Saturday, October 21, 2006
My Other Anniversary
Twenty-two years ago today I hired in with the Michigan Department of Corrections. What a wierd experience that was! In those days you were interviewed at the institution at which you were being hired to work (now, you interview at a central location like Lansing). I remember that interview well.
I walked into the Administration Building at Huron Valley Men's Facility and saw a number of people in "uniform", walking around the front office lobby. The uniform at the time was very different from what I would have expected for a law enforcement-type government job. In those days corrections officers in Michigan wore white shirts, black pants and a green blazer, similar to a certain well-known realtor. We had black ties, that clipped on, for safety reasons. I remembered wearing a similar tie to church as a child. All the employees were walking around with these clip-on ties hanging from the top button-holes, with their shirt collars open. Bizarre! I really wondered what I was getting into.
In the interview, I was asked alot of questions about why I wanted to work for the MDOC and what made me qualified. I remember thinking, "Obviously, it's because I need a job"! I didn't say this, of course, but gave them the standard response of wanting to work for a respectable government agency that keeps the public safe and ensures that the "bad guys" are kept where they belong. In retrospect-after conducting dozens of similar interviews on others- I'm certainly glad I didn't say anything stupid like, "I want to help people" or "I think I can make a difference in some of those young mens' lives"! Gag! (Yes, I've heard that kind of response many times and those folks are trouble, with a BIG "T"!)
The most interesting and-it seemed at the time- most important question, came near the end of the interview. One of the questioners, a Deputy Warden at the prison, asked me if I could shoot an escaping prisoner. I told him that I could. He explained that he wasn't asking me if I had the ability to hit a target, but if I had the ability to take a life. Pretty heady stuff! Non-plussed, I answered, "Yes". I could shoot-to-kill a prisoner that was trying to escape. I wouldn't be happy about it and I wouldn't think it a badge of honor but I would be fully capable of doing that part of my job. And I would, still.
At the time I applied for the job, the testing process was much different than it is today. I was way overqualified for the job. I had a bachelor's degree in English and had been planning to go to Law School. At that time only a High School diploma was required to work as a corrections officer ("prison guard" is considered a pejorative term by today's "corrections professional", ha!). I had decided I had neither the patience to go to four more years of school nor the money to do so without going deeply into debt. So, I decided to find a career that would supply me with a pension and a secure income.
I had recently washed out of the Mike Monroney Aeronautical Academy in Oklahoma City. THAT was a blow to my ego! I wasn't quite able to do the job required of me as an Air Traffic Controller. The fact that several former military Air Traffic Controllers in my class flunked out with me, didn't make me any less ashamed. I was newly married and needed a job that paid more with some benefits.
One of my best friends worked in the state psychiatric hospital that houses the criminally insane and those that are incompetent to stand trial. I heard from him that it was a good job and paid well, with good benefits. He spent most of his day playing ping-pong with the "patients, justified as a part of his job in creating a "therapeutic milieu". Hey, I thought, I can do that and improve my ping-pong skills at the same time!
It turns out that the prison system hires from the same test and when the call came for an interview, it was for a job as a corrections officer and not a professional ping-pong player! I was at my job as a small parts assembler for a automobile supplier, when the call came to set up the interview. Interestingly at about the same time, I was hired by a local shop to program and run CNC machines. This is similar to what my son does now. I often wonder what our lives would have been like had I chosen that job instead. But, I chose the prison and the rest is history.
Twenty-two years later, I've risen through the ranks at my job to that of Inspector at my third institution. The highest ranking security officer at the prison. I thought by now, I'd be a warden somewhere but now realize that certain jobs are reserved for those with political aspirations and connections. In a strongly Democrat-run state with strong and long ties to unionism, I am a little under the radar for this type of promotion. Still I like my job and do it very well.
Three years from today, I can retire with a full pension and benefits. Maybe I will and maybe I won't. Who knows what the future brings. The important thing is that I've provided for my family for all these years and earned a retirement to continue to do so, after my death. For all that I've gone through in this job (and believe me there were many unusual and distasteful moments over the years-some even involved the inmates and not the staff!), the State of Michigan has been very, very good to me! I thank the people of this state for providing me with a good income and meaningful work, while assuring them that they've gotten a good employee and a fine job done for the money.
Who knows, maybe I'll decide to go to law school after all...