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1 Introduction

Mise en ligne : 26 July 2005

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Jailers, guards, correctional officers, peace officers in a correctional setting, and, for others : screws, turnkeys, badges - in French : porte-clefs, gaffes, matons, argousins, gardes-chiourmes - these words and their pejorative connotations all have their geographies, their histories in time and are preserved in the public imagination, as in the case of the police, even though no one really knows very much about their origins nor why this is so. While the obsolete nomenclature no longer reflects current realities, it is traditional. Since the roles are no longer what they had been for over a century and a half, only the transition periods related to the generations still remind us here and there of the past. Besides, the prison vocabulary of the past is not as easily erased as a chalkboard.

A closed world, a fascinating world, a world of a thousand and one stories supplying our mental stock of images, and the last bastion of totalitarianism with its barracks, prison abounds in written works of every possible genre, yet few such works are actually devoted to the people who physically hold the keys. However, there is much to be said about these individuals who are overlooked in prison literature and by extension in the movies. A prison guard seldom has the good role. The image that emerges of their place and their functions in a society which finds it easy to cry for vengeance but hard to be the executioner is full of paradox. Transference, guilt about holding people in confinement, social altruism in the form of counter reactions or misconceptions, guards embody the material aspect of sentencing and its grasp on the ephemeral. Freedom.

The task here is not to present the history of prisons, the forms they have taken, the news items that regularly feed the media, their pathogenic survival or even their re-engineering by the society that manages them, because many things have been said and said again from the most varied angles and diverse motives. It is a question of examining the juxtaposition of an occupation that goes unnoticed with the issue of identity lying somewhere between recognition and belonging, the protection of the public and the rehabilitation of inmates. The other aspect of the duties is to protect themself, in a situation of forced coexistence, from the impact of the misery and human suffering whose latent and pervasive effects are present in all three work shifts. Days, evenings, nights, seven days out seven, with a continuous clientele that is always new and never voluntary.

Little is known about the correctional officer, they are the person who is entrusted with a citizen who has committed an unlawful act and been convicted and sentenced to a term of imprisonment under the law. They keep the time for a person who is held against their will because they have broken the social contract. Persons who have been convicted for their acts along with a host of other persons convicted for their acts, in a haphazard universe that can be dangerous and rather unrewarding if it is compared to the situation of nursing staff and patients. Handling very routine tasks, plagued by harassment and insults within an enclosed space that is supposed to be ever more transparent, it is inevitable that guards will experience clashes, antagonisms, fights, rivalry, rifts and ambivalence if only because of the symbolism of the fences, walls, uniforms, weapons, virtual schedule and the prohibition against freedom of movement, which are a constant reminder of the obligations of some and hence the reality of others.

Isolated from the rest of society by walls or a well-delineated boundary that frames the scope of their activities, it is difficult for them to legitimize or assert their identity and claim equality with their fellow police officers. More than any other, they live in permanent contact with crime in all its aspects, paced out year by year over a few hundred square metres.

The protection of the public through rehabilitation has an extremely long history that has
not always been reflected in the ideology conveyed by the official line, which often runs ahead of the slow moving reality. And, besides, cog in the machinery of justice is also a person who lives in prison, a fact that is too often forgotten.

Our collective images of the prison world are based on two often divisive realities. On the one hand, there is the static role of the correctional officer some of whose most ordinary tasks persist over time : official counts repeated many times each day, searches, records of entrances and exits, meals, mail, vocational and recreational activities, escorts, guarding as it was done in the last century. On the other hand, there is the human service orientation, the helping relationship, follow-up, formal and informal listening, combining security concerns and the extended hand inviting an inmate to take a chair. The problems are contrasting and not necessarily trivial. All this exists with the amount of tolerance and permissiveness needed to get along in what we will designate as a continuing power relationship. Orientation of knowledge, its paradigms and programs lead the power relationship in the direction of continual evolution and continuous debate.

Security, the maintenance of order, helping relationships, striking a balance between the enforcement of rules to maintain an artificial authority and the imposition, to some extent, of court-ordered measures - just who are these thousands men and women who have no power to release their charges, whose primary mandate is in fact to guard the inmates by constraint and deterrence in compliance with the sentence imposed in a given place ? Where do they come from and how - yes, how ? - does a person become a prison guard ? To be sure, some will say, no one asks to be a prison guard. Holding one’s neighbour captive in the name of the law is not one of the more customary activities or deeper aspirations of a human being. As a corollary, it is not uncommon for this job to be passed on from parent to son or daughter, as in the case of many doctors, lawyers, and movie actors, in keeping with the imitation principle cherished by Gabriel Tarde (1890). Make no mistake, the desirability and security of a job when unemployment is the only option comes from an extrinsic kind of aspiration, but why do people become plumbers, bank employees, bus drivers, gynecologists or physicists ?

For correctional officers, the rules and regulations establish a structured framework in
an artificial world ; they serve to share the responsibilities that are held together by an ideology, which take the form of a philosophical discourse in which the ideas are logically arranged and human, moral, economic and political values converge towards a joint goal : the security of the public through rehabilitation of the offender. You also cannot ask an inmate to be joyful, happy and satisfied with their lot and possess the serenity to live behind bars in order to put an end to all their woes... Viewed in this way, ideology is an element that is essential to understanding that which is, an image that is not always easy to make concrete in a situation where routine often compensates for more or less palpable realities. However, the correctional officer’s view of inmates cannot be solely conditioned by the structural and ideological framework in which they are placed. The reaction of a person who is confined contains its antitheses and, besides, there are some contradictions in requiring a correctional officer to watch, control, re-educate, communicate and socialize when they will not necessarily see the result in the short, medium or long term.

The sanction imposed by the law is one thing, its application is another. A judge never lives with a convicted person, does not feel their suffering, their anger or their resignation. But the guard does. Day after day, face to face, year by year and probably for longer than most of the inmates with whom they will have deal in their career. This requires from them an unusual adaptation to a reality that has become almost abstract and routine in appearance because a human being cannot remain constantly on the alert and at the same time be in a desperate position towards others, especially when those others are locked up against their will. The person learns, then, using their strengths and their weaknesses, to come to terms with their environment.

A sense of responsibility and the necessity of communicating, a correctional officer’s work requires motivation, discipline and the ability to assess human behaviour rapidly in a given context.

This is what we will try to show in this first report, with the support of over 350 bibliographical references, remembering that the quest for knowledge in criminology, organizational and criminal psychology must never lead to the creation of instruments for social control but must instead serve science and the betterment of humanity.