David Wharton
Attica Prison Correctional Officer

The lockup is a bleak place. You’re surrounded on all sides by reinforced cement and barbed wire, staring eye to eye with some of the most dangerous people you’ll ever meet. An environment like that really gets to you after a while. In fact, sometimes I feel like I’m in prison, too.

But then my shift ends, and I go back to my own house where I enjoy a nice, hot meal with my family and fall asleep in my own bed.

Advertisement

I spend day after day with men convicted of robbery, assault, murder. I’m cursed at and spit on. I have my life threatened on a daily basis. You take enough abuse like that, and you soon find yourself wondering, “Who’s the real prisoner here?” It’s a question that never, ever leaves my mind until around 6:30, when I walk right past security, head out the front gate, and drive three towns over to get a beer with some buddies.

Still, you patrol these cell blocks long enough with nothing but your baton and your wits to keep you safe, and you feel like you’re starting to lose your sense of self. After 15 years of doing this job, it feels at times like I’m just another inmate caged in this hellhole, powerless to escape, excluding my lunch break, which I typically take at the nearby Panera around noon. Also excluding dentist’s appointments, weekends, and a personal day I might schedule when I want to catch a ballgame with some friends visiting from out of town.

Then I don’t feel like I’m an inmate at all, if I’m being perfectly honest.

God, I’ll never forget the first time I walked into Attica and heard the gates slam shut behind me. It felt like they’d never open again. Of course, then I remembered I have an ID badge that lets me come and go as I please, which cheered me right up. See, in this line of work, you learn real quick that the abundant freedom you have to live your life pretty much as you please is the only thing keeping you from feeling like you’re the one with the life sentence.

Advertisement

Staring out of these bar-covered windows at the end of another long shift, I sometimes wonder if I’m ever going to breathe fresh air or feel the warmth of the sun on my back again. Thankfully, we have a decent amount of paid vacation, so anytime I feel overwhelmed, I’ll just spend the day strolling around the park downtown and getting all the sun and fresh air I could ever want.

But if I ever really start to lose myself, I can always just beat the shit out of one of the prisoners. That usually clears up who’s the guard and who’s the inmate right away.