Attica, N.Y. — "If an inmamte does 25 years, we do a third of their time with them. You're right in the pits with them." This is how Attica corrections officer Jim Mann describes his job.
Criminal justice experts frequently point to the job of prison guard as a most difficult and risky one. The working conditions are as good or as oppressive as the prison itself, and many of the nation's prisons are in a poor physical state.
Obliged to work in close contact with criminals ranging from car thieves to murderers, prison guards must always be alert. "Control" is the word you hear many times when guards explain their jobs.
Says one Attica guard: "This is an abnormal atmosphere. They [inmates] are on one side of the fence; we are on the other. We're their overseers and they resent this . . . being told when to get up, when to eat. This is something new to them."
Ron Pikula, another Attica guard, says: "We have to correct their behavior. That's a very difficult task. Many of them have a rap sheet [record] as long as your arm. One minute you're talking to an inmate; the next minute you may have to frisk him."
But, he adds, "I don't mind the job at all."
Usually earning no more than a base salary of about $18,000 Attica guards work regular eight-hour shifts plus overtime when there is a shortage of personnel, as there has been recently. Mann, president of the local union of corrections officers, wants better health and retirement benefits. Currently a guard must work till age 62 to retire. That's too long in such abnormal conditions, many guards contend. Mann is lobbying for retirement after 25 years.
The stress of the job is so persistent, Mann says, that as guard "you tend to take it home." That hurts marriages, he says. Like many Attica guards, he is divorced. "Some become dependent on alcohol for relaxation," he adds.
Mann also backs programs for inmates for a very practical reason: "An active inmate is a lot better to handle than an idle inmate." But some programs are makeshift, he indicates, and prisoners should not be "warehoused" in them.
"Rehabilitation," Mann says, "is a word of the past. For the vast majority [ prison] is a warehouse to keep people off the street."