Officer Wagner, 41, has been at Donovan since 1996. Before that he managed a Domino's Pizza for ten years, working 60 to 70 hours a week. A friend suggested corrections to him. Wagner said, "You know, just the benefits the department had as compared to the previous job. Domino's paid well, but then there really weren't the benefits for retirement down the road. And most people get burned out."
I asked Warden Hernandez how he happened upon a career in corrections.
"I came into corrections by accident," Hernandez said. "I didn't come out of high school thinking, 'I want to be a correctional officer.' I was working at a glass factory in 1974. I was making $3.10 an hour, which was pretty good at that time. I put about two years in at that company, and the Glass Blowers Association went on strike, so I was out of work for about 30 days. During those 30 days, a good friend of mine who was a correctional officer at DVI, which is in Tracy, California, approached me and said, 'Hey, I understand you're out of work. They're hiring here at this institution.' I told him, 'Okay, I'd be interested.' He said, 'They're testing. Fill out this application and I'll turn it in for you. I think they're going to test in two months.' "
Hernandez went on to take and pass the test, and within two weeks he was interviewed, given a physical, and told to report to work the following Monday. He remembered, "So, I get this notice. I have a three-day orientation. They walked you through the institution. You had some in-service training -- you went over some real minor things like report writing and key control. Then I was told that the following week I would report on a Thursday to work the graveyard shift. I still wasn't prepared. I didn't know what I had to do."
That was in the '70s. Now training lasts 16 weeks and takes place at the Basic Correctional Officer Academy located in Galt, California. The State of California pays for the training and on-site housing. Requirements to enter the California Department of Corrections program have changed as well. To be considered, one must be 21 years old at time of appointment and a U.S. citizen or a permanent resident alien who is eligible for and has applied for U.S. citizenship. Applicants must have education equivalent to completion of 12th grade, meet certain health requirements, and have a history of law-abiding behavior. All applicants who pass the initial tests undergo a physical exam, vision check, psychological evaluation, and a background investigation.
Training is ongoing. "We are obligated to train our officers, and every month they are required to attend in-service training classes," said Lieutenant Ray Marrero, Donovan's public information officer. "Some are refresher courses on anything from weapons requalifications to use of force to sexual harassment to communicable diseases in an institutional setting. They also are required to obtain at least 40 hours of classroom training every year -- aside from their weapons qualifications as well as their qualification for their side-handle batons. There is continuous training, not only in the classroom but on-the-job training out there, as well as what the supervisors provide, inmate/staff interactions...there's a long list of all the training we provide, over a hundred different subjects."
Newly hired officers are paid a minimum beginning salary of $3000 per month. Over time they can make up to $4885 per month. Prisons located in undesirable parts of the state offer higher salaries.
R.J. Donovan is divided into four facilities, each with about 1000 inmates. According to Marrero, the institution employs 550 male and 110 female correctional officers who work three shifts overseeing 4300 male inmates. Marrero estimated the officers' average age at 26.
Donovan is also a reception center, where newly sentenced felons and parole violators, approximately 230 each week, arrive from jails in San Diego County, Imperial County, Orange County, and Los Angeles County. They spend two to three months going through physical and mental examinations and "classification processes" based on the crimes they've committed; then they're sent to the institutions where they will serve out their sentences.
Correctional officers work in a variety of jobs. They might be assigned to a housing unit, to transportation, or to culinary. Officers provide supervision and security in the yard, in the central infirmary, in the vocational training area, or within the inner perimeter.
One of the most dangerous assignments is the Administrative Segregation Unit. "If inmates continue to do criminal activity inside the walls here, I have an area which is called Administrative Segregation, where I lock them up to get them out of the general population," said Warden Hernandez. "Let's say, for instance, I have an inmate who stabs another inmate, or I have an inmate who we catch dealing drugs, or an inmate who's afraid he can't function in the general population for security concerns, then I have a little area where I can lock them up, reclassify them."
"These are units where we keep the bad of the bad," said Marrero, the public information officer. "It's like a jail within a jail. I mean, these inmates get personal. Talking about your family, talking about, you know, your mother, your spouse. They try to assault you by trying to stab you or slice you when you approach the cell."
"I've worked in all areas of the institution," Officer Murillo said. "I've worked on the yard, in the housing units, in the kitchen, in the front -- there was a gate at the front, and I worked there. Right now I'm currently involved with the DDPs, the developmentally disabled inmates."
Officer Estrella, 36, is assigned to the Investigative Services Unit. "I'm an institutional gang investigator at this institution. I specialize in the gangs, all disruptive groups and/or prison gangs validated by the Department of Corrections: the Mexican Mafia, the Black Guerilla Family, the Aryan Brotherhood, the Nazi Lowriders, the Nuestra Familia. We have a handful of inmates who have either association or membership with these prison gangs and/or disruptive groups. