The worst part of Dave’s job as a death-row guard happened early morning on the day of an execution. After taking the inmate for his final shower and instructing him to change his clothes for his last visit with his family, Dave would bring him back to his cell. Officers would then escort him in handcuffs to a prison van, which would take him from the Polunsky Unit in the east Texas town of Livingston to the death chamber at another prison in Huntsville, forty miles away.
“They have that look—like they know what’s coming,” Dave (not his real name) says. “Man, it’s hard to look at them in the eyes.”
If you live in Livingston, a town of little more than 5,000 an hour north of Houston, you’re either employed in the timber industry or by the prison. Dave was a truck driver for thirteen years, but when his employer shut down because of the flagging economy after 9/11, he trained as a corrections officer. There’s more money in logging, he says, but corrections provides steadier employment. “Prisons are recession proof,” he says.
But serving as a cog in a machine whose ultimate aim is to destroy human life takes a toll. After eight-and-a-half years working on death row, Dave started having nightmares. He suffered from high blood pressure. “Even the younger guys get high blood pressure working there,” he says. “There were times I’d get to the entrance [of the prison], go through screening and do an about-turn, go back into the parking lot and call in sick.” So Dave transferred from death row.
Prison-reform groups tend to focus on the plight of inmates—their conditions under incarceration, getting them access to legal counsel. One is not naturally inclined to feel sympathy for the enforcers in this draconian system. But working in a crushing environment where violence is the norm, guards are victims as much as victimizers.
“Prison functions in entirely the opposite way from the small, healthy family or community,” says Frank Ochberg, a psychiatrist who sat on the panel that went on to define post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in the 1970s and who has served as an expert witness for countless inmates on death row. “It does to a human being what a zoo does to a wild animal.”
More than 25 percent of prison guards suffer from PTSD compared with 3.5 percent of the general population, according to a study by the Desert Waters correctional outreach center in Colorado. Corrections officers commit suicide at more than double the normal rate. They are collateral damage in a system that embodies one of the most devastating uses of state power.
Dave recounts the harrowing story of a fellow officer on death row who five years ago was working a night shift at the Polunsky Unit. During his break, he walked out into the parking lot, climbed into his car, pulled a gun out and killed himself. “He went undiscovered for an hour even though he was in the front row [of the parking lot] at the end spot practically at the entrance to the gate house,” Dave says.