You’ve undoubtedly heard about the hostage situation that has taken place at a correctional facility in Smyrna, Delaware.
What you may not have heard, however, is the opinion of a former Delaware Corrections Officer who has worked overtime shifts at places like Smyrna and Gander Hill.
I was fresh out of the Marine Corps. And had been out for about a year when I decided to try my hand at corrections. I wanted to get into law enforcement bad and use my time in corrections as a stepping stone into the state police. Isn’t that the route most Marines take? After all, most of us feel like there isn’t anything else to do once we get out.
Let me start by saying that after I graduated class CEIT 150, I realized that being a corrections officer wasn’t all it’s cracked up to be. Turns out that we were the laughing stock of the law enforcement world. We garnered zero respect from our police counterparts, were treated like delinquents, and were severely underpaid.
Even still, as far as being a CO goes, I had it made in a small, medium-level prison called Webb Correctional Facility in Wilmington, DE.
When I say that I had it made, and I know what I went through while working there, I can’t imagine having to go to work each day of the week in a place like Smyrna or Gander Hill.
I’m not sure why I ended up working in that prison, but I’m a faithful man and always thanked God for that opportunity. But, I was the biggest guy in my academy class, and I broke the chain while hitting the heavy bag when they were “teaching” us how to defend ourselves in a prison fight. (that’s a true story, by the way. I was in great shape back then. Still big, but muscular and strong.)
The prison I worked at was small, like I said. There was actually a waiting list filled with officers trying to transfer there because they hated where they were atl. The officers I ended up working with at Webb couldn’t believe I got to go there straight out of the academy when the list was so very long.
But, it wasn’t all peaches ‘n cream.
This prison had a 115 inmate capacity, and we often needed to fill the basement to make room for others. I worked the swing shift, meaning that I had 2 days of working from 3pm-11pm, and 3 days working 11pm-7am.
Our prison was filled with “specials,” meaning that there were people just serving time who couldn’t be in a regular prison. None of them were lifers, but most of them were hardened criminals with multiple stays in the system.
This was the place where you went if you were a delinquent who couldn’t fit in with the general pop. We had former police officers who broke bad, some gang members who would die in the bigger prisons, thieves, pedophiles, snitches, piss poppers, dui guys, and anything else you could think of.
For the entire prison of 115 inmates there were 3 guards on duty overnight, and sometimes 4 during the day, including a Lieutenant and the deputy warden who never worked the nightshift. I would have the opportunity to work day shift, as well, because my replacement had the desire to call out multiple times each month.
You may be wondering how that was allowed to happen because in many jobs, someone who calls out too often gets fired. But not the DE prison system who is so strapped for people that overtime is actually forced. After all, someone has to watch the inmates.
I hated the overtime, but may people thrived on it, even though they could barely stay awake during their shift. I have caught officers sleeping on the job, before. What a disgrace they were. We were taught in the Marines that if you sleep on duty, people die.
The guaranteed overtime is really the only way some of us were able to pay the bills. It’s been a while and I can’t find any pay stubs, but if I remember correctly, I made 12$ and change per hour.
That’s it. A measly 12$ per hour, and for what? To be locked behind bars all day long, sometimes for 16 hours at a time.
But, like I said, I had it easy. That is, until one day I was surrounded by inmates in the cell-block on the second floor. An inmate with a scar from the top of his head all the way down his neck led several others up to me, ripped my name tag off my shirt, and asked me a simple question.
“Officer Gillem, what you gonna do if we all decide to beat your ass, right now?”
Let me reiterate this for you: I made $12/hour …
Now, I write well, or so I’m told, but speaking eloquently isn’t one of my fortes. I was, however, able to talk myself out of getting my ass handed to me by numerous hardened criminals.
I was a hard ass myself, still relatively in shape from my time in the Marines. However, my backup was an officer who was about 200 pounds overweight. He was a great guy, and a friend of mine who sadly passed away from a heart attack a few years later.
I also found out that our deputy warden also died of a heart attack around the same time. The stress of the job and being locked away, isn’t worth it. Granted the warden made a lot more money than the average CO did, but you can see how stressful it really was.
