Robert Hernandez presides over a psychological war zone. At Donovan correctional facility, where Hernandez is warden, every move his officers make is watched by inmates; every word they say is overheard. "Nothing," said one officer, "goes on unnoticed behind those walls." An approachable 51-year-old man, Hernandez has been the warden of R.J. Donovan Correctional Facility at Rock Mountain since January 2002. The medium- to high-security prison occupies 780 acres on Otay Mesa, two miles north of the Mexican border. "I compare my job to being either a mayor or a city manager," Hernandez said. "I have the same responsibilities. I have a police force, which is my correctional officers. I have a maintenance department, which I'm in charge of. I have a personnel department; I have a training department; we have a records department; I have a fire department. I have warehouses. I have an infirmary here — it's the same as a hospital, except that it's not licensed. I have emergency-response teams, similar to SWAT teams. I have a hostage-negotiation team. And I have an annual budget of $92 million.
"You know, we have the same problems that we have in any municipality out there in the free world," Hernandez said, "except my population here, they're all male felons."
The felons at Donovan have time on their hands and a desire to regain some control over their lives.
"These guys, they're intelligent to a degree," said Officer Parker, "but their satisfaction could be an extra lunch, a cookie, a phone call. It could be 'Hey, I just got the officer to give me information that they normally wouldn't give' or 'I got this officer to compromise his position.' I got one over on the officer, period. That gives satisfaction to them. Power. It's a power struggle. A power trip. That's what they're used to doing, having control. Now that they don't have it, whatever little bit they can get, they'll do it. And it's all day long. It never ends.
"You have to be aware of the ultimate setup," Parker continued, "because you never know when you're being manipulated. And the manipulation doesn't just happen in one day. It can happen over the duration of time through a slowly worked process, and you don't even know it sometimes."
More often than not, movies and the press portray correctional officers as sadistic, abusive monsters, and in California recently, they're portrayed as members of an overpaid, self-serving workforce. They come off looking as bad as the inmates.
Whether it can be attributed to the stressful environment in which they work, to an officer's mental illness issues that get expressed, to a lack by some of human respect, to unhealthy peer pressure among a group of officers, or to an officer's snapping, something occasionally causes correctional officers to misuse their position as sworn peace officers and commit acts of abuse or violence toward inmates. But the officers I spoke with at Donovan said that use of excessive force against prisoners is rare and that the hostility in the prison originates with the inmates.
"Verbal abuse is a part of the job. It's a given," said Williams, a 35-year-old father of six who left corrections four years ago after ten years on the job. "When we're talking about an inmate population, we're not talking for the most part about a highly educated group of people. Just that factor alone lets you know that you're going to deal with a lot of verbal abuse. A lot of the fellows in there don't know how to express themselves minus violence and some sort of hostility, and definitely profanity is something you're going to hear almost every second of the day working in the prison.
"Early on it rattled me," he said. "It definitely scared me. Normal people aren't conditioned to react to profanity, loud talking and yelling and screaming and threats of acts of violence.
"If I were, say, a street cop, the majority of my contacts would be positive contacts," he continued. "The majority of people on the streets are law-abiding citizens or people who may commit minor infractions but for the most part are not violent felons with drug addictions. Vice versa within the prison system: the majority of your contact is with convicted felons, people who have a violent history and past or current drug addictions. It's a much more hostile environment. It's my belief that this is far and away the most dangerous branch of law enforcement. The job is extremely dangerous. The convicts don't have guns, but then it's not necessary for them to have a gun to create some type of havoc or bodily injury."
As a precaution, officers at Donovan do not go by their first names with the inmates, and for this reason their first names are not used here. The officers were also reluctant to speak about their families or personal lives.
Why would anyone be drawn to such a dangerous, unpleasant job? Not one person I talked to had planned on a profession in corrections. Most were looking for a job that promised decent pay, job security, and benefits.
"I've had children since a very early age," explained Williams, the former correctional officer. "I was basically just trying to provide for my family. I had no preconceived ideas about law enforcement. At the age of 20, I applied. I applied to several different agencies: San Diego P.D., Highway Patrol, Chula Vista P.D. Corrections was the first one to hire me."
Officer Cavazos, a 51-year-old female, recalled, "My sister hinted that maybe I should try this job. I thought I wasn't correctional material because I was a hairdresser for ten years. She said, 'Well, if you don't like it, you can always go back to what you're doing.' Because of the benefits that they have, medical and all that, she suggested that I try it. It'll be ten years in November."
"I was encouraged by my dad to get a state job because he knew it would have more job security," said Officer Murillo, a 34-year-old female who's worked at Donovan for 11 years. "I was in college, at Southwestern College, and I went into the jobs office, and I saw this little poster up, and that's where I got the application and filled it out."