We met at a bar in the back of a Mexican restaurant at the edge of town.
I wanted to know about assaults, about verbal abuse, about what it feels like to kiss your kids goodbye every day knowing there’s a very real chance an inmate will rip your throat open with a chunk of cafeteria tray before nightfall.
He told me about accepting death beneath 18 fists and 18 feet, about feeding the man that stabbed your partner, about making love to your wife with a condom for three months because someone with hepatitis shoved feces in your mouth.
It was raining outside.
Crescent City street at night
In coastal Crescent City, it always seems to be raining this time of year. Sun-smothering clouds drizzle in their sleep. Wet winds slap flesh from white to red then back to white. The soul swallows salt water.
He smoked Seneca Lights — Tax-free cigarettes sold by the Native Americans who worked the land here before the prison folks, the loggers and even the gold hunters.
Most of all, I wanted to know, why. Why spent your days with rapists and murderers at what’s been called “the largest maximum security lock-up in the free world”? Why be a correctional officer at Pelican Bay State Prison?
We drank whiskey. And he told me.
“You don’t grow up wanting to be a correctional officer,” he said.
But life has a way of happening.
Two Crescent City buildings
“I was going to go into the highway patrol and then my wife got pregnant.”
The highway patrol academy took six months to complete. The correctional department academy took six weeks. The pay was the same.
Today he is a sergeant.
“Every guy I meet is a killer, a murderer or a rapist.”
Pelican Bay State Prison is the end of the line; designed to contain and isolate California’s most dangerous inmates. In the event of an earthquake, its walls are designed to collapse inward.
“The job is more clear-cut (than at lower security prisons). You know who you’re dealing with. You’re dealing with the most evil people on the face of the planet.”
I asked him what the worst part of the job is.
He said, “seeing one of my partners lying dead on the tier.”
“She ended up surviving,” he added, “but probably in my life that has been the most intense thing I’ve ever had to deal with. It has made me hate more than anything else. It has made me love more. It has made me scream. It has made me angry. It’s made me everything.
“That’s the worst part, watching your partners bleeding.”
We ordered two more glasses of Red Label.
A Crescent City cocktail lounge
I asked him about “gassing”.
Gassing is a form of assault where inmates ball up their feces, vomit, blood, urine and/or semen and throw it at officers.
They aim for the face, for the eyes, for the mouth.
“We’ve probably had more officers lose their mental well being because of a gassing than anything else.”
“There’s nothing like having someone else’s turd in your mouth knowing they have hepatitis or AIDS.”
Mariachi music blared from behind the bar; someone’s heart had been stolen.
“So how do you deal with that?” I said.
“You become pretty cynical. The trick is keeping that inside. And that’s been the challenge for a lot of us… Eventually almost everybody breaks down and realizes they need to handle this a little better than they have been.”
The suicide rate for correctional officers is six times the national average.
Crescent City Bail Bonds
“The problem with corrections is we are trained to be hard-asses. We’re trained to be tough. We don’t talk about stuff we see.
“There’s some stuff I’ll never be able to talk about.”
He invited me to dinner with his family.
We lit up a couple Seneca Lights in the car. Wipers pushed rain from the windshield.
A rainy Crescent City street
He told me about being jumped by nine inmates, about going to ground beneath their punches and kicks, about thinking, “This is it.”
Dinner was cooking when we arrived.
I asked him what the best part of the job is.
He said, “There’s a joke out there, ‘I go home today knowing I saved that child molester from that serial killer.’ And that pretty much describes the job satisfaction we get.”
But then he said, “A lot of officers tell you, ‘I’m just here for the money.’ But 99 percent of the time, that’s bullshit. You can make good money doing other things. People are here because they love their work. We’re here to keep inmates out of the community.”
The food was delicious.
As we ate, I caught one of the children stealing glances with his father. Clearly, the kid was shied by the presence of an unknown, ravenous hobo.
Dad smiled knowingly. The boy giggled. The process repeated.
I realized, this is why.
The table was cleared. We headed to the porch for a cigarette.
It was still raining.
I told myself more tobacco would make me feel sick.
But life has a way of happening.
We smoked Seneca Lights.
Then I realized, so is this.