The Day I Entered Hell's Gates

Posted: February 20, 2012 by Serve & Protect in SERVE & PROTECT
Tags: advisory board member, chaplain, corrections officer, depression, divorce, inmate violence, Serve & Protect, suicide

Our hope is to address needs of all in our focus, including Law Enforcement, FireRescue, and Corrections. Serve & Protect Advisory Board member Paul Spears II, author of this post, is a veteran corrections officer. He is also serving with us as a Chaplain to those in Corrections today, and is CEO of Harpeth Protective Services based in spring Hill.

It was Monday, January 2, 2002 and I arrived at one of Tennessee’s most notorious prisons – Turney Center Industrial Prison and Farm. It had been a staple of our community for years. It was a place where one could draw a better than average wage for the area and benefits. It was also a place that only the strong willed could work. Stories of riots and stabbings filled the air prior to the start of my career there.

In fact the prison ranked among the top of the state’s other prisons in terms of staff killed in the line of duty. For anyone who lived nearby you for some time, you knew someone who worked there and more than likely knew someone who was hurt on the job behind the fence.

I was determined to be the best in my field. I was so excited that I finally had a great paying job, benefits, and a government retirement at such a young age. I was to be married in a few weeks and had become a successful Church of Christ minister. Many warned me of the dangers that the job would influence on my personal life – I shrugged them off and said I am better than that.

Reality was that I had just walked into the devil’s snare and had no lifeline. I graduated from the academy in March and was so proud to wear the uniform and was more than ready to get to work. Before I could even settle in, I found out quickly that being the police in a prison is a whole other ballgame.

Correctional officers must face two battles – 1. The public’s perception & 2. The job itself.

I quickly found that my job was thankless and I was often seen as just a guard in a jail. I will never forget being told by a cop that I had known for years that I was not a part of law enforcement and should not identify myself as much. Obviously he had never read the law nor had he worked in prison.

Every day that I walked behind the fence I walked into a city of almost 2,000 citizens. During my shift I would respond to burglaries, fights, fires, suicides, drug related crimes, and homicides. The only difference in my city and the outside world was that it was made up of convicted felons.

For many of my fellow officers it was disheartening to come to work because the public viewed us as not really doing a lot, fellow law enforcement disowned us, and it seemed as though no matter how many crimes we foiled or solved it would never make a real difference.

In reality our world was filled with violence, negativity, and corruption. We could not trust anyone. We could never leave our guard down. But for many of us this became overwhelming.

Within six months of graduating the academy I had resigned from the church where I was serving as a youth minister. I was working Sunday’s and found that I was often missing other church services when I was not working. Slowly my choice of language transformed to rival that of a sailor. I used the excuse that sometimes I must use that language to convey my point to thugs who don’t understand anything but cursing.

Slowly I found myself withdrawing and unable to communicate my thoughts and feelings with my wife and family. Within three years I had engaged in an extramarital affair and was divorced. My world was slowly tumbling around me and I could do nothing to fix it.

A year later while working at another prison in Nashville I found that I still could not communicate my feelings. People would just not understand. Then my world truly came crumbling down. I was hurt during a training exercise and was out of work for a year and half. I was bankrupt and lost everything I had ever worked for. I moved from my hometown leaving my family and friends trying to escape my past.

I have since remarried and until recently could not figure out that the past will not escape you and you cannot escape the past. I have over the years fought depression and anger. I have even fought the urge to commit suicide.

Why? I had it all some would say.

You were a minister – you should know better.

The truth is that I knew all of this. I just did not know how to ask for help. Perhaps I did not want to accept responsibility. I could not talk with my wife about how I watched a man stab another man, how I watched a man being raped by another man, or how I watched a man try to kill himself. Some would say that these individuals deserved to die.

As a child of God I still had a heart, I still cared, as a public servant I had a duty to protect regardless of who it was. I could not let my emotions overtake me and so I bottled them up and tried to forget about them.

Bottling your emotions, trying to hide your feelings will not help you in the long term. Compare it to hoarding – eventually you run out of space and unless you find more space to store your emotions it will create nothing more than a mess and chaos.

As an officer I was trained to utilize various tools to defend and to execute my duties. One of the greatest tools not emphasized is emotional communication. You will not be able to effectively serve if you cannot take care of yourself. While there is no “one size fits all program” to guide you I would suggest the following:
•Talk – No matter who it is find someone who will listen. If you are married be sure to talk to your spouse. If your spouse is opinionated ask them just listen and let you empty your feelings. By doing this you are releasing your verbal feelings and allowing someone who cares about you to know what is bothering you. Just as exhaling a breath you will find great relief.
•Cry – A ballistic vest is meant to protect you from bullets but it will not protect you from being stabbed. That being said, there is no amount of armor in the world that can protect you 100% and you need to be prepared to suffer pain at some point. There is no shame in crying, there is no shame in exhibiting pain, there is no pain in releasing emotions. Prepare for the knife wounds as they will come, don’t hide them but rather expose them so that they may be treated and heal.
•Love – Remember that your family members are not criminals. The old adage leave work at work does not fit your profession. It is easier said than done. Instead find a way to realize how blessed you are to have what you have and show your love more often. You will reap much from this.
•Solitude – Make time for yourself. This could be a peaceful ride in the country, reading a book, exercise, whatever. Studies have shown that one who takes time for him to rest and relax has a healthier lifestyle.
•Pray – Put your trust in God. Prayer is deep rooted, spiritual, and allows you to place your trust in a higher power. While we tend to question God in our profession, we can rest assured that he has placed us there for a reason and that whatever he leads us into he will certainly lead us out of.

At the end of the day as a correctional officer you are among the best of the best. The world is safer because of you. You are ridiculed because others cannot, will not, or could never do your job. Understand that you are not alone in this fight and never think that you must fight by yourself.

Robert Michaels, CEO / Senior Chaplain


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