Life as a correctional office means being face-to-face with the worst-of-the-worst. Allisson Hernandez was a naive 22-year-old when she first walked into Middleton House of Corrections and heard the door slam behind her. At the time, it was an all-male, medium-security facility that housed what she describes as “heavy hitters” who were awaiting trial. On her second day as a correctional officer, there was a fight between four inmates in 120B, a gang block. Hernandez — equipped only with hand restraints, keys, and a radio — had to respond along with the other officers on duty. She quickly learned that inmates can be unpredictable, not losing your cool was mandatory, and that prison was a place unlike any she had ever seen before. Now, over a decade later, very little about her workplace surprises Hernandez. In fact, she’s hiring and training new guards for Essex County Sheriff’s Dept. Over 400 uniformed staff are employed by the county, which includes the prison, and positions are hard to fill, despite a starting pay of $63,000 plus overtime. The Globe spoke with Hernandez about what it’s really like to work behind prison bars.
“The less I know about an inmate, the better. That way, everyone gets treated the same. If you know that they’re heading to state prison for a horrendous crime, the hair sticks up on the back of your head. Prison culture is a very complex entity. When I started here, I really didn’t know what to expect. I’m from a small town with a low crime rate, and was never a rule-breaker like my siblings. I was helping to apprehend shoplifters at a retail store when I heard the sheriff’s department was hiring. As I filled out the application, I thought for a minute before continuing. I was only five-foot, seven inches, 135 pounds – how was I going to throw anyone down? I quickly found out that it’s all about how you carry yourself and a drive to complete the task at hand. Our job is care, custody and control of the inmates. Inmates are constantly sizing the staff up — they are experts on body language. They’re looking for someone who is easily manipulated, and if they see weakness, they’ll seize on it.
“I don’t work on the blocks anymore, but I admire any individual who’s brave enough to do this job. I’ve had inmates threaten me with homemade shanks – they make them out of part of a tile floor, TV frame, or even a toothbrush. And I’ve found home brew made of fermented fruit and bread. They have nothing but time here, it’s a cat and mouse game. Officers are the cats, constantly going around and around.
“It’s not easy to become a correctional officer; I’ve been a drill instructor at basic academy, training recruits. We lose 50 percent of candidates because they can’t pass physical fitness tests. These are based on Cooper Aerobics Institute standards, and include one minute of push-ups; one minute of sit ups; and a mile and a half timed endurance run. We also check your driving history, references, and CORI, and you need to pass personality assessments, written exam, and an oral board. I’ve trained over 250 recruits, and it’s rewarding to see them move up the ranks.
“Correctional officers have a bad rap and don’t get enough credit for what they do. We’re not the mean, power-hungry enforcers as often depicted, although I have to admit that I’ve become harder and less trusting. But on the lighter side, I can handle body fluids…without getting grossed out. I have a strong stomach.”