What It’s Like to Be a Prison Guard in Vancouver
The trials and tribulations of a correctional officer at a maximum security prison.
March 20, 2017
Gordon Hamilton (not his real name) spends his days in prison—but on the other side of the bars. As a correctional officer at a maximum security prison, he’s tasked with monitoring men convicted of some of the most horrific crimes ever committed in this province. It’s a job that’s definitely not for everyone, but four years into his corrections career, Hamilton is loving it.
Why did you decide to become a correctional officer?
My dad was a prison guard, so it runs in the family. I’d always worked office-type jobs and I was going stir-crazy, so I thought back to my roots. My dad and I had pretty similar personalities, so I thought I might be good in corrections, too. Turns out I was right.
What does it take to get the job?
The first thing to consider is that there are many different kinds of prisons—municipal jails run by the Vancouver police, provincial prisons, federal prisons. That’s what I work for. It’s the hardest to get into. They usually only have postings a handful of times a year, and generally very specific locations—you have to be willing to work in remote areas. And you have to do nine weeks of training in Regina. The requirements used to be just a high school diploma, but now it’s rare to meet someone doing it who doesn’t have a university degree.
What’s a typical day like in prison for you?
It’s a very…diverse job, no two days are the same. It always keeps you on your toes. A prison is run off routine, so if everything goes to plan I could tell you what I’d be doing, but things usually don’t go to plan. I could be calming down an inmate who is upset about bad news, or breaking up an inmate fight.
Is it a scary place to work?
At first I would say it was scary because you probably don’t know what to expect. But you get kind of used to it.
What about the 16-hour workdays? How do you get used to those?
I get asked that a lot. It bewilders people that a 16-hour workday is legal. But there’s a lovely physiological change that happens when you walk down a dark alley at night when there are sketchy people around, where you become hyper-alert and aware. And that’s what happens to prison guards as well…it’s your body’s way of keeping you awake on those long shifts.
It sounds like it might be an emotionally draining job.
That depends on your personality. If you’re a person that gets upset easily, it’s probably not for you. You have to have thicker skin. I see people’s criminal profile, a list of all the crimes they’ve committed, details of the crimes they commit—I read about all the horrendous acts and then have to not think about it too much.
Does working with these people every day change how you view society?
Even after being exposed and seeing the evil out there, I don’t think so. I know they just represent a small minority of the population.
What are the prisoners like?
My view on prison is probably a little tainted because I work in maximum security, with people who are in there for aggravated assaults, murders and rape. But a lot of people just come across as regular people who made bad mistakes. On the other hand, there are people with organized crime and gangs.
Do you get along with them?
It’s a world of mutual respect: as long as they respect me, we get along. There are special privileges we don’t allow for people that don’t show the respect they should. There’s plenty of guys that I have rapport with, we’ll joke back and forth. You don’t let them know about your personal life, of course, but sometimes I’ll think to myself, if we were on the outside and things were different, we might be friends.
How much do TV shows get right about prison?
Most of the drama and those shows aren’t usually very accurate. Most of the time in movies and shows it’s just prison guards pressing buttons, but that’s a very small part of the job. We’re around the prisoners constantly. I saw a few episodes of Orange is the New Black—I don’t work in a women’s prison, but it still seemed pretty out to lunch. If you’ve ever seen Oz, that’s the most accurate. One of the things they show on TV that they do get right though are the subcultures, the cliques and groups—institutional gangs are pretty prevalent.
What do you like about the job?
If you like working as a team, there’s a pretty big team dynamic—about 30 people you work with every day, day in and day out. You form close partnerships. And the schedule’s great day: six days on, and five off.
What’s the layout like at your prison?
Maximum security is different because there are different types of inmate populations who are organized by gangs. They can’t associate with each other because they’ll go after each other. There are 16 units that each hold 24 inmates, and the 24 each have their own cell in that unit. If they work, they come out to do their work. They might clean or serve food, things like that. But if they don’t have a job or do school or programs, they’re locked up almost all day. They get out for three hours of recreational time—two hours to hang out, and one hour to go to the exercise yard.
How’s the food?
For the most part the food is made by food service staff. Inmates used to make the food but we had to stop because we had a few incidents with the access to knives.
Has there been a day over your career that really sticks out for you?
Probably the one that was the most strenuous was an inmate suicide…but you don’t want to write about that. I’ve had days where it’s non-stop action, running to different parts of the jail—one morning there was a fight in the library, then a fight on the other side of the prison, then some metal went missing so we had to search everything.
What would your advice be to someone who’s thinking about doing this job?
Try to do tours of prisons and talk to prison guards about the job first. It pays quite well, but lots of people get into the industry and then know it’s not for them right away and stay with it because it pays well, even though they are really unhappy.
What are the biggest things the prisoners try to hide from you?
Shivs can be made out of basically anything. Something lots of prisoners will do is melt bits of plastic—like hard plastic cups, they’ll use whatever they can to heat it up, like try to sneak a toaster in—so they can squish it down to sharpen to be knife-like. Or they’ll use metal items, like try to break off a piece of metal from a fence tile. Some of them are pretty impressive. They’re crafty. People will also make prison wine, or “brew,” out of anything with sugar, whether that’s fresh fruit or ketchup. It doesn’t look very appetizing.
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