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Life Inside

My Sexual Harassers Were Behind Bars. I Was Their Guard.

“I’ve seen more men masturbate than I can count.”

I don’t watch porn. It’s not that I have anything against it; it’s just not my thing. Growing up, I was a late bloomer. A skinny, soft-spoken, mixed mocha girl with glasses and a (thankfully temporary) slouch from too much reading and too many word searches.

This article was published in collaboration with Vice.

Books over boys, my life mantra was. So watching two random people master the carnal act has never been my pastime of choice.

But I also don’t watch porn because I’ve seen more men masturbate than I can count.

One of my first jobs out of college was working as a correctional officer at a county jail in the South. Even after getting an Ivy League degree at the University of Pennsylvania, I had to take the work I could find that was related to my field: criminology. And only one facility called me back.

Being trained and socialized to work in a jail snuffed out my passivity. I’d previously been slow to raise my hand in class or attend office hours, but you can’t be that way and command respect in this setting. My cadet cohort, instructors, field-training officer, and other colleagues played a role in an experience that ended up changing me forever.

But all that is another story. This one is about dudes jacking off.

I was assigned to a unit with four wings — Alpha, Bravo, Charlie, and Delta. Charlie and Delta housed males in solitary confinement, which meant 23 hours a day in their cells and one hour out. Officers rotated from wing to wing, but female officers never worked male units solo.

I saw most of the dick play in Delta unit. It housed male inmates who were considered highest risk, so at least two officers were assigned there at a time. One worked in the central glassed-in booth, answering inmate buzzers through an intercom (a system they used to make requests and complaints) and maintaining logs of visitors or other individuals entering or exiting the unit. The other worked in the wing itself and had face-to-face interaction with the men, primarily through their flaps — small rectangular openings with metal doors — and windows.

Compared with the extreme degree of social interaction required to maintain authority over women inmates, working in the booth on this wing was a different, and, I thought, better place for me.

I was slow to catch on.

The buzzer rang without ceasing. And being a newbie, I always tried to answer.

“Who’s working today? Who’s this?” they’d call in from their cells.

I’d respond: “It’s Carter.”

They’d make a request. “I need (a grievance form/medical form/toilet paper/toothbrush/Advil/etc.) They promised me last shift...”

“I’ll look into it.”

“Thank you, Carter. I hear an accent. Where you from?”

And then, I learned, I’d have to shut it down, usually with a swift, “None of your business.” Because what initially appeared to be harmless conversation often led to an inquiry into my personal life. And sharing anything personal with inmates is one of the first things they teach you not to do.

I was sharp enough to catch such obvious attempts at manipulation. But I continued to answer the buzzer as often as it rang.

After a few shifts in Delta, a male officer finally explained to me why the intercom rang so constantly. “They keep buzzing because they’re pleasing themselves to your voice,” he said.

I was dumbfounded. I was educated and had the highest score on the state exam of any cadet at that time. But training didn’t prepare me for that moment.

And I honestly didn’t really get it. First off, gross. Secondly, how and why would that be a thing they want …?

Reading the utter disbelief on my face, the officer proved his point by answering the next few buzzers. Repeat callers would ask, “Where’s Carter?” and he’d reply, “She’s out. It’s me now.”

In less than 10 minutes, the buzzers all went silent.

So I eased off the intercom. I became self-conscious about my voice. When I did answer, I tried to sound strong and relay a no-nonsense attitude to the caller.

But the masturbation was just beginning.

At certain times of day, traffic in and out of Delta was high, and I had to stay on my feet instead of sitting to keep up with everybody. Standing up put me in the inmates’ line of sight.

I quickly learned that they wanted me to see what they were doing.

One day after lunch had been served, we were busy tending to after-chow responsibilities, such as processing paperwork and visitors, and other daily tasks.

The buzzer rang. The caller was in a cell directly across from the booth, a straight shot from our window to his. I glanced toward him.

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Hanging from his open flap was his dick.

I clicked the intercom and told him to “Put that shit away.” Then I called down to the floor officer to close the inmate’s opening.

I wrote the guy up, but all the while I was thinking: How the hell did I end up with this job?

That was the first actual jack-off write-up for me — the first of many. At one point it got so bad that I whenever I saw an inmate masturbating, I would look away or pretend not to see it so I didn’t have to do all the paperwork. Besides, I soon realized that for some men housed in isolated segregation, the punishment they would get — another day or so in seg — was no deterrent for this kind of misconduct.

The worst dick-related experience I encountered took place when I was working outside the booth, helping to escort an inmate from Delta to the medical unit for a doctor’s appointment.

The procedure for escorting a high-risk inmate is double-cuffs and double-guards. So this light-skinned male, about 6 feet 2 inches and in desperate need of grooming, had his hands and ankles cuffed by a male officer. I tagged along to serve as the second guard.

The walk to medical should take about six minutes, but with an inmate taking small shuffle-steps due to the bracelets on his ankles, the time doubled. Of course, I saw him staring at me, but that was nothing new in jail. I followed policy, wore a freshly ironed uniform, minimal jewelry, no makeup, and no perfume, and I pinned my hair back into a sock-bun every day.

Yet the stares still came. That day, I focused on the path to medical. I worked the radio. I watched the traffic in the hallway.

But when we arrived at the medical unit and I looked back at him, there was semen all over his body. Everywhere.

He smirked at me, with not a whiff of shame. He stared, wanting me to see. He was proud.

And I felt dirty. I feel dirty writing this now. But it happened. It’s the job.

The other guard made some disparaging comment to the inmate and told me to go back to the unit. There were still hours left in my shift. And more days in solitary confinement for the dude with the now-cum-stained uniform.

That became one of the many stories about inmate behavior exchanged by correctional staff over lunch breaks and before briefings. Just one day in the life of the women and men who tell those they supervise to “put that shit away” every day in jails across the country.

Four years ago, I left the jail to go to grad school. But this stays with me: I was a female corrections officer who had to figure out how to do my job while inmates masturbated to my presence, my voice, even my scent. That was the job. And there is nothing at all that will help me forget it.

TaLisa J. Carter is a native of Long Island, N.Y., and worked as a deputy corrections officer in Savannah, Ga. She expects to receive her Ph.D. in criminology at the University of Delaware this May. TaLisa’s research has been presented to the American Society of Criminology, the American Sociological Association, and the Academy of Criminal Justice Sciences. Read more about the sexual harassment of female correctional workers here.