When two men escaped a high-security prison in New York earlier this month, it didn't take long for the focus to shift to their alleged co-conspirator, Joyce Mitchell, a corrections officer at the facility, who allegedly helped the two men escape. Once she admitted to having a sexual relationship with one of them, an unflattering portrait of female corrections officers was drawn.
Popular culture's depiction of COs doesn't help to contradict that image. Whether they're portrayed as friends, lovers, and co-conspirators (Orange Is the New Black), or aggressive abusers (Oz), COs generally get a bad rap.
Harriet Fox, 39, works as a corrections officer at a county jail in California. She's been in the industry for 14 years, working in men's and women's prisons. She shares what it's really like to be a woman working with criminals every day, and the personal boundaries she—and most of her colleagues—set up to protect themselves.
Why did you want to become a corrections officer?
I ended up as a CO by accident. I was using it as a stepping-stone to be a police officer and ended up making it a career.
What made you stay in corrections?
Maybe the challenge. Some of my closest friendships are with the people I work with. And it's really interesting dealing with criminals in close proximity every day. You learn a lot about the mentality of a criminal.
What's it like on the job?
You think you're going to come in and change lives, and that's the one lesson I've learned. That just isn't the case. The majority of our time is spent performing the daily duties of the job. It's constantly changing. You may need to yell at someone, break up a fight, and talk to someone on a personal level. We work 12-hour shifts and wear many hats.
This job is very emotionally laboring. You have to learn how to deal with stress and how to remain calm. I have some coworkers who have a really hard time with this. Some people just can't do it.
Is there special training for female COs in dealing with male inmates or for male COs interacting with women?
Not really. I've spent most of my career at men's jails. Dealing with men on a daily basis means dealing with gang rivalry. That's something that affects how we house them and how we monitor them. With women, if you put rival gang members in the same cell, it doesn't matter. It's like [the animosity] shuts off once they're inside the jail. Men and women both fight, but I'd say it's probably more frequent with men.
Are you prepped at all for how inmates might try to take advantage of you?
Not really. It's one of those jobs where you have to get in there and do it. You have to just deal with it as it comes. They don't teach you how to balance life either. You go in there with a superhero cape on and you can't take that home. It affects relationships and family.
What are your daily interactions with inmates like?
It's face-to-face every day. They are walking around with you. They're locked up in the cells some of the time, but otherwise it's an open area. There's always something going on behind the scenes—criminal activity, gang activity—and everyone is lying, all the time.
What are your personal boundaries in terms of interacting with inmates?
For me, I've always had a barrier. I joke with them because I deal with them day in and day out. But I come to work to do my job. They'll ask questions to try to get to know me and I've never given out anything about where I live. And I don't tell them about my family. That's how they can con you.
Have any inmates tried to hit on you or solicit sex?
I did get a marriage proposal once. They try to flirt or try to get to know you. I've worked the max unit and they'll masturbate in front of you or make catcalls. In a way, I don't take it personal. It's human nature. These guys are locked up for so long and they don't see women. You can't take anything personal in this job.
Have you ever considered an inmate a friend?
No. Even if it were somebody that I knew, I would draw the line.
Have you ever given an inmate special treatment, or bent the rules for him or her?
I have. There's the letter of the law, and there's the spirit of the law. When you're dealing with people on a day-in-and-day-out basis, going strictly by the book every day doesn't always work. These men are used to lying all the time and trying to get out of trouble. It's a challenge for them to take responsibility for their actions. But I'm a talker. If I can get somebody to be honest—which is not normal, we get lied to all day, every day—then I may be more lenient with the discipline. It's a very negative environment and building a rapport helps.
Have you ever had a crush on an inmate?
There's no attraction whatsoever. I don't even look at inmates like that. Everything personal stops at the door.
What do you think about female COs who have relationships with inmates—some of them
even marrying them later?
They are definitely crossing some personal/professional lines. Watching the stuff on Joyce Mitchell on TV, I don't know how she thought she was in love. I cannot grasp these women who do these things.
Do you know of any COs who have had relationships or sex with inmates?
At my department, there were one or two males working at the women's jail who had an issue before I got there. They were both fired and one went to jail. Thankfully, I didn't witness that.
If you discovered a relationship between a fellow CO and an inmate, what would you do?
I would turn them both in. I'm dealing with evil every day. Is everyone in here evil? Not necessarily. But the crimes they're in here for I see as evil. I stand for righteousness and integrity. I would have no problem turning them in.
What do you think is most misunderstood about your job?
Our job is one of those jobs where only the negative comes out in the media. We're not all corrupt. We're not all beating people like you see in the movies. I think part of that comes from the fact that it's such a private job. The public can't see what we do. We're behind locked doors in a very secure building. You hear about corruption, but you don't see how hard the job is. You don't see us taking care of inmates every day. It's a lot to take, emotionally and physically.