Former Corrections Officer
Travis County Jail, Austin, Texas
Carl R. was a corrections officer at the Travis County Correction Complex for 7 years. He offers his perspective on issues surrounding pretrial detention, conditions in county jails and the changes needed to improve the system.
Q: What is the impact of long pretrial detention on inmates, as you’ve seen it?
A: For someone to go into jail for something minor, they’ll lose their job. That’s guaranteed.
It’s the whole idea of “you’re supposed to serve your time,” as people say it. But it’s more complicated than that. You’re being punished by being incarcerated. You’re being punished again by losing your job. And on top of it, you’re being punished again because when you get back out, it’s going to be a whole lot harder to find a new job. It’s a bad snowball process. And it’s a bad process especially if it’s all coming out of one action you took in the past, that didn’t hurt anyone.
Q: What is your biggest takeaway from the job as a jail guard?
A: The irony of the job is that the job title is “Corrections.” But there’s no actual correction that happens.
It’s stressful, and it’s depressing. At the end of the day, your job is pretty much to do nothing. Your job is to maintain the status quo. The people that are in their cells when you got there, they’re still there when you leave. That’s bare minimum. It’s not like your mission statement is to make things easier, better or improve it. It’s not. It should be. We can do better than that. We can be employed to be facilitating some type of positive change.
Guards need more training. With substance abuse and mental health, especially, we need more substantial training. When I first got there, I had to see alcohol detox just to be able to know the symptoms. It’s one of the worst things a person can experience. We need more emphasis to learning about substance abuse and detox. The guards need to know, when someone comes in, “Okay, this person is coming down off drugs and it looks like this and they’ll act this way.” That way, we can act accordingly.
Jails also need more counselors. The counselors are so overstretched. They can hardly keep up with their normal workload, and if any incident happens, then they’re totally overwhelmed, which is sad, because they work so hard. Every building should have at least one counselor in it. It’s ridiculous that they don’t.
Q: How were you trained to deal with pregnancy and women going into labor?
A: I didn’t work in the building with the female inmates so the only thing I recall about dealing with pregnant inmates is how to do restraining. When you restrain, you handcuff their hands in the front, so if they fall, they can break their fall. Maybe the female guards get more training in that, but I don’t know for sure.
Q: What are some ways you can see to solve problems with the system?
A: One of the problems is that the jail population is just so large and expanding. In the Travis County Correctional Complex, there are around 2200 inmates, and I'm sure the majority of them are nonviolent offenders. We really, really need to expand programs where people can do community service instead of sitting in jails.
We have people sitting in jail waiting for their trial for a little bit of marijuana, waiting for months to see a judge. Why do we have to keep that person locked up? They’re not a threat to anyone.
We need more programs that are aimed at avoiding incarceration and having other means of dealing with laws being broken. There are just must better ways of dealing with that as a society. Sending someone to jail for something like, public intoxication – it makes no sense.
Q: Does poverty affect people’s ability to bond out?
Yeah, that’s a huge, huge thing. It’s going to take a while to get out, if they don’t have money. With a public defender, it seems to take at least a month to see a lawyer, and at least three months to go to trial. Their financials played a huge part in how long they stayed in jail, and whether or not they were able to bond out of jail.
Q: What do you think is needed to improve outcomes for people?
A: We need anger management programs. In the past, they had anger management and peer support groups in the building I worked in. Those were definitely good ones. I know they started doing yoga recently.
I worked primarily with maximum-security inmates so their access to programs was limited. The general population however had access to an aquaponics program, of raising tilapia and plants. They’ve started a beekeeping program as well. I think these are good first steps but they need more programs to get people back into the workforce.
There’s a story that comes to mind. I remember a situation. There was one particular inmate who was having chest pains, bad. And we took him to the nurse and when he came back he said he was probably feeling like that because he was so stressed out. We asked him, “What are you stressed out about?” He said it was because he was about to get out of jail. We said, “Well, why are you stressed out about that? You should be happy!” He was like, “I’m stressed because I have nowhere to go. When I get out, I’m going to go back to the same people that got me into jail in the first place. When I get out, I'm going to go back to that, I have no choice.”
So I think we need more resources for people when they get out of jail. We have a little booklet that we give to them. But I feel we should do something more interactive. Like, maybe, if they know within a week that they’re leaving, we should have something where they can actually meet with a counselor, meet with a social worker, get more resources on how to integrate back into society.
Even with violent offenders – you’re going to take someone who committed a violent crime, and you’re going to keep them locked up for, say, three months to two years. Then you do let them go back to society, but they’ve been acclimated to that environment and to spending all their time around people who use violence to try to solve their problems? They are going to come out worse. It’s no solution to send them there.
Rather than just having them sit around and watch TV all day or get more depressed or angry, there should be things for them to do to better their situation.
There should be a program they can go to, even if it’s just once weekly, to try to reduce whatever tendencies they have toward violence, right? To change? Try to let them have a chance.