AFSME Local 602 - MSU Moorhead

Correctional Officers Never Know What the Next Day Will Bring

Robert Neubarth, Local 600, in a cellblock at Stillwater Correctional Facility

It’s not rules and bars and security doors. It’s not physical toughness or power. It’s not a gun.

It’s respect. For correctional officers doing their job in Minnesota’s state prisons, nothing else makes a bigger difference.

“It’s all respect,” says Chad Oye, an officer at Oak Park Heights, the state’s maximum security prison. In the reality where correctional officers and offenders have to deal with each other 365 days a year, nothing works if they can’t build mutual respect, he says. “Rapport with the offenders is definitely a big thing.”

“You have to be fair, firm and consistent,” says Antonio Espinosa, who works the segregation unit at Stillwater Correctional Facility. “You come here, have the same attitude, and everybody knows who you are. They know how to approach you, and the job gets done.”

That only happens through consistency, communication and equal treatment, AFSCME correctional officers say.
“I tell inmates, ‘Don’t mistake kindness for weakness’,” says Robert Neubarth, a cell-block officer at Stillwater. “That’s where respect comes in. By being fair, consistent and honest, you build a respect and rapport with them.”

Force is a last resort

Correctional officers don’t carry guns. Instead, an officer’s best weapon is the ability to defuse a situation on the fly. “You try to de-escalate the problem rather than use force,” Neubarth says.

“There are times things get physical, but a lot of those times, those can be avoided,” says Wally Bartz, a sergeant with 28 years of service at Oak Park Heights.

“We’re dealing with very volatile people every day,” says Nichole Quade, an officer at Oak Park Heights. “It’s amazing how far de-escalating a situation, talking to these guys, goes. If you can’t talk to them, it just makes the situation worse.

“Everybody thinks it’s super dangerous, which it can be,” she says. “We never know what’s going to happen, what’s behind the next window or wall. But we really look out for each other.”

There are times – hot weather and holiday weeks especially – where inmates aren’t as cooperative. And older prisons like Stillwater and St. Cloud, with their tiers of cells housing hundreds of inmates in a single cell block, can be loud and chaotic.

But segregation units and newer facilities like Oak Park Heights, where inmates are kept in smaller and more controlled units, are surprisingly quiet.

“For the most part, you don’t have any problems,” Neubarth says. “If you do, you rely on your fellow officers to get the job done and take care of the situation.” That’s especially crucial in prisons where cell blocks are overcrowded and inmates are double-bunked.

“It makes it more of a hazard for us,” Quade says. “When you have an inmate that goes awry in his cell, you don’t just deal with him, you deal also with his cell mate.”

Time takes its toll

Officers also have to deal with the day-to-day atmosphere of prison. To a certain degree, inmates aren’t the only ones doing time. “This place just naturally hardens people,” says Neubarth, who started at Stillwater in 2002. “I know myself that I’m definitely not the same person I was when I walked in here.”

“You’re around negative people all day,” Bartz says. “All day long, you have to be constantly watching your back. You never hear a sincere thank you, even if you go out of your way. That part of the job is tough on a person. It is.”

For officers like Quade, being one of only about 25 females in a male institution is an extra challenge. “It’s a difficult thing every day,” she says. “It’s a man’s world in here, but we do it. We manage. You hear the comments, you hear everything. You just have to do your job, be very particular about your job, and watch yourself.”

“There are times the inmates know just what to do to push your buttons,” Bartz said. “The offenders are constantly trying to manipulate you. It’s a learning curve.”

Officers fill different roles

Many prison duties are routine – the same shifts with the same people, the same rounds, the same schedule every day or every week, checking cells, feeding inmates, shepherding inmates to jobs or appointments.

Other assignments have more variety. Officers on squad duty, for example, are constantly on call, ready to respond to any problem, whether that’s a medical emergency or a problem inmate.

Officers on utility shifts work a different post every day, filling in where needed. “Some people like that consistency, where they come into one unit every day,” Oye says. “I like coming in and just going all different places.”

Working utility, which Oye has done for three years, also gives him the opportunity to learn from senior staff, he says. “Just watching these guys in different units and seeing the different styles that they use, I’ve taken a lot from that.”

Regardless of their assignment, their jobs are never dull, officers say. “I guess you just never know what the next day’s going to bring,” Oye says. “Sometimes it’s good and sometimes it’s bad.”

“You’re always learning something new,” Neubarth says, “and you’re always seeing different types of people from different walks of life. It’s interesting every day. Every day is a new experience.” 

Dave Thome, of Local 2728, searches a vehicle entering Lino Lakes.

Adapted from the May/June 2009 issue of Council 5's Stepping Up magazine.

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