Anyway, I knew that by the time my backup got to me, he’d be too winded to do anything but get his own ass kicked, as well. But, somehow I talked myself out of it, finished counting them, got my nametag back, and made it back down stairs.
That was an eye opener. I wanted that badge, but not this bad.
The inmates are not allowed to touch the officers. But, as we can see from what happened in Delaware, the inmates don’t always follow the rules.
So what’s going on in Delaware? Why are there hostage situations there every few years?
A big part of the problem, from what I remember, is that you get what you pay for. You can’t pay someone crappy wages and expect the people you’re paying to perform like someone who makes a lot of money. Here’s what I mean:
On numerous occasions, corrections officers have done things that were not only dangerously stupid, but can put the entire prison at risk for things like this hostage situation where one correctional officer died.
I’ve seen for myself, and heard from others about doors and gates being left wide open and unlocked. At Webb CF before I got there, a guard let a prisoner out to cut the grass and he took the lawn tractor on a joy ride through town.
Another time while I was there, I found out that a prisoner was the cousin of one of our officers. Conflict of interest, much? That same officer, by the way, would bring porno DVDs in, and broadcast them over the prison TV system whenever he worked the night shift.
Yeah, they had TVs. And, in the big rec room, there was a big-screen, games, cards, etc.
We even had an officer who had negligent OC Spray discharges on more than one occasion. If you ever want to hear 115 grown men crying at once, spray a can of OC into the recirculating ventilation system of a prison.
I came on shift after the mess was over, hours later, and even my eyes began watering.
Oleoresin Capsicum is a debilitating pepper spray that is NO JOKE. I went through the gas chamber in the Marines, and would take that over getting sprayed with OC any day of the week. It dropped me like a ton of bricks.
Finally, there is a story I was told by another officer. Inmates get sick just like anyone else does. When they get sick enough, they have to go to the hospital. When they do, they need two correctional officers to watch them.
One of the two guards needs to be armed with a .38 special revolver holstered on the waist, as a deterrent, and the inmates are always chained to the bed.
As a side note, we had to qualify with a shotgun and that revolver in order to graduate the academy.
To make a long story short, one Delaware Corrections Officer decided to give an unloaded revolver to the inmate, and I was told that the nurse nearly had a heart attack when she walked in.
I can only imagine. And, there are plenty more stories that can be told, as well, highlighting the simple fact that when people aren’t properly paid, they don’t do the best work.
While I cannot confirm that the last story actually happened, what I can do is confirm what I saw with my own two eyes, and the prison system in Delaware was jacked up when I worked there. It obviously still is for a hostage situation like this to happen.
And, as you’ll likely remember, this isn’t the first hostage situation they’ve had. Back in 2004, an inmate serving a 699 year sentence for rape and assault got hold of a female counselor and raped her multiple times during the 6.5 hour stint he had her.
The issue then, as I’m fairly certain it was this time, was a lack of security by tired, overworked, and underpaid prison workers.
When I worked at Webb, we had an an inmate who was diabetic. At night, because they couldn’t have needles in the prison, we had to let him into the front office where the refrigerator storing his medicine was. He’d test his sugar and administer the shot of insulin.
I had many opportunities to have discussions with him, and he informed me on multiple occasions that all the inmates do all day is think about how they could take over the prison in a matter of minutes.
He said that if they wanted it, they could take it. He never gave me any plans, but I did fish for some.
He was right. At night there were only 3 guards on duty, one of them was stationed behind a locked gate at a desk. That person controlled the entire prison, but the other two on the floor could have been taken hostage at any point.
If that ever happened, there wouldn’t have been a single thing they could have done to help us.
One thing that I learned from him, that the people in charge should also learn, is that they do think about it. They think about it so much that they know how to take the prison over, and just a few prison guards aren’t going to stop them.
Because they know how to do it, the people need to be smarter about their security. Leaving a gate unlocked in a prison is not a good idea. Then again, having just 2 guards on a floor with 120 inmates isn’t a good idea, either.
