Walworth County, Wisconsin
Over 12 years in the field
Deborah Ammeson wanted to be a police officer; instead, she wound up in jail...as a corrections officer. She studied police science at a technical college for two years, and then put herself through police academy. In May of 1992 she graduated, and spent time raising her young child at home before pursuing a career as a correctional officer.
It takes police officers 10 years to get day shifts, so she applied for a job as a correctional officer at Walworth County Jail. "It's been a good job, very stable," she says. "They're never going to run out of work."
What's most challenging about being a correctional officer?
Even though there are plenty of boring hours in the day, there's always something that's never happened before. New inmates come in with new problems, new situations—even new paperwork—and that keeps it interesting. At the same time it can be very stressful, because you go from down time to – BAM – you have to save someone's life, or fight someone and people do get hurt. I've never felt I was at risk, but there's always a chance. We get constant training in how to fight, how to protect ourselves, how to deal with medical issues.
What is a normal day for a corrections officer?
Corrections officers rotate through different post assignments. Some assignments are more hands-on with inmates and others require just sitting and watching the controls. On any given day I could be assigned to 15 different posts. Usually we stay in the same post for a couple of weeks, so we get in the swing of things, but to stay for a month is too stressful or too monotonous. So I come in, find out what post I'm at, and go there. I get briefed by the previous shift, what needs to be done, if there are any problems. I do a head count of the inmates. We do inspections, check their rooms. What happens just depends on what post you're at.
What is life like inside?
We have pods—a big open area—with 48 inmates and one officer. We have a podium in the room with a computer and a storage drawer. If I want to sit down I sit at the same tables with the inmates. They're just going about their business, playing cards or watching TV. We have a written schedule we follow; we bring in the meal trays. Intake is totally different, working with new people coming in off the street. Then I have to pat them down, do paperwork and fill out questionnaires.
What skills are most important for being a corrections officer?
Confidence. We do get retrained and retrained, but when it comes down to it you have to react to a situation, and you have to believe that you know what you're doing and you have to do it. You have to be confident in your physical and mental ability to do it. An officer who isn't confident will hold back and let other officers do it, and that's not how it's supposed to be. You need to be physically fit. You can't be overweight or out of shape. The ideal situation is to be confident in your physical and mental abilities.
What do you tell people who are interested in corrections work?
You need to be prepared to work second and third shift for at least three years. It took me three years to get to day shift. Working the evening shift is hard when you have kids. The pay is good; in 12 years I've doubled my income and the benefits are awesome. But you have to weigh that against the stress of the job. Sometimes when we’re short-staffed we'll get forced overtime. There's a lot of overtime, which can be great for the money, but it's tough if you have a family at home.