Working in the Prison System Took Over My Life
Illustration by Cornelia Li
This article was published in collaboration with the Marshall Project.
I started as an officer at a minimum-security men's facility in Colorado in 1985. I tried hard to be a role model. I had to teach myself to stop cursing, since I knew that wouldn't help the guys find jobs when they got out. And I really saw men turn their lives around; I remember training one man to be a softball umpire, and he called me years later to say he'd gone on to work in high school and college leagues. You could hear the excitement in his voice—I was so moved. Any time someone got out and didn't come back, it felt good.
There were traumatic moments too, of course. On the front lines of America's prison system, we are exposed to real violence—we see and hear things most people will never will. A lot of officers bring that trauma home, but I found, for the most part, that at the end of my eight-hour shift I could leave, spend time with my wife and two young kids, and forget about work.
After several years, I was promoted beyond my facility to the Colorado Department of Corrections. I became a regional coordinator for volunteers, helping to manage all the people who come in to offer faith-based and substance-abuse programs. I was making more money; managers earned as much as $70,000 a year, while starting correctional officers back then began at around $24,000. But the volunteers came into the facilities night and day—and on the weekends. Slowly, the eight-hour day became ten or 12, and then you're going in on Sunday to help with a faith-based program, and before you know it you're working 60 or 70 hours.
More money, more time, more responsibility—that tends to be true in most jobs, but it's particularly true in prisons, because people live there; it's a 24/7 endeavor. Without realizing it, you adapt, and it becomes your life. I was promoted to both public information officer and legislative liaison. Any time something happened at a prison—a fight at 10:30 PM, a water main break, a riot, a sit-down, or God forbid somebody died—I'd get notified.
The higher up you get, the more you're worried about safety. I was moved to the training academy, where I supervised the instruction of new officers. Any time anything happened to an officer, chances are I knew the person. You want to jump in and work and get everything back to normal, but it nags at you: What could I have done to prevent that? Was my staff well-equipped and trained? Was there enough staff on hand? What should I tell new officers? How can I prepare them better so they're safe?
These thoughts don't come to you while you're at work, when you're busy. They come when you're driving home, when you're trying to sleep. I'd be lying in bed awake, thinking about today's suicide, today's assault involving an officer, where today's missing tool ended up. My brain was still at work.
When you're in the administration, you are in charge of people who are in charge of other people's lives. You hired the guy who is deciding whether to write someone up for violating rules. And then you find out the guy he wrote up is in a higher custody level, and he commits suicide, and you wonder how you contributed to that path.
Pretty soon, your life is not your own. You neglect your family. You're poring over policies and reports at all hours. You're glued to your phone.
If you don't learn how to turn it off, it can destroy your life.
I was nearly 20 years in, working up to 80 hours a week and sometimes more, when one evening I was at my desk, reading documents. My seven-year-old daughter came in and handed me a piece of paper.
"Daddy, when can we play?" it read. "I love you."
I left the desk and scooped her up, and we jumped on the trampoline that evening until I was exhausted. That little note changed my life.
I started spending more time playing with my kids and forced myself to be present, letting work issues wait until later. I constantly tried to ask myself: Is 'this'—whatever issue came up with work—really that important? I still worked from home but tried to do so while my kids were doing their homework. I realized that so much of what I obsessed over at work was not nearly as important as I'd thought.
I'm sure my heart rate was better; lots of people have heart attacks or other health issues when they leave these corrections jobs, and I know it's because of the stress they let build up. I tried to change that, for myself and for everyone else on the job. At the end of the day, I made sure everyone left on time, and I was right behind them.
I have retired from the department. My daughter is older now and says she doesn't remember the note. But I've held onto it ever since.
Brent Parker is a former corrections official who worked for the Colorado Department of Corrections and the Fremont County Sheriff's Office before retiring in 2016. He lives in Florence, Arizona.