Giving, earning respect is key to being a jailer

By Abby Morris-Frye
star staff

  Life behind bars is not an enjoyable experience. It's not meant to be. But what is life like for those who walk along on the other side of the bars -- the jailers?
  Charlotte Walker, who works as a correctional officer with the Carter County Jail, recently shared with the Elizabethton Star some of her experiences working in the jail. Walker has served as a jailer since January 2003. "I've worked up there before, under another administration," she said. "All in all, I've been in the emergency services field for almost 25 years doing one thing or another."
  Being a jailer has "its good points and it has its bad points," Walker said. "I have always enjoyed working with people and this line of business gets in your blood and then you don't enjoy doing much of anything else. But sometimes it seems like you are a glorified baby sitter."
  According to Walker, there are more good aspects to the job than there are bad. Many of the people who are inmates or have been inmates at the Carter County Jail have been good to deal with, she said.
  "For the most part they're good people, they've just gotten in a bad situation and it could happen to any of us. You sit down and you talk to them and throughout the day you get to know a lot about everybody that's up there. Sometimes you can talk to the kids that come in and help them see 'you don't want to spend the rest of your life up here.' Once you get in the system, it's extremely hard to get out," Walker said. "When you see them out on the street and you don't ever see them come back through the door, and they come up and they'll thank you and say 'You made the deciding point in my life' or 'You helped me decide that I need to do something else,' then it's worth it all. You have several like that."
  Walker stated that her philosophy in working with the inmate is to simply be honest with all the inmates and to expect the same in return.
  "You've got the players, the ones that have been there forever and ever and ever and the revolving doors, and they know how to play the system and they know how to play you. They are just like kids, they know how far they can push you, they know how far they can go with you," she said. "But on the whole, if you are straight up with them and honest with them, then they are going to be straight up with you."
  According to Walker, there are also the inmates who are not as easy to get along with. "Some of them you try to be good to and you can't be good to," she said. "It's just like on the outside, there are people that you can't be good to because they won't let you be good to them and then there are others that appreciate the little note that you've let them out to use the phone for five minutes. It has its good points and it has its bad points."
  The worst part of her job, according to Walker, is having to search inmates who are brought in. "I know it's extremely degrading to somebody to have somebody stand there and watch them undress completely and check to see if they have anything on them and then put them in the shower and then watch them dress back and I know that is humiliating to them, but they don't think its humiliating to us, too," Walker said. "I guess if I had the worst part of my job, that would be it the search, the strip search. No I don't appreciate having to feel up every woman that comes through there, but it's my job. And it's not just my job because I don't want her bringing contraband in, it's my job because I want me safe, I want my team safe, I want the other people in the jail to be safe, not just the jailers, but the inmates themselves. It's the bad part of my job but it has to be done.
  "It's like any other job that anyone else does, it has its rewards and it has its pitfalls."
  When asked if she thought that she got less respect as a jailer because of her gender, Walker replied that she did not think that her gender had anything to do with getting respect from the inmates. "I don't think that I get less respect. You earn respect, whether you're a male or female. I think I have respect from all the inmates, both male and female, because of the fact that I am honest with them," she said. "It's not the fact that I have a gender, it's the fact that I treat them as a human being. It's the same way with the men. As long as you give them respect they will show you respect. I know both males and females (jailers) that don't have respect up there its because they don't show them (the inmates) respect. But I don't think that's a gender problem."
  Sometimes, reports of inmates attempting to spit on or assault jailers are found in the news. Walker stated that how the inmates treat the jailer usually goes back to how the jailer treats the inmates. "I've never had anybody try to spit on me but I know there have been some that have been spit on, but that all goes back to the way you treat them. I treat them the way I would want to be treated if I were in there. And as long as they allow me, and they know, as long as they allow me to be good to them, I will be good to them, as long as they allow me to respect them, I will respect them and they will respect me," she said. "I've had a couple that have tried to swing on me, but that's not people that have been in there and dealt with me on a day-to-day basis, that's been people as they come through the door either drunk and don't know what's going on or don't appreciate the fact that they are in jail and never had any dealings with me. Yeah, I've had one who tried to swing on me and he picked himself up off the floor. You have to protect yourself along with everyone else you work with and the other inmates. That's a part of the job."
  Dealing with contraband -- whether it is drugs, tobacco, weapons or cellular phones -- is just another task for a jailer.
  "Contraband is the worst problem we have. Tobacco is not contraband per se, because its not illegal but it is contraband per our jail policy because it is not allowed," Walker said. "When they stopped allowing tobacco in the jail is when they started having all kinds of problems. We haven't had a flood (she said as she knocked on a wooden table) in quite some time. But, when they stopped allowing the tobacco is when they started flooding. You see more fights, you see more arguments and people are upset all the time. Tobacco does get in the jail. We all know it. It's our job to try to find it and its their job to try not to have us find it."
  Tobacco is not the only contraband item the jail has a problem with, Walker said. "The pills, the dope, we've found quite a few syringes and rigs. There's not a shakedown gone by in the last two maybe three months that we've not come out without at least one rig out of every block we've done a shake down of. How they're getting in, I don't even want to think, but I don't have a clue. That's the biggest fight we have, is doing the shakedowns and finding all the contraband. And they are real good at hiding it, real good, whether its on their person or left back in the block. They can find the least little hidey hole and it will be packed full. And if you accidentally find it, and it is an accident that you come across it, then you've got a treasure chest full."
  There are some options for jailers who catch individuals attempting to sneak illegal substances into the jail. "Now if you catch drugs on somebody you can charge that because it is illegal. Introduction of contraband or possession of, either one of them is a felony. Introduction of contraband will get you three years," Walker said. "And that's not what we all go for. It's not the fact of 'Oh boy! I get to charge somebody with something.' That's not the biggie, the biggie is getting it out of there. Contraband is one of my pet peeves."
  Cellular phones are now creating a contraband problem for the jail as well. Inmates are prohibited from having cell phones. "We get cell phones continuously," Walker said. "I guess our top run on a three-day graveyard, we've come up with five cell phones in those three days doing shakedowns every night."