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Life Inside

Working With Prisoners Makes It Hard To Be a Mom

Discipline at work, leniency at home—with doubts.

This article was published in collaboration with Vice.

When I finished college, I knew I wanted to do something that meant something. At first, I worked at a homeless shelter. A lot of mental health facilities had recently been closed, and the shelters were getting crowded, so I was breaking up fights and getting spit on. I was good at dealing with that environment, and someone said I could get paid a lot better working at a prison. I thought, "Hell, let’s give it a try!” I thought I’d do it for five years and then find some other way to save the world.

That was 22 years ago.

There is a saying in corrections, something we tell new recruits: “You’re not shit to the department until five years in, and after five years you’re not shit to everyone else.” This job changes you. And like it or not, one bleeds into the other – home to prison, prison to home.

It took me years to learn this, and nothing helped me learn it quite like becoming a parent. Having a son changed the way I understood my job, and my job has shaped the way I raise my son.

When he was born seven years ago, I started to notice small things about myself. At restaurants, I’d insist on taking a table in the back corner, and I’d pass up tables in the middle of the room. If we were at a park, and I lost sight of my son, I would get sweaty, and couldn’t concentrate until I found him.

On my half-hour drive to work, I listened to upbeat music to psych myself up. On my way home, I sat in silence, preparing to be a good wife and mother. We try to keep these worlds separate, but sometimes you can’t. I came off a shift a few days before Christmas, and it had been a hard shift — we’d found some prison hooch, and I’d discovered a man was being extorted into manipulating his own family members to get them to send money to other prisoners.

I clocked out, feeling pissed off at humanity. As I walked through the parking lot, two little kids ran up to me, the children of another employee. They were wearing Santa hats, and they were running up to all of us, saying, “Officer, officer, Merry Christmas!” They offered me cookies.

I broke down in tears, completely unprepared for that flip in humanity. Back home, I saw on Facebook that other men from the shift admitted they’d been emotionally triggered, too.

I know male officers who, because of their work, feel an obsessive need for control at home — when dinner is served, when it’s time for bed, where objects go. When they can’t meet that need, they cope with alcohol and other self-destructive behavior. I’m happy to give control at home to my husband, who is not a correctional officer. But still, as my son got older, I found myself patting him down. I’d find little rocks in his pockets, and he would joke, “I can’t hide anything from you!”

Having read the case files of prisoners — some of whom were child molesters — I became suspicious of men who interacted with my son. Around Christmas, I’d make sure to take him to the mall at less busy hours, so I could meet Santa and size him up, and make sure he returned eye contact, before letting my son sit on his lap.

Once, we were at the park and while my son was on the swings I noticed an older man, sitting on a bench, watching him. I felt angry, irritated, wondering who this man was. So I made sure to pass him on my way to the drinking fountain. “Who are you here with?” I asked.

He looked startled and replied, “Nobody.”

“Don’t you think that’s weird?” I snapped.

I asked him to go sit somewhere else, and he obliged. I felt good, but then later, I wondered if maybe he was just a retired man, taking a walk, sitting down to reminisce.

At the same time, having a son made it harder to keep my emotional guard up at work.

Shortly after he was born, I read the file of a gang leader we suspected of extorting other prisoners. I learned that he never met his dad, and his mother was on drugs. He was born with a broken arm because a man tried to kick him out of her womb. He was put into foster care at 10 and joined a gang at 14.

Earlier in my career, I would have thought, Here I am with a cold-blooded killer. But now, with a son of my own, I couldn’t make eye contact with this man because I couldn’t stop thinking about the little boy he’d once been, and how his parents had failed him. When he was transferred, I was relieved, and decided to rethink reading files.

It’s good to have sympathy, but too much compassion makes it difficult to do your job. I’m careful, whenever possible, to keep myself away from things I know will tug too strongly at my emotions. I don’t watch chick flicks. Some officers intentionally read or watch things to spark emotions, to remind them of their humanity. I avoid it at all costs.

But with my son, I worry that I’ll be too cold to him — that I’ll treat him too much like I treat the prisoners — so I shelter and smother him. I want to baby him, to make his life easier.

I know that a lack of discipline is why some people end up in prison, so I’ve got to be careful. Recently, he didn’t bring his homework to school, and I apologized for him instead of letting him own up to it, and the teacher asked me, “Do you want him living in your basement when he’s 22?”

At first, I thought, Yes, yes I do. But I know I want him to be successful in life, and that I may need to reconsider my parenting style.

I’m still learning.

Cary Johnson is a corrections officer at the Cotton Correctional Facility in Jackson, Mich. She is on the board of the Michigan Corrections Organization, and has been involved with the union’s efforts to help researchers study post-traumatic stress disorder and other mental health issues among officers.