What it boils down to, as with most things in life, is money. The problem is that Delaware cannot produce enough new officers to replace the ones who leave. They need to be incentivised to stay longer.
Another problem, is that Delaware is only so big, and the correctional program is looked at like it’s a joke by many people. Therefore, they can only hire certain types of people.
The problem at its core is that they’re recruiting people who cannot get a job elsewhere, or people looking for a stepping stone. By default they end up hiring people willing to settle for the junk pay in the prison system.
Very rarely do they hire someone who actually wants to be a CO because it is their dream job. It does happen, but not too often. How do I know this? Because I’ve spoken to other officers about why they were doing it.
But, because they pay so horribly and the raises come so far apart, there is no reason for the good ones to stay. When people are appreciated and taken care of financially, they want to stay.
Otherwise, they do move on to the next, bigger deal. They can put “corrections officer” on their resume and that helps them get a better job. One of the guys I went to the academy with, who is also a Marine, left being a prison guard to go work a Walmart warehouse that not only paid him more, but he didn’t have to put his life on the line at Gander Hill anymore.
That’s the only reason why I was there, and I know that several other people in my academy class had the same views: stay for a bit, and then leave for something else that’s better paying.
What they need to do, is pull out the bad weeds, give a pay increase to the good ones, hire more decent people by allowing for relocation to the state, treat people fairly with respect and ample time off, and allow them to carry a gun while off duty.
Though this may have changed by now, most of us were unable to carry a weapon unless we went through other training that the state was unwilling to provide for us lowly corrections officers.
While you may not see the need for a concealed carry permit, at first, let me remind you just how small of a state Delaware actually is.
I was only a corrections officer for about a year. But, while I was there I ran into several of my inmates after they finished their time.
I lived at an apartment complex called Village at Fox Point. One day while coming out of our building with my future wife, I made eye contact with a former inmate who was landscaping the property.
We didn’t speak to each other, but he nodded to me, and I back at him.
He remembered me, and that I was a Delaware Corrections Officer, and now knew where I lived.
Another time was when I was out in downtown Wilmington running around with my future wife, when we decided it was time to stop for lunch.
We stopped for Popeyes Chicken, and a former inmate handed me my food.
If I remember correctly, I walked outside with it, and tossed it in the trashcan … just in case.
Delaware is small, and unless you’re willing to pay people the right amount of money to risk their lives each day, the good ones, the ones who are worth money, will find other work, just like I did.
Now, I have not worked there in a long time, and it looks like they’ve raised the starting pay to $32,000 per year, and give $3,100 for hazardous duty. Which, in my humble opinion, is still not enough to risk your life for.
This is amplified when you realize that DE police start somewhere in the neighborhood of $45,000 per year, with yearly raises. I’m not discounting the police officers, but whenever one came in to use our fingerprinting machine, they had a hard time checking their gun into the lockbox closet and said we were nuts for working in a prison.
The only real way for a corrections officer to make money, was to work as much overtime as possible. While the OT is great, it actually creates its own set of problems. Many times, officers would sleep in their cars for the required 8 hour off shift, only to go back into work later on that day for another OT shift.
How well can you sleep in your car for 8 hours? Not well. But those officers, the ones who were dedicated to making a good living, worked themselves into the ground earning a six-figure income.
There is a part of me that wonders if any of those officers who created a safety breach were on OT. Were they too exhausted to know the right way to do things? As someone who was sleep deprived in the military, I can say that your mind begins to function erratically, and you don’t think as well.
Remember a few minutes ago when I said I caught someone sleeping on duty? Well, he was a notorious overtimer. He worked several extra shifts per week, and was caught numerous times, with his eyes closed in a dark room.
That’s a problem that can only be fixed by hiring more and better people. And, you can only do that if you’re willing to pay them what they’re risking their lives for.
The Delaware prison system can be fixed, but it won’t be easy. It’ll take a lot of money to hire the right people, get rid of the ones who are bad, and really start to take care of them. The police have done their job by putting the criminals behind bars, now it’s time to let the COs do their job to keep them there.
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