Walking through the zone, I gazed over at five inmates looking at me from behind a window.
Hearing the buzzing and clanking of cell doors sent a shiver or two up my spine. And surrounded by a pod of inmates, I took my time to take a photograph of the warden on a top bunk, demonstrating how easy it is for an inmate to sneak through a ceiling tile.
I even debated on halting the interview and not taking another step deeper into a world I know nothing about.
Rather sheepishly, I even told the warden, “I’m not going in there.” But I did. I was nervous because I didn’t feel in charge of a situation. I was not in my comfort zone. Not that the inmates I encountered did anything out of line. In fact, they asked how I was doing and made small talk with the warden. But I was scared to death, and I felt alone.
I did it because it was my job as a journalist, but correctional officers and law enforcement officers are there every day because it is their job. And, trust me, after walking in their shoes for only about ten minutes, they earn every penny and deserve more.
Warden Jay Shaw was kind enough to give me an honest and upfront interview about the current conditions at the Yazoo County Correctional Facility. He gave me a tour of the facility to highlight some of the problem areas that he said could be solved with a meatier budget.
“You want to know the problem areas,” someone asked me in passing. “Take a picture of their paychecks.”
Granted, money could fix fence lines, camera systems, lighting and more. But with only one guard walking a floor with hundreds of inmates, manpower would be a good investment. With a $9.50 an hour salary, Shaw told me that many correctional officers do not even consider the local facility for employment.
Walking through the facility, I was greeted by a correctional officer who recently gave a passionate speech to our local leaders about the dangers at the local facility. He was working the entire floor that day, and I applaud him for the demeanor he presented to me.
I admit, I would not have been so comfortable. Walking through the facility as a mere spectator filled me with uncertainty. I can’t imagine handling an entire unit of inmates alone. I would feel safer with a few more guards by my side.
Knowing the slim paycheck, something should be said about the guards who continue to work at the county jail. That could also be said about our local law enforcement officers. In these times of economic uncertainty, an underpaid job is better than no job. And Warden Shaw spoke more about the safety of his guards and the hard work they put into their profession than his own paycheck.
Small paychecks also lead to many guards looking for other ways to make more money. This is a problem found in the entire prison system across the state. A cell phone, tobacco and even drugs bring in the big bucks. And the temptation too often transforms a regular officer into a corrupt officer.
Not that more money would completely eliminate crooked guards. But it would likely attract higher quality candidates more likely to resist the constant bribery attempts that come with the job.
I am grateful to Warden Shaw for his openness and for a small glimpse into the world that many men and women report to every day for work. The most common statement I hear from all of them is that they just want to go home to their families at the end of their shift. I was only there for about half an hour, and I was relieved to get back to my vehicle afterwards.
Walking to my car, I glanced back to Warden Shaw, who was heading back inside the jail. He still had work to do. Inside a prison where he is outnumbered by 342 inmates, he heads back to his desk, where sits a sword shank discovered only moments earlier.
Back to a world where control is not easily defined. Back to a place that poor lighting leaves the facility’s outer limits in the dark after the sun goes down.
Back to a jail where inmates have admitted they could leave anytime. Back to a situation that may go unnoticed until a guard is killed.
I have to ask myself who would clean up the blood since there would be no other guard on the floor that night.
The better question might be whose hands will that blood truly be on.