The War Zone

It is afternoon, and I am dropping off my mail in the administration building of Kern Valley State Prison.  Since I came off the line in 2006, I have held a job in the Administration building.  Every afternoon I take the stack of things that have to be mailed and put them in the various mailboxes on the other side of the building.  As I was returning to my office one afternoon I saw two young officers leaving the prison at the end of their shifts. 

“Did you have a good day?” I asked them.

As one nodded in agreement the other said, “Just another day in the war zone.”

 I don’t know why, but it hit me like a brick.  After all the years I have been in and around the line and couldn’t put into words what it has been like for me a random, young officer put the last 25 years of my working life into words.

I was so stunned all I could do was pretend to give supportive and sage advice, “Don’t take it home guys, just leave it here until tomorrow.” 

“Never.” They replied as they walked away. 

We all three knew it was a lie. It was a comforting lie, though. Saying that we never take the war zone home helps us pretend that the war is over at quitting time, but it isn’t, and we know it.  The simple words the officer spoke were the most honest I have heard in many years.  We work in a war zone.  Anybody who thinks this job, especially in the maximum-security prisons, is not a daily, voluntary trek into an active combat zone is either woefully unaware of their surroundings, or never worked the line.  Like the military, we get up in the morning and put on our uniform, and body armor.  We report in and check out all the equipment we will need for the day.  Keys, Cuffs, Chemical Grenades, Baton, Pepper Spray, Radio, Personal Alarm and the like.  We report to our operational area and receive our briefing.  We relieve the last post and assume the duties.  We check our guns, count our rounds, inventory and check all our systems, and then we start the business of trying to survive the horrors we are bound to face, courtesy of the inmate population. 

We are riot control, ambulance service, peacekeepers, and could be easily compared to an occupying force of a small town. We don’t live in the town, but we patrol it and try to keep the residents from killing us, and each other, until we are relieved.  The difference is, there aren’t any nice and appreciative residents in our town.  The townsfolk, every one of them, would happily see us dead or dying. 

During our eight to sixteen hours in the war zone we witness violence, death, loss, suffering, and depravity that is unimaginable to most people.  We do not have the luxury of stopping to puke or pausing to cry.  We do not have the luxury of time to deal with our feelings and gain perspective. 

When we are operating in the war zone we must immediately respond, we have to isolate, contain, and control every incident.  Every inmate is a threat and every critical incident is potentially fatal to officers and inmates.  Every moment must be regarded as precious time we must use to keep things in control, interdict drugs, gangs, weapons, prostitution, vice, rape, and murder.  We do not get to pause and discuss our feelings. 

When we see, and respond to terrible things, the administration does not stop all programs while special grief and stress counseling is provided.  Such a thing is not afforded to us and, honestly, most of  us would reject it if it were.  Such careful attention to psychiatric injury and emotional health only happens after major incidents in the community.  We have post trauma counselors, but they are not professional therapists.  They are prison staff trying to keep us together until we seek our own private, professional help.  We love and appreciate them but they only stop the bleeding for a short time in the psychological sense.  We drive on.  We clean up the blood, carry out the dead, and report back to our post for the next mission.  We do our duty. 

We bear witness to evil daily and memorialize it in reports.  It is one thing to experience a traumatic or stressful event, it is another to force oneself to remember every detail, still fresh in one’s mind, then create a well written, clear, precise, accurate report that will possibly be used in a courtroom.  Things most people are well advised to try to forget, we must try to remember.  We will testify to these things in a court of law.  We must look when others would turn away because we must bear witness in the interest of justice.  These things go home with us.  These things stay in our minds day in and day out.  We remember them in our sleep, when we are walking with our kids at Disneyland, when we say our vows, when we take communion, when we contemplate suicide, when we have a drink, and when we hear a bump in the night.  We keep them in our heads and they become permanent.  We live a war zone until we retire, die, or quit.  But the war zone also lives in us.

Like veterans returning from war we suffer post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in alarming numbers. Some studies say about one third of all correctional officers, about thirty one percent, have experienced traumas in the workplace significant enough to warrant a diagnosis of PTSD.  The National Comorbidity Survey indicates that the prevalence of PTSD in the general United States population is 3.5 percent. This would indicate that the general population is subject to PTSD almost ten times less often that Correctional Officers. A National Institutes of Health study that can be found in the winter, 2009, issue of the National Institute of Health “Medicine Plus” magazine stated that the occurrence of PTSD  is,  “as many as 10 percent of Gulf War (Desert Storm) veterans.” The report also indicated that eleven percent of veterans of the war in Afghanistan and twenty percent of Iraqi war veterans suffer from PTSD.  PTSD diagnoses are less common in all these groups of veterans than are found associated with Correctional Officers, thirty one percent of whom have PTSD.

These percentages seem to baffle the mental health community, but they do not surprise me at all considering that prison officers remain in the war zone for decades. I am not trying to minimalize the contribution of the veterans I reference here.  I hate it that they were injured serving their country. I am, however, saying that the officers holding the line are doing so at great peril to their physical and mental health.  They do so in a war zone, and the war zone is real.  Many like me do it for well over twenty years.  They have two weeks paid vacation annually as compared to military members at 30 days’ vacation per year.  And it has to be enough.

The war zone is as it should be.  It is isolated, contained, and controlled by my family in green.  It does not spill out into the streets of our cities.  We keep the war zone behind the walls and in our heads.  It effects our families and friends, but they do not see or truly understand it. And so we carry our burden through our career, retirement, and then to the grave.  We cannot forget.  We are trained not to. Remembering the unthinkable has become habitual.