What It's Really Like to Be a Guard at a Max-Security Women's Prison

Ontario correctional officer Christa Huggins gives us a glimpse into what it's like to work behind bars—and trust, it's nothing like Orange is the New Black

Age: 42

Education: GED, and then underwent the application and enhanced screening process to get into corrections. Once accepted, Huggins completed a three-month training program at her regional correctional staff college.

Length of time at current gig: Since 2006

Ontario prison guard Christa Huggins poses against a brick wall wearing her vest and navy blue prison uniform, framed with a yellow and purple border that says "9-5 series" at the top

(Courtesy of Christa Huggins)

Prison is often something that most people fear—what made you want to work there?

I felt at a young age that for some reason, I wanted to be a jail guard. I didn’t know what it entailed or anything beyond what I saw in movies. But with life experience—having quit high school and moved out at a young age and having a lot of friends in and out of jail—I felt like I would be able to understand where the inmates were coming from, and I would probably be able to make a positive impact on them.

What are some specific skills that you learn during training to be effective at this job?

It’s really important that you have strong morals and ethics. You have to be very boundary-oriented, compassionate and patient. You’re with this group of people that is deemed as individuals who are not safe to be out in the community, and I spend 12.5 hours (the length of each of my shifts) with them. So it’s very important to remember what your role is and not let that get skewed.

What kind of physical training do you get?

We get trained in things like arrest and control, self-defence and all of those physical things during the initial three-month training session. We are also trained yearly in things like how to handle fires, personal safety, the use of the chemicals that we carry (like OC spray, commonly known as pepper spray), use of force—including what’s appropriate and what’s not, suicide and self-injurious behaviour and mental health.

Do you get specific training as a female corrections officer?

We get all of the same training whether you’re male or female. Because I work in female corrections, meaning with female inmates, there is different training for that versus male prisons.

How would that differ?

A lot of it is sensitivity training because of the trauma and abuse that could have led to them being in corrections. It’s really just learning about the challenges that women face as women. I haven’t personally faced any unique challenges in women’s corrections as a female officer. If anything, it’s probably harder for the male officers to work in women’s corrections. Their duties are more limited. They can’t do things like escorting inmates on their own or conducting searches because we try and be sensitive to the fact that a lot of the trauma the women have faced have been perpetrated by men in the past.

What would a typical shift for you be like?

I work in maximum security area at Grand Valley Institution for Women, so it’s much more controlled than the general population at the prison. We get in, get our equipment on and have our briefing to find out what’s happened in the last few days. Then we go from there. The women are allowed out of their cells just after our formal count. Around 9 a.m. they’ll start any scheduled employment or programs that they’re involved in. The inmates are busy for a couple hours, then we have another formal count at 11:30 a.m., in the secure unit, that means they’re locked back in their rooms until we clear that everyone is accounted for. At 1 p.m. they start their programs and employment again. At about 4:30 p.m. we have another formal count. In the evening, that’s their leisure time. We have lot of volunteers who come in and provide different structured activities. They’re also offered yard time at that point, if they want to go outside. They’re able to have their own time until 9 p.m., when they go back into their rooms until the next day. That’s the routine in the max security unit. It’s very important to create positive relationships with the inmates because you spend so much time with them during the day, and you really want to keep them busy, keep them feeling positive so they can continue moving forward on a better path than they have had in the past.

Do those relationships play a role in knowing what’s really going on in the prison?

Yes. You always want to be aware of what the mood is like in the prison because that can help you to intervene more quickly if there’s going to be a problem. Your personal relationships with each inmate who you deal with on a daily basis is, in my opinion, one of the most important things because it allows you to know what is normal for that individual. When things don’t appear to be normal for someone, then we can intervene and make sure that they’re okay and help with any issues that might arise.

Would you say you consider any inmates as friends?

No, we’re definitely not friends. That’s what I meant when I talked about being very boundary-oriented. I don’t talk about my family or my personal life to a certain extent. At the same time, you want to help them learn what a healthy relationship is like, because many do struggle with that.

Do you find it difficult to create relationships with inmates knowing what crimes they’ve committed? 

Sometimes it can be hard, but you can’t look at them based on what they’ve done; you have to look at them for who they are and what they’ve been through. You also have to remember that this is Canada and they are going to be released, so I try and put the crimes aside, and focus on them as people so hopefully when they get out and if they move into my community, or your community, they have better skills to be more positive and productive members of society.

Since you work in max, what sorts of crimes have the inmates you work with committed?

For the most part, our security levels are based on behaviours more than crime. However, in Canada anyone who has been convicted of first or second degree murder automatically has to do two years in maximum security before they can get moved to any lower classification. Everyone else who is in max has basically been classified that because of their behaviour—so people who are disrupting the institution continually, which could be related to assaults or drugs or anything really. Outside of those who have committed first or second degree murder, we only move people into max security when it comes down to the safety and security of the institution.

For people on the outside, prison can seem like a very scary place. Have there ever been times where you’ve been afraid while on the job?

Absolutely. As much as I think that the majority of our inmates are good and that we can get through to them, you are dealing with a population that society doesn’t want to deal with. There’s always that fear, that anytime it could switch. Even though you have good relationships with the inmates, that doesn’t mean they won’t turn on you and that can happen at any time. You just have to prepare and trust the relationships you have with the inmates and your coworkers—and be aware, alert and ready for anything. We get into a lot of physical assaults, having to intervene or dealing with assaults on staff. There’s always the threat of HIV or hepatitis C or other diseases someone can carry when they’re self-injurious. I go into situations knowing I have to respond, but also aware that I’m not the strongest person in the world, you know?

In your time in corrections, have you had inmates turn on you? 

Oh yes. I’ve been involved in assaults and with individuals who are self-harming. They don’t want you to intervene, but that’s your job. Preserving life, at the end of the day, is the most important thing. Depending on who is in our inmate population, some days I go 2.5 hours where I’m constantly being yelled at and called names. It can be very tiring.

When you have those days, how do you then go home and gear yourself up to come back to work?

Well, your mortgage still has to be paid. You just do, I guess. If I’ve been working for multiple days with someone with emotional dysregulation—which means someone who isn’t in control of their emotions and are sort of in a world of their own—and if I feel like I can’t handle it anymore, then I can speak with my manager to get relocated to elsewhere in the institution to get a break. I can also talk it out with my manager and they can tell me different ways to handle the situation. There’s also counselling available.

What does a good work day look like for you? 

Even when I’ve had a horrible shift, if at the end of it, I was able to help at least one inmate through the day, that’s really what I do it for and that’s what’s been most gratifying.

On the flip side, has there been a standout tough day for you?

Yes, there’s been many of them. For instance, we had an individual who was suffering from severe mental health problems and she felt that she needed to harm herself. She begged me to let her self-harm and she started telling me that she was dying and that she forgave me and that it wasn’t my fault. This went on for about two days. It was probably the hardest, because I could see how badly this woman was suffering inside, yet there was nothing that I could really do aside from be there and keep her safe. In that way, cases involving mental health issues are harder for me than dealing with someone who is violent.

It sounds like this job could really take a toll. When you go home at the end of a shift, how do you unwind? 

I go to bed. I’m not in the mindset to talk to anybody. It’s not something that other people can comprehend, so I really do come home and go to bed, because tomorrow is a new day and hopefully it will be better.


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