"That's what I got to show for working eight years as a prison guard. Nightmares. By the time I left that job the inmates hated me. They'd tell me what they were going to do to me if they ever got their hands on me during a riot. I laughed and acted like it was nothing but selling wolf tickets?you know, blowing smoke and talking that tough bullshit that cons do. But I knew they weren't kidding. I'm glad I got out of there before another riot went down."
A man I'll call Layton is telling me about working as a New York state prison guard. He stops and gives me a tight smile?it's really more of a grimace than a grin, as if his face just can't bear to show delight. Layton seems to walk through life with an inchoate anger; you get the sense from him that whatever you do, you're going to annoy him.
"I went into the job as a correction officer with a liberal attitude," he tells me, "because I knew that I could've wound up in jail just like these guys. I had a wild upbringing. You know, the usual city crap. Fighting, drugs. But I was able to pull out of that. I had taken some courses in sociology in college, and when my name came up for a state correction-officer job, I figured I'd take it. I thought that I could help people if I got a job in prison. It took me about a year, but then I learned that once someone is sentenced and they start doing time, there is not a damn thing you can do for them."
Layton shakes his head. He works as an investigator for a law firm now, and won't tell me his age, but I'd place it around 35, although he looks older. His hair is brown, but the 5 o'clock shadow on his face is speckled with gray. He has deep lines?fjords, almost?around the sides of his mouth, and he carries some heavy baggage under his eyes.
In the mid 1980s he took his first guard assignment up in Eastern, a correctional facility in Ulster County. He thought he was starting a new adventure. He got an apartment nearby and went to work. But he walked into a house of horror.
"The first riot I was ever in, I had to get down and really fight with some prisoners. I mean, it was some tough-ass hand-to-hand combat. I don't know about them, but I was fighting for my life. I was a nice guy at first. After it was over a bunch of prisoners told me I wouldn't have been hurt had I been taken hostage.
"After that we got called to another prison where there was a riot and the prisoners there took a big Puerto Rican guard hostage. When he was released three days later he came out crying, saying how they raped him. 'What kind of job is this?' I started thinking. Being a prison guard is the only job you walk into and have no idea when you're going to leave. If there is a riot, no one goes anywhere, and even on quiet days as you were getting ready to go home you'd be told they needed you for eight more hours. They didn't ask you to work overtime. They told you."
Layton claims that the job changed his personality. He went in a happy-go-lucky young man and left a bitter drunk.
"Maybe it wasn't all the job, but I think it did something to me. Being in prison on any level is horrible." Layton still shakes his head with disgust about how men owned other men in jail. Slavery existed right in front of his eyes, but there wasn't much a guard could do.
"These big guys would put their arms around their little punks and say, 'Yo, back up, he's mine.' Then they'd make the kid do their laundry, clean their cell, suck their dick. But to the guy getting sucked he wasn't a homosexual. It was only the punk doing the sucking that was a fag. I used to tell the ass bandits that since they would have sex with men on any level, that made them gay. That would piss them off. I get back 'Hey C.O. I ain't a fag.'"
Layton eventually turned mean, like everyone around him. The prisoners gave him the nickname "Ticketron."
"I was known as Ticketron because I would write everyone up for everything. I'd give them a ticket for every last infraction. I was in charge of a dorm with 70 men. If a guy from another dorm came into mine, I'd write him up. My theory behind this was that I now had 71 potential problems instead of 70. It worked. Prisoners knew to stay away from my dorm."
After eight years, knowing he had to get back to New York and out of the prison system, Layton did what very few people in civil service jobs do?he quit. He walked away with nothing. Well, almost nothing. He's still got the nightmares.