Authors: Sara Lunsford
Copyright © 2012 by Sara Lunsford
Cover and internal design © 2012 by Sourcebooks, Inc.
Cover design by Laywan Kwan
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This book is a memoir. It reflects the author’s present recollections of her experiences over a period of years. Some names and characteristics have been changed, some events have been compressed, and some dialogue has been re-created.
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Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Sweet hell on fire : a memoir of the prison I worked in and the prison I lived in / Sara Lunsford.
Includes bibliographical references and index.
(paperback : alkaline paper) 1. Lunsford, Sara. 2. Women correctional personnel—United States—Biography. 3. Correctional personnel—United States—Biography. 4. Workaholics—United States—Biography. 5. Alcoholics—United States—Biography. 6. Job stress—United States—Case studies. 7. Prisons—United States—Case studies. 8. Male prisoners—United States—Case studies. 9. Violent offenders—United States—Case studies. I. Title.
My white knight, my alpha hero, and my Happily Ever After.
And for my dad.
This book wouldn’t have been possible without the fierce belief in me and the story I had to tell from my wonderful agent and friend, Deidre Knight, and my fantastic editor, Shana Drehs.
Or without my critique partner, Jennifer L. Hart, who held my hand when I had to relive some of the darkest memories, or the rest of the divas: Gail Reinhart and Traci Poff just for being themselves.
Angelee Van Allman, for being one of the most amazing, positive, loving people I’ve ever known.
Big thanks also to Jamie Brenner, who also believed I had a story to tell.
Last, but not least, every officer who lives the world between these pages every day to keep us all safe.
When people find out that I was a corrections officer, they always ask for my story. They want to know what it’s like behind the walls, working with inmates, if it’s really like
. I’m suddenly a curious little unfamiliar bug they were surprised to find on their begonias, and they want to inspect me. It doesn’t bother me, because I know the details of what we do are often kept quiet. That’s just part of the culture of The Job.
Once I start talking, they always want more. And I always have more—anyone who has ever worked in law enforcement in any capacity has a million stories of the incredible, the horrible, and the obscene. It’s probably not surprising, then, that I wrote the first draft of this book almost like A Girl’s Guide to Prison—a manual. All stories of the prison, never anything too personal. Never anything that dug into the meat of
. I knew I had to dig even deeper.
So I got out my scalpel/keyboard and flayed myself open and spilled everything all over the page. Then I realized people were going to know things about me. Things I’d never told anyone else. They were going to see me at my worst, and I don’t have a best to contrast it with because I’m not there yet. I’m still a work in progress.
They’d see how selfish I was, how cruel. How small.
I panicked. Why in the hell would anyone want to read about that? I was a bad mother, a bad daughter, a bad wife, a bad friend. A boozed-out, tired bar slut with no dreams and no future.
But I was a good officer.
That mollified me temporarily…I could live with people not liking the person I was. Or even the person I am. Whatever.
But I’d be showing everyone my soft, sticky insides. The things that hurt me, the things that made me bleed. The things that still sometimes rise up in the dark and choke me. My weakness. It twists up my guts even now, but like the old adage says, in for a penny, in for a pound, right?
Any book is a type of voyeurism—you’re looking into other worlds that live in someone else’s head, or you’re looking into someone else’s life, into their thoughts. Even a how-to book is poking around in someone else’s brain.
And I’d signed up to give the guided tour.
But I decided it’s okay for people to look at me; in fact, I want them to, because my story could show someone else who is lost in the dark, afraid, and wondering if they’ll ever see the sun again that it’s still there. You can claw your way out because I’m living proof.
I’m here and living my dream. I’m a full-time writer, full-time mom, and full-time wife. Things aren’t perfect, but they’re damn close.
After you read my story, I hope you remember this confession at the beginning, because beginnings are always so different from endings. Beginnings are universally naïve. I won’t say innocent, but they’re just so far removed from the place where you emerge.
In the beginning, I had no idea that this journey would change me so much, wound me so much, or even stitch me back together as it did.
Welcome to my world.
I know that people frequently use this phrase in a condescending tone, but that’s not the case here. My welcome is genuine and heartfelt. But you
going to need a map.
This book chronicles a year in my life, a year when I was working as a corrections officer for a state prison. I’d worked at the prison before, but now I was what they called a “retread.” That is, I’d been dumb enough to come back for another round. The book begins near the end of the first year of my second stint—right before everything started to fall apart. And the story doesn’t stop at the gate outside the walls, as if that world could be shrugged off with the uniform at the end of my shift. This is an uncensored look at the job and the effects it had on the whole of my life.
I began this year as one person but emerged on the other side quite another, both from external and internal forces. They say that during the first year of corrections, an officer is no good for The Job. After that year, they’re no good for anything else. And it’s true: there’s very little else I’m suited for now. I write, but that’s a solitary career. One in which I don’t have to interact with people every day if I choose not to.
