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Kay-Ann L Henry: Correctional Officers -unsung heroes - An outsider's prison experience

Published:Thursday | January 28, 2016 | 1:00 AMKay-Ann L. Henry

The first time I visited a correctional centre, it was an eye-opening experience. I was part of a cohort of undergraduate criminology students from the University of the West Indies (UWI). Years later, as I re-entered these compounds with high walls, barbed wire fences and building conditions that take my imagination to the time of slavery (when some of them were built), I can't help but think of what it takes to work behind these walls. I am motivated to write this article because of my interactions with a group of courageous, hard-working, yet underrated professionals - correctional officers.

I was fortunate to come in contact with these officers because of the required research for my thesis at UWI Mona. The research made it possible for me to enter six of Jamaica's Adult and Juvenile Correctional Centres.

The lows of the profession

One of the most memorable stories shared with me was from an officer who, like many Jamaicans, is frustrated that overqualified employees are left with minimal opportunities for upward mobility within their organisations. "Miss," he said, "do you know that many correctional officers have their degrees and are stuck working in areas like sentry boxes? Just sitting and looking. People don't know," he went on, "that we are very qualified too." This sentiment was shared by many officers, who believe that most Jamaicans are unaware that they are tertiary educated, and holders of degrees, and other types of certification.

For the officers, this issue was magnified in the comparisons of the dangers to which they are exposed daily, the salaries and respect given to other security-related professions.

Transfers between correctional centre is a routine aspect of the job. One female officer shared a horrendous experience she had, after being transferred to a correctional centre which houses females. On her first day in the institution, while on patrol, inmates threw a bucket of stale urine on her; and no, her face was not spared. I cringed as the words flowed from her lips, much like the flow of vile 'rain' that had drenched her body.

There were stories of officers being severely injured by inmates (adults) and wards (juveniles). Others were of frustrated officers who believe wholeheartedly in the true meaning of rehabilitation, but whose hands are tied because of a lack of resources. Some stories were of the poor working conditions, leaking roofs, archaic, continually flooding sewage systems, and dilapidated buildings.

The Highs of the Profession

Even though they are in dire need of support for some of their rehabilitation programmes, including the Advanced Academic Programme, which provides CSEC courses to inmates/wards, officers and the Department of Correctional Services (DCS) are miraculously finding ways to make it work. I say miraculously because their 'prison schools' lack stationery, CSEC textbooks, and simple things like sharpeners and pencils. Yet, inmates do very well in their CSEC examinations and the institutions boast successes (distinctions, credits and passes) in a number of subject areas. This is a testament to the inmates' desire to improve themselves, and the officers' persistence.

Some inmates, after their release, start up small businesses in several fields, which include: tailoring, farming, bars, welding, which correctional officers and other DCS staff patronise. A number of the correctional centres also have thriving farms, on which the inmates work under the supervision of the officers.

Correctional Officers are Overcoming the Odds

It is remarkable the kind of positive outcomes these officers are able to achieve in spite of the challenges they face. Lives are being transformed; and good things are happening behind those walls. Just imagine what would happen if working conditions were improved and adequate resources provided.

It takes a lot to be a Jamaican correctional officer: chutzpah, fortitude, flexibility, stick-to-it-tiveness, discipline, patience, and a human spirit that pushes beyond the flaws of others to see their potential for greatness. These are the characteristics of a majority of the admirable men and women who serve in the capacity of correctional officers in our correctional centres.

- Kay-Ann L. Henry, ABS, BSc (Hons) is an MSc in Applied Psychology candidate at the University of the West Indies, Mona.