kansas facility (in 1974) just leaning the wrong way could put you in range of a shank or an arm around the neck. I have utmost respect for Harriet and her corrections colleagues, especially those I watched at work during a five-hour tour of the Cook County Jail just a few years ago. Cook County has modernized its facility in many ways but Division I is where they housed Capone (with few changes) and that part of the joint is as dank and depressing a place as I've ever been.

    1. Hi Doug. Thank you so much for your words. Our job is such a thankless one. I read your reply to a few of my coworkers. It is a different way of life, that is for sure. Sometimes I have no idea how I ended up in this career. Things are a bit safer than when you were there, but yes, the danger is evident. I hope somehow I made a difference. Whether keeping a coworker safe, helping an inmate to rehabilitate or just bringing some good to the bad. I'd love to hear what career path you chose after corrections? Sincerely, Harriet

  3. How is it different working in the women's facility compared to the men's?

    1. Hey there,
      So Harriet has always worked in a man's facility. I'll see if I can't find a source who has worked in both men's and women's facilities who can answer that question.


    2. Oh, I though she said she'd worked a little in women's facilities before. You don't have to do that.

    3. History Rebel - Were you looking for specifics? There are some significant differences in male and female inmates. I did work a handful of months with women inmates.

    4. I was just wondering some of the major differences, experiences with the inmates I guess.

  4. I am a CO as well and also got into this field as a stepping stone for patrol but never left. I started my own blog about correctional life as a well to decompress as well as getting the info out there. Before I became a CO, I had no idea what it was like and couldn't find much online about the every day life. I am hoping others can get a better idea with my blog. Check it out at