I see people differently now than I did before The Job. Still can’t sit with my back to a door or eat or drink anything that’s been left unattended. I look for the ulterior motive in every gesture and every kindness. I still automatically detach from most people, disengage lest I see too much of what’s below the surface. I interact with men differently as well, always first seeing the predators. Except the ones who have my back—and even then, some of them are predators too. I’m working on that. I know firsthand there are good men in the world who aren’t like that, but my knee-jerk reaction is to look for the animal before the man so I can protect myself.
Which brings me to the most difficult thing about doing The Job. It wasn’t The Job itself. It was how it infected everything else like some alien virus. Officers are told to be two people, to leave who they become on duty behind the walls at the exit gate, as if they can shrug off that skin—that face—and forget all the horrors the human animal is capable of inflicting. The darkness invades everything it touches on a cellular level, and no amount of scrubbing will get it clean. The brutality of the environment changed me, made me stronger, harder—tested my mettle—and in some ways forged it too. As Nietzsche said, “He who fights with monsters might take care lest he thereby become a monster.”
But you’re going to have a map, so you’re not going to get lost like I did.
It is as follows:
The prison where I worked has the capacity to house approximately 2,300 inmates and was composed of four custody levels: Special Management (Segregation), Maximum, Medium, and Minimum, spread across two units. There are eight cell houses in the Max, four in the Medium, and four in the Minimum. The Special Management, or Segregation, unit is contained inside the Maximum unit and, along with the Medium, makes up the Central unit. These are often referred to as the Max, or the Medium. The Minimum unit is self-contained and often called “The Hill” or East unit, as it sits across the highway and up on a lovely rise. In the spring, it doesn’t even look like prison. There’s landscaping with trees and flowers and picnic tables. It’s softer. It’s probably not surprising that it used to be a women’s unit (which was moved to another part of the state). Although, that’s faulty logic, because any officer who has worked with both women and men will tell you the women are tougher, meaner, and harder to handle.
The Max is the oldest part of the prison, and the original part of the structure looks almost like a castle. The architecture never failed to impress me every time I pulled into the parking lot. The Medium is more modern, with cell houses that are more like dormitories than anything else.
An inmate’s classification, or custody level, is determined by his crime and how much time he has left to do. The harder, more violent offenders are in the Max, but they can earn privileges to go to the Medium unit where they have more freedom of movement.
The prison is its own little town. It has a water treatment facility, fire station on-site outside the walls, private industry—manufacturing plants that contract with the state and function on-site, the lower level positions staffed by inmates—cafeteria, and medical clinics. A gas station, an auto garage, a machine shop. There are roads and libraries, a post office, a chapel, and even some livestock.
It also has a death chamber that isn’t currently in use.
The prison is more than a hundred years old, and back when it was first built, it didn’t have a death chamber. It had gallows and a wall where the condemned faced a firing squad. That part of the prison is still there. It’s now where the inmates have their rec or yard time.
The prison runs on three shifts. First shift begins early and runs six to two, second is two to ten, and third is ten to six. Officers don’t get a lunch hour. You eat at your desk, if there’s time. Each shift has its own particular reputation. Six to two is the shift with most of the brass, or supervisors, the old-timers. Two to ten is the animal house shift, all the party people work that shift. And ten to six has the reputation of being lazy because there’s less inmate movement—that happens on the two to ten. For all the idiocy that happens on the second shift, that’s the one that gets stuck with most of the bitch work.
Rank and chain of command run almost like the military. Corporal—also known as Corrections Officer I or COI—is the bottom of the rung. I started here. The next step up is Sergeant—Corrections Officer II or COII. Then we have First Sergeant, or Corrections Specialist I or CSI. Above that roll Lieutenant, Captain, Major, Associate Warden, Warden, and then the Secretary of Corrections. The Captain is generally responsible for everything that happens on shift; the Lieutenants aid the Captains, First Sergeants are responsible for their sergeants and cell houses, and the Sergeants for their individual cell houses and Corporals.
Everything occurs on a schedule in prison. There’s a time to sleep, a time to be counted, a time to exercise, a time to read, pray, bathe, eat, and there are even restrictions on when you can take care of the most basic of bodily functions.
Even for the officers. Job assignments happen at three different times: once a year at rotation, where everyone moves posts (or assignments), after promotion, or if hired for a specialty post. There are regular posts, which means the position is the same five days a week, or relief posts, in which the officer splits time between different positions. Some officers choose to be unassigned and work wherever they’re needed.
I could drone on about more technical things, sketch a more detailed map, but it would cloud the path. I have a manual full of rules, regulations, laws, an inmate handbook, an officer’s handbook, but all of that is just words on paper. It’s the situations, the action in the real life that show this underworld as it is.
The training, the practical information, the technical jargon—it’s all important. But it’s nothing like living it.