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Doing Time Eight Hours a Day: Memoirs of a Correctional Officer

Doing Time Eight Hours a Day: Memoirs of a Correctional Officer

by James R. Palmer

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Correctional officers face danger every time they go to work, and the public rarely appreciates the job that they do. Author James R. Palmer worked many years at the Kentucky Department of Corrections, spending seven of them with the solitary confinement unit. In this memoir, he looks back at his career and shares what it’s really like working in


Correctional officers face danger every time they go to work, and the public rarely appreciates the job that they do. Author James R. Palmer worked many years at the Kentucky Department of Corrections, spending seven of them with the solitary confinement unit. In this memoir, he looks back at his career and shares what it’s really like working in prison.

For example, inmates aren’t afraid to use sharp objects to hurt officers, who—just like the inmates—often find themselves behind locked doors. Correctional officers also face constant exposure to diseases and infections, as well as constant stress that can upset family life and make sleep nearly impossible. While some people might say, “If it’s that bad, then quit,” correctional officers stay on the job for a variety of reasons, including a desire to serve and protect the public.

Doing Time Eight Hours a Day shares one man’s firsthand experiences of what it’s like to be a correctional officer and rub elbows with some of the most dangerous men and women alive.

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Memoirs of a Correctional Officer


iUniverse LLC

Copyright © 2013 James R. Palmer
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4917-1197-2


First Impression

Box One is the first contact anyone has with the prison.

Be it staff, inmate, visitor, vendor, or police, they all must stop and check in at this post. Each visitor is asked if he or she has any drugs, alcohol, or weapons. Police and law enforcement officials secure their weapons here. Private citizens and visitors, even with concealed carry permits, are not permitted to bring guns on the premises. There are many signs posted prohibiting these and other items, and saying that all vehicles are subject to search.

If any contraband is found, the person carrying it is denied access to the grounds for that day. Occasionally, random searches are conducted by the prison SRT team. If and when any contraband items are found, the local police or state police are called and the carriers are subsequently arrested. Their visitation rights are either suspended or completely denied for up to a year. Even then, the person must apply to the warden for permission to visit.

Even when police come in to drop off or pick up prisoners, their vehicles are searched, because of all the weapons they carry: rifles, pistols, ammo, and tear gas or pepper sprays. All weapons must all be checked in and secured at this post.

As the many visitors arrive, they are asked if they have any of the above-mentioned prohibited items. Their response is usually the same: no. Some are spot-checked just to be sure. The volume of traffic on weekends and holidays is high, and a lot of cars come in bringing visitors.

In addition to checking all vehicles, prison guards check all visitors visually to make sure they conform to the dress code, which they all received a copy of at some time during their loved one's first week of incarceration. This is just a visual check, as they will be more thoroughly checked by the front desk officer.

After all, it is a men's prison. No tank tops, no bare midriffs, no showing of cleavage, no short shorts, and no short skirts. Shorts and skirts cannot be higher than six inches above the knee, and if it's close, it's measured. If it does not comply, the visitor is denied access until he or she complies. Many who are denied access use the local big box store to buy clothes that comply.

All commercial trucks are given the same checks when entering. However, upon departure, they are scrutinized more closely because inmates unload the vehicles and the potential for escape is greater, even though the trucks are checked at least two times before they get to the front gate.


First Day in Prison

My Old Kentucky home, where the sun shines bright, as the song goes, except for today.

It was a typical cold, rainy spring day in Kentucky. The temperature was in the low 40s, a slight fog hung in the air like a horror movie in a cemetery, except it was daytime. The drizzle was steady. All in all, it was a miserable day to be outside, one that you would rather spend indoors keeping warm. But not here.

This was to be a very different day for me and the three others who had just been hired. We were on the way to becoming correctional officers, or prison guards, as we are sometimes called. And those are among the good terms we heard from the inmates.

But for now, we were on our way to pick up our uniforms and equipment. The uniforms includes hats, belts, jackets, and raincoats—if they had your size. We were also given a couple of blue jumpsuits. Some were new, most used, and all faded blue. (Hmm ... the big blue line). And in spite of the manufacturer's tag, one size fits nobody. We all looked and felt like we belonged on a trash pickup crew or a garbage truck. We were also issued belts to hang our equipment on: radio pouches, first aid kit carrier, a pouch for rubber/latex gloves, and a mouth piece for CPR in the event we had to use it.

Leaving the warehouse, our arms full of our new gear, we proceeded to a car used to transport prisoners. Stowing our gear in the trunk, the four of us got in the car. This was our first (unless someone had been previously arrested or detained) experience with a car with doors that only opened from the outside, and a screen or partition separating the front and back seats. This was for the protection of the officers when transporting prisoners. Oh what joy, with the four of us in cramped in the confines of that smelly car!

I guess I knew what was coming next so I hustled to the passenger side of the car and got the front seat—shotgun, as it's called. I didn't want to be enclosed like sardines with the three of them, especially since one was rather rotund.

The first thing we noticed was it sure didn't smell like our cars. It reeked of the many prisoners who had been transported over the years. In the confines of a prison not everyone practices daily hygiene, so body odor can become a problem. Stale cigarette smoke, before the state banned smoking in state vehicles, body odors, funk and farts, stinky feet, all in an enclosed area. It was a smell we would all become to familiar with in the dorms.

Our trainer explained we were going to take a tour of the outside of the facility. We called him Lieutenant "I'm so cool I know it all," AKA Herman the German, and we would be reminded why we chose those nicknames on more than one occasion, even after training was over. He never let anyone forget it, either.

As we drove around the perimeter of the prison, the only constant beside the cold drizzly rain was the high chain-link fence with rows of razor wire attached to it on top and along the bottom. The razor wire is exactly that—razor sharp! Any one or any thing getting caught in it would be sliced and diced severely, like a Vego-Matic had gotten ahold of it. And the more you struggled, the worse it got. Severe slicing and entanglement—it could be real nasty. Occasionally a skunk or a raccoon would get caught in it. Nothing to do but wait and then have maintenance remove the carcass very carefully!

The DOC wanted to keep people either in or out but I don't know of anyone ever trying to break into prison. A lot of the convicts didn't want to be here, but some did; they got free medical care because they had no one on the outside to take care of them.

There were occasional signs that stated: CAUTION. STAY AWAY / OFF THE FENCE. DEADLY FORCE IN USE!

Very bold and intimidating if you're seeing it for the first time.

As we drove, the L.T. explained things to us, things we would later learn in more detail, about the yards, dorms, rehab programs, and recreation field. I was thinking to myself it was such a nasty day nobody would be outside. But I was wrong.

At the far end of the recreation field, I noticed many prisoners, or inmates, lifting weights and doing push-ups, generally working out in pairs, one lifting and one acting as a spotter.

I asked, "Isn't it too cold for them to do that?"

The L.T. snickered and said in his "I know it all voice," "It's never too cold for these guys. They are out here every day, rain or shine, cold, hot, windy, you name it. It's what they have to do all day every day. These are the serious guys who are the muscle of the yard. Most of them run everything that happens on the yard, the gambling, the betting, the "hits" (beat downs) drug running, (yes there are a lot of drugs in prison most brought in by staff), the scams, and just general mayhem."

My thoughts were that I was in decent shape, having served twenty-plus years in the military, but a few pounds heavier and a few steps slower, things that later would make it evident that I was indeed getting older and slower. Father Time kickin' my ass!

One of the comments from someone in our group was, "Oh shit, I guess it's true what we see on TV."

The lieutenant just laughed.

Driving around the perimeter, he told us, "Don't drive on the grass; watch the holes in the road; never drive the same pattern, because the inmates are always watching to learn our patterns and habits; look for holes in the fence, and check (shake) the fence in different random areas when doing fence checks. Just remember they are always watching you and tracking your every move, looking for your vulnerable spots."

The tour of the outside road complete, we then were shown the weapons we would be using on several of the different posts, such as perimeter post (driving around the prison in a state car), observation towers, Box One (entry and exiting the prison property), dorm control officer, dorm floor officer, and the various other program posts.

And the ever present and important post orders.

Post orders are the documents you are supposed to read when assuming a post. Each one is different for each specific post, and we would be required to learn them all in detail. They included what you should do in case of emergency, what to look for in different areas, and what you were required to do on that post. They had to be signed by each officer on each shift every day. After a while no one read them, they just signed them.

Now we began our "work" days in the prison, until the academy started in three days, walking around out here with our trainer/ escort, observing, visiting all areas, always watching, observing, and asking questions. Learning the difference between inmates and convicts was another part of our indoctrination.

Inmates are the older guys who have been around for years. They know they are there for a certain period of time, their hell-raising time is done, and now they just want to do their time, be left alone, and try not to get caught up in the yard bullshit; i.e., gambling, making book, trading food for whatever. Convicts are the younger ones, the ones with a chip on their shoulders. They don't care, they don't want a job, and they are usually gang bangers with the saggy britches, an attitude, and the feeling that the whole world owes them something, everything. They can't be told what to do or be given any direction. They are pissed off at the world, pissed off at being here, and acting like we put them there. They are the first to say, "I'm not guilty. I didn't do it. They all lied on me."

There is a difference between the ones in prison and the ones in jail. In jail, your sentence is 365 days or less. In prison, your sentence is 366 days or longer. Months, years, decades ... life. Or as the inmates called it ... forever.


Learning the Basics

Our new careers were now beginning to take some shape. All new hires for all the prisons are required to attend the academy. Here, we would learn daily activities such as post orders, daily logs, report writing, how to do cell searches, strip searches (not just get naked), procedures that would or could save our lives, powers of observation, and CPR in case we needed to use it on staff or inmates (Yes, I did), on an inmate.

Post Orders

These cannot be gone to in detail, as they are sensitive in nature. These are the orders that explain things for each post, things you must do—procedures to follow, who to notify in case of emergency, time schedules for opening and closing the dorms, and when to open and lock the outside gates that surround each dorm.

They are brief and to the point. Post orders must be signed and dated every day on each shift, by each officer.

Daily Logs

These are the logs kept on each post of who worked that post on any given day, who relieved whom for breaks, and what happened during that shift. Hopefully it was a quiet day and nothing happened. All staff and inmates who enter the dorms had to be documented with the time they entered and left.

This information could be useful later if someone accused an inmate of being in a restricted area (not his dorm) or if someone needed to prove where he was at a particular time.

All cell searches had to be recorded. We had to remember that all the paperwork we did was legal documentation and subject to be subpoenaed for any court proceedings.

Logs had to be complete and accurate.

Cell Searches

Glove up.

Wear rubber gloves. This was for our protection. Take nothing home to your family!

Cell searches were done on a random basis and logged in the daily log so as not to pick on any particular inmate. They were also done if you suspected something illegal in the cell. We were taught to be systematic in doing these searches. First, the inmates had to be present, either one or both. Second, we were taught to pick a start point, third, be thorough and consistent in going around the cell, fourth, start in one corner and work your way up and down and go around. Check on, in, and under things. Dump out boxes of soap powder and cereal (great places to hide things because few officers look), into bowls or other containers, but be neat and try to keep things as sterile as possible—respect went both ways. Or have the inmate dump it out as you watch. Put it in bowls or other containers. Check in between pages of books, in the bindings of books—nice spot for razor blades and tobacco. Inmates' hiding places were ingenious. After all, they had twenty-four hours a day to think about these things. We had eight hours, minus lunch of thirty minutes, to find things. Quite lopsided!

When checking under ledges, we didn't just run our hands along the edges. Those were a favorite hiding place for the inmates to put razor blades, and running our hands across them led to serious cuts with a dirty, used razor blade that was probably contaminated. We felt, touched, patted or used a mirror to help us. I carried two mirrors with me, a dental size for small, tight places and a two by three inch for general areas, such as under the rims of toilets, behind pipes, under garbage can lids, under door frames, and other hard to reach places.

Strip Searches

We were taught to use discretion when performing these. Before doing a strip search, you had to have great suspicion of someone hiding something on or in their person to do this, and then a supervisor had to be notified as to whom, what you were looking for, and what your suspicions were. And always keep your eyes on the person in question. Some of the prisoners were outstandingly quick at sleight of hand. Practice, practice, practice. The only exception to this rule is visits. We were required to strip search all inmates on their way back to the dorm after a visit, and to keep a log of all searches.

CPR—Cardio-pulmonary resuscitation.

We all had to learn this in case we needed to perform CPR on another staff member or an inmate. This was also good to know in case you needed it at an accident scene or for a family or friend at home.

We were all issued a CPR mask in the event we needed to perform the rescue procedure. After all, it is mouth to mouth.

Disciplinary reports

Also known as write-ups, these were done when an inmate violated the rules. Generally reserved for the more serious rule infractions, they could also be used for such trivial things as littering (throwing a match on the ground), spitting on the sidewalk (it spreads disease), and not making your bed. But it was a good tool since the inmates hated getting them because they could cause a black mark on an inmate's record if or when they went before the parole board. They could affect his dorm assignment, or getting a better job. If serious enough, the write-up could also cause loss of good time (time earned toward reducing their sentences) or put them in segregation.

When writing these reports, we were taught to keep it simple, following the five w's and an h—who, what, when, where, why, and how. Follow that format and life would be good.

If you didn't, you'd have to rewrite it. We were also taught that after you write your report, have someone else read it before you turn it in. See if it makes sense and contains all the elements needed. These write-ups were then heard by a hearing officer, a supervisor, lieutenant or higher. The inmate was afforded all his constitutional rights and was even given a legal advisor, another inmate, whose job it was to provide legal counsel and assistance to him.

The write ups then became part of his permanent record unless dismissed.

Radio Operation

We were also taught simple radio operation. Some people had never used one so it was basic operations so we would all be able to use codes that could be and would be used in life saving situations—ours and theirs—to ask for breaks, advise supervisors of locations and situations, and call for assistance when needed. Basic communication.

After all, we were there to serve the public, protect the inmates from themselves and others, and watch over them as they did their time, not to mete out punishment, as this had already done by a jury of their peers.

Our academy class consisted of about thirty-eight officers, male and female. We came from all institutions across the state for our basic academy of six weeks training. (It was later changed to eight weeks). Some were new to corrections, some had previous experience, and some were returning after trying different job choices. After graduation, we would all return to our specific institutions to begin our OJT status for a period of six weeks, with two weeks on each shift—7:30 a.m.-3:30 p.m.; 3:30-11:30 p.m.; 11:30 p.m.-7:30 a.m. After this six-week period, we took an OJT test and if we passed, we were officially officers out on our own, assigned to different shifts and posts to fend for ourselves with the help of our partners.


Excerpted from DOING TIME EIGHT HOURS A DAY by JAMES R. PALMER. Copyright © 2013 James R. Palmer. Excerpted by permission of iUniverse LLC.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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