03.12.14

Detention Worker Stands Up for Prisoners’ Rights

By Antonia Marrero for the Moral Courage Project

For a corrections officer, a tour of duty can feel like serving time. Working in prison exacts a toll. Corrections officers commit suicide at alarmingly high rates and their average life expectancy is fifty-eight years. They have high divorce and substance abuse rates. Many survive multiple assaults at the hands of prisoners. Upon retirement, the average corrections officer will survive eighteen months. These realities are daunting.

But what happens when corrections officers, or other police officials, abuse their power? The boundary between law enforcement and criminals is referred to as the “thin blue line,” but perhaps a “dotted line,” intact but permeable, is more descriptive.

Most corrections officers are upstanding and do not directly abuse inmates. But all corrections officers are subject to the overwhelmingly brutal environment of prison, and almost all officers submit to a code of omerta (silence), reminiscent of the mafia. “He who fights with monsters might take care lest he thereby become a monster. And when you gaze long into an abyss the abyss also gazes into you.” (Friedrich Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil)

Riker’s Island, New York City’s largest correctional facility, frequently cited as among the worst in the nation, is in the headlines again. Officers are reportedly striking the skulls of inmates, appropriate only under extreme situations, on a daily basis. Also, Rikers subjected 150K nonviolent inmates to wrongful strip-searches. Furthermore, there’s an unsolved case concerning a female inmate who was found raped, bound and gagged. No corrections officer has yet come forth to speak of what happened that night.

Stories about members of the correctional industry who speak up against other members are rare. If they report colleagues who illegally assault defendants and inmates, they are subject not only to direct and violent retaliation, but also the absence of back-up in the event of inmate-driven violence.

Our latest episode of “I Am Moral Courage” profiles a rare citizen, Randi Gill from Oklahoma. As a newly hired clerical worker in a county jail, she witnessed the assault and battery of a person in custody at the hands of law officers but refused to obey the code of silence. She spoke up at great personal risk, and offers some straightforward and hard-hitting advice that we should all take: “For those of you who see something bad going on, do not be afraid to stand up for yourself. Because if somebody’s not listening to you right then, eventually someone will listen to you.”