Dangerous duty: Fayette Detention center officers must be counselors with warrior combat skills

Inside the Fayette County Detention Center. Sometimes the jail is so full that some inmates had to sleep on cots in the open area. Officers have a direct line of sight to inmate areas.
Inside the Fayette County Detention Center. Sometimes the jail is so full that some inmates had to sleep on cots in the open area. Officers have a direct line of sight to inmate areas. Herald-Leader

To begin with, they are not guards.

It's one of the first things men and women are taught when they start training to become community corrections officers at the Fayette County Detention Center.

"A guard watches stuff. We are managers and supervisors of people," instructor Frank Mattingly told members of Recruit Class 1401 on Aug. 5 as they began training at the jail.

"From now on," Mattingly told them, "your first name is 'Officer.' You are being given a great responsibility. Use it wisely. Don't abuse it."

So began 10 weeks of training for Class 1401. Over more than two months, they would carve through stacks of textbooks, hear numerous lectures, learn hand-to-hand defensive techniques, get shocked with electricity and hit with pepper spray. All of these skills would need to be mastered. Some would be revisited or tested, and others they would hope not to use in one of the most challenging jobs in law enforcement.

Two recruits left when jobs turned up elsewhere. One of them was Bryant Bowles, a former Alaska state trooper and father of Ramon Harris, who played basketball at the University of Kentucky from 2008 to 2010.

The rest of the class, 18 men and two women, made it through the demanding course to graduate Friday.

The public generally knows something about what police officers and firefighters do. But jail officials say most people know little about the daily duties corrections officers perform.

How tough is the job?

Consider that Fayette County corrections officers work right among the inmates at the jail. For most of an officer's eight-hour shift, he or she is alone and unarmed (except for a small pepper spray canister), locked inside a housing unit with up to 80 or more inmates. Most prisoners are cooperative, but some are aggressive and potentially dangerous — and none wants to be in jail.

Officers must know who can be trusted and who can't, and treat them all accordingly. They're expected to be constantly alert and responsible for everything that happens in the unit.

If inmates get sick, they must be sent for care. If arguments or disputes erupt, officers are expected to resolve them before things escalate. If an inmate is distressed because his family is struggling financially, the officer is trained to offer sympathy and help. If a stressed-out inmate is contemplating suicide or considering attacking others in the unit, the officer is expected to recognize the threat and head it off. If trouble does break out, the officer is expected to intervene quickly and appropriately.

Officers who make a serious mistake can be sued or fired. Worst of all, someone could be seriously injured or even killed.

In other words, corrections officers need to combine the instincts of a corporate executive, a psychologist, a diplomat and a pastoral counselor, along with the combat skills of a warrior, depending on the needs of the moment.

Finding their calling

Many of the recruits in Class 1401 had dreamed of becoming corrections officers.

Take, for example, Pittsburgh native Melissa Neale, 29, who has a psychology degree and once was a social worker before starting training at the jail. She's held other jobs, but "I've always wanted to do this."

"My mom isn't thrilled," she admitted. "No one wants their child working in a job where there's danger. But I fell in love with it."

Much like Neale, Robert Hisel, 30, wanted to be in corrections work for years.

"I'd taught martial arts and done security work," Hisel said. "I've been the only security officer in a club filled with 150 or 200 people, so being in a room full of inmates doesn't bother me."

Melvin Trent, 29, who also has a psychology degree, got interested through his mother, Cpl. Jolynn Trent, an officer at the jail. Trent's mother told him that "the level of expectations here would be high, but it actually surpassed that."

"The first day in class, everything was Greek," he said. "But it becomes second nature very quickly."

Joseph Hall worked for a company that supplied auto parts for Toyota until deciding that the jail offered a brighter future.

"There's a lot more to the job than I expected going in," Hall said. "It's a different world here. But this is what I'm going to be doing from now on. I'm not going anywhere."

Sharon Salomon, a petite, soft-spoken mother of two small girls, didn't plan on being in corrections. But after completing a law enforcement degree at Eastern Kentucky University, she heard jobs were available at the Fayette jail.

"And I needed a job," Salomon said. "Now, I want to finish the training and get on the job."

Education and application

There was a lot to learn before the recruits actually got on the job.

In movies and TV shows, prison officers seldom are portrayed sympathetically. Often they're incompetent, indifferent to inmates, or even pathologically abusive.

The class was taught almost daily that they have a responsibility to make sure inmates are safe, to get them through their incarcerations as smoothly as possible, and to offer support that might help them turn their lives around.

Cpl. Frank Mattingly, one of the instructors, told recruits repeatedly that they are the most important people in the lives of the inmates, and "we have a duty of care, custody and control of our inmates."

"If someone leaves here the same way they came in, we have failed them," Mattingly said. "But if we leave a part of us with them ... we can be the positive role model they maybe never had in their lives."

Lt. Steven Ferguson, training coordinator at the detention center, says he frequently runs into former inmates on the street who stop and thank him for the help they received at the jail.

"This is one of those jobs where the more you give it, the more it gives you," Ferguson advised recruits.

Recruits were constantly reminded of the many ways that a corrections officer can make mistakes, everything from failing to spot a developing crisis in time to getting too close to the inmates.

"Don't be that officer," was a warning repeated throughout the training cycle.

The first six weeks — all in the classroom — included mundane details and sophisticated skills. Recruits learned to fill out reports. They mastered the complexities of the codes used to classify inmates according to the threats they pose, their health issues, mental health needs and other factors.

They learned how to search inmates and prison cells: Remember to always "pat," rather than sliding your hand along, when feeling under a bunk for contraband. A hidden knife, or shank, could slice your fingers.

They learned to do use pressure points to subdue an inmate who is physically resisting. To get a taste of what it can be like for inmates, recruits endured electrical jolts from the "shock shields" that officers can use to temporarily disable an aggressive inmate. Finally, they learned what it's like to be squirted in the face with fiery pepper spray.

During the final four weeks, recruits moved to the inmate housing units "downstairs" at the jail, where they applied what they'd learned in class.

Field training officers, who watched over the process, warned recruits that inmates would test them. And they did.

On her fifth day supervising female inmates, Melissa Neale found herself in the middle of an emergency when a woman tried to run out of her cell. Neale had to hit the red button on the "Man Down Box," a small device that officers carry to signal for help. The incident ended quickly, but Neale admitted it was scary.

"Being new, you don't know what the inmates are in here for, or what they're capable of," she said.

Recruit Stan Browning was called to help search a male housing unit after someone smelled smoke. He got credit for finding a stash of marijuana "hidden in plain sight" in a boot.

"In here, inmates have 24-7 to sit around and think of what all they can get into," Field Training Officer Manuel Davis explained. "A good officer learns to pick up on that right away."

Neale said she aims to do just that as she grows into her new job. But she also hopes to do more.

"There are some people in here that probably can never be rehabilitated," she said. "But if one person walks out and doesn't come back because of something I did, then that's a success."

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