With long days spent behind thick, windowless walls and locked doors, detention officers remain some of the least visible and little known members of the criminal justice field. But he men and women of Grayson County’s corrections department are responsible for the care of hundreds of inmates and ensuring round-the-clock security for offenders, fellow staff members and the public.
To get an inside perspective on the profession, the Herald Democrat sat down and spoke with Grayson County Detention Officers Erica Johnson and Eric Gann.
What’s a typical day like?
The Grayson County Jail operates on two 12-hour shifts, with one beginning at 4 a.m. and the other at 4 p.m.. The two story facility houses a daily average of 400 or so inmates and splits them among various pods, tanks and cells. Officers are responsible for a host of operations including inmate intake and processing, records entry, bonds processing, inmate transports and escorts, food preparation, coordinating medical care, ensuring security and much, much more. Assignments can change from day, as can the job’s demands and disposition of inmates.
“If you work in the pod you’re pretty static for those 12-hours, but if you’re on the first floor, you’re constantly going, you’re never sitting down,” Gann said. “Each day is different depending on where you work. But never are two the same. That’s kind of the fun of the job.”
What your first day on the job like?
“My first day, I was kind of excited about it until I got urine thrown on me. Then it got kind of overwhelming and pretty bad,” Johnson said. “But I didn’t let it get to me. I learned that you don’t have to wear your feelings on you sleeve when you’re here or take things personally. Once it hits four o’clock I forget about everything that’s happened.”
What kind of relationships do you develop with staff and inmates?
Twelve hour shifts in close quarters mean detention officers spend lots of time with their colleagues and inmates. And that creates for a mix of opportunities to interact both professionally and personally.
“As far as the staff goes, I feel like we’re a family here,” Johnson said. “Everybody has their ups and downs and disagreements, but you best believe I’m gonna be right there with you, every step of the way.”
Gann said that camaraderie and sense of trust is critical to the success and safety of all Grayson County’s detention officers.
“If you can’t trust the person whose to the left or right of you, how can you come to work everyday when you don’t know what to expect?” Gann said.
Between the jailers and inmates, there’s a strategic and undeniable power imbalance, but jailers are still expected to show compassion toward inmates, while maintaining control. Gann and Johnson said officers establish and maintain a positive, respectful rapport with many inmates, but understand when the stress of jail gets to those same people and others.
“You’ll get called every name in the book, so you’ve got to learn to take that and let it roll off,” Gann said. “They’re not mad at you personally, they’re mad at your uniform.”
What’s most challenging about you work?
“It can be mentally and physically draining and a lot of people don’t realize what all we go through here inside the jail,” Johnson said.
Challenges include long days, holiday shifts, emotionally-charged issues, and the threat of physical and personal attacks.
“It’s about being comfortable with being uncomfortable,” Gann said.
What’s most rewarding?
Johnson and Gann said they see many inmates during the lowest points of their lives, but the goal of prison isn’t just to punish them in that moment —it’s also to rehabilitate. And Gann said that successful journey from intake to release makes the work well worth it.
“A lot of the times, you see people at their worst,” Gann said. “On top of the trouble that they’re in, they’ll come in here in under the influence of some kind of substance or they’re dealing with some kind of mental health issue. To see them sober up, go through the process, get better and transform is the most rewarding part.”
What do you want people to know your work?
“A lot of people think that this is just a babysitting job,” Johnson said. “To me its so much more than that. This is my career. I come in here and I maintain the security of the inmates, the officers and the public. That is my main goal.”
Drew Smith is the crime and emergency reporter for the Herald Democrat. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org