America's Toughest Beat

By Michael S. Martinez, Ph.D.
CTU Adjunct Professor of 
Criminal Justice

Prison Razor FenceThe United States – a progressive global leader in countless areas – currently imprisons more citizens than any other nation in the world. The number of incarcerated U.S. citizens is staggering, with more than 2,019,234 men and woman behind bars; plus a number of juveniles detained in detention centers and correctional facilities. To place this into perspective, China has the next largest incarcerated population behind the U.S. with 1,549,000 prisoners.

Opportunity Knocks
My first exposure, or baptism, to Americas’ prison system began in 1989. As a seasoned former solider who had served twelve honorable years as Security Police in the United States Air Force, I was proficient in law enforcement, military regulations, policy, and rules. I was certified on every conceivable handheld weapon and trained in self-defense and survival techniques. Coupled with my leadership training skills, years as a supervisor, and Veteran status, it was no wonder the Federal Bureau of Prisons would want to recruit me.

The military had taught me to hurry up and wait. I endured a tedious 60-day period of interviews, physicals, background investigations, and reassuring my family I would be working for the prison, not going to prison. Finally, the acceptance call came. I was to report for my first official day on December 1, 1989 and was very excited for the opportunity to, once again, be employed by the Federal Government.

Upon arriving my first day, I was greeted by a large multi-level structure built in 1931, with only a single door to the outside.  I pondered in an emergency situation how feasible it would be to get help in, or large numbers of people out, of that single entrance. As I continued to gaze upon the prison, I saw no less than three rolls of razor wire attached to every set of bars covering the windows. There were helicopter spikes on the roof to prevent landings and a row of three fences covered with razor wire. The razor wire was like moss on a tree, which led to my next thought: there were no trees. The landscape was covered with reflective white rock and distance markers on each side. Armed personnel in trucks circled the fence line like sharks waiting for an opportunity to attack. I wondered what inside this compound could be of such great value that it warranted such extensive physical and technical security devices.  

Preparing for the Unknown
Next, I was escorted to an office with three other correctional officers for our initial briefing. My picture was taken and I was given a rundown of the dos and don’ts of the prison environment. I was provided a two-way radio and shown, with great emphasis, how to use the emergency call button. We were briefed on when to push the body alarm button and informed that it would take three to five minutes to get help from every available staff member. What had I gotten myself into? What possible situation would arise that would require the response of every available staff member coming to my aid? Our briefings continued, but they were drowned out by my internal thoughts and trepidation of the unknown. I remember words like firm, fair, and consistent along with policy, law, and regulations. Of the guidelines I was given, I fixated on how to interact with the inmates. How would they act, think, feel, and live? But most importantly, would they be a danger to me? 

On Display
With the briefing complete, we were escorted through a maze of hallways, stairs, and ramps. If left to my own devices, there’s no way I would have found my way back through the labyrinth of locked doors.  After about a 10-minute walk, our escort announced that we had arrived on the compound. Enclosed in a three-sided glass structure, it felt as though we were on display to the inmates congregating on the compound. I looked out at a mass of men – all dressed identically in khaki shirts, pants, and black boots – and noticed where the resemblance stopped. All around me I heard dozens of languages, many which I did not recognize. If I could not communicate, how would I command and control?

A New Identity
When I enlisted into the Bureau of Prisons, I had not intended my future to be that of a paramilitary combatant going up against an unfamiliar enemy. But in a way, that’s what my oath became. The rules of combat had been modified and specific skills needed to be honed to weather battles of wit, stamina, intelligence, physical altercations, and rebellion inside the compound. Little did I know, when I took my first step through that door, I was walking into America’s toughest beat.

CTU Faculty - Michael MartinezMichael S. Martinez is an adjunct instructor with the criminal justice program at Colorado Technical University. He has worked for over 30 years in criminal justice administration and corrections and holds a Ph.D. in Forensic Science and a Master of Science in Criminal Justice Administration.

Prison photo credit: Flickr/Brad.K