I am a 25-year veteran of the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation at a maximum security prison. Since 2006, I have held a job in the administration building. Every afternoon, I take my stack of mail to the various mailboxes on the other side of the building.
"Did you have a good day?" I asked.
One nodded in agreement as the other said, "Just another day in the war zone."
I don't know why, but it hit me like a brick. After all, the years I have served in and around the prison system, I couldn't put into words what it has been like for me. Then, a random, young officer put my last 25 years of service into a few poignant words.
"Don't take it home, guys, just leave it here until tomorrow," I told them.
"Never," they replied as they walked away.
We all knew that "never" was untrue.
Anybody who thinks this job, especially in the maximum security prisons, is not a daily, voluntary trek into an active combat zone is either woefully unaware of their surroundings, or they've never worked the line.
Akin to the military, we get up in the morning and put on our uniform and body armor. We report in and check out all the equipment we will need for the day. We report to our operational area and receive our briefing. We relieve the last post and assume the duties. We check our guns, count our rounds, inventory and check all our systems, and then we start the business of trying to survive the horrors we are bound to face, courtesy of the inmate population.
We are peacekeepers, and could be easily compared to an occupying force of a small town. We don't live in the town, but we patrol it and try to keep the residents from killing each other and us. Every resident would happily see us dead or dying.
During our shift in the war zone, we witness violence, death, loss, suffering and depravity that is unimaginable to most people. We do not have the luxury of stopping to vomit or pause to cry. Every moment must be regarded as precious time for interdicting drugs, gangs, weapons, vice rape and murder. We bear witness to daily evil. As if that were not enough, we must be able to chronicle this evil in utter detail by creating a detailed report for use in a courtroom. We must remember, because it is our duty to bear witness in the interest of justice.
The war zone is with us, at home, long after we retire or quit.
Studies indicate about 31 percent of all correctional officers are diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder. The National Comorbidity Survey (www.hcp.med.harvard.edu/ncs/ publications.php) indicates that the prevalence of PTSD in the general population is 3.5 percent. PTSD diagnoses are less common in veterans returning from Afghanistan and Iraq than associated with the 31 percent of correctional officers.
These percentages should be no surprise considering that prison officers remain in the war zone for decades. The officers holding the line in U.S. prisons are doing so at great peril to their physical and mental health. They do so in a war zone, and the war zone is real. Many remain for well over 20 years, returning daily, reliving traumas they hope to one day forget in retirement.
Our war zone is as it should be.
It is isolated, contained and controlled by my family in green. It does not spill out into the streets of our cities. We keep the war zone behind the walls and in our heads. It effects our families and friends, but they do not see or truly understand it.
And so, we carry our burden through our career, retirement and then to the grave. We cannot forget. We are trained not to. Remembering the unthinkable has become habitual.
Will Adams has held, over the last 25 years, the positions of correctional officer, sergeant, lieutenant and now correctional counselor II specialist at Kern Valley State Prison in Delano. Community Voices is an expanded commentary of 650 to 700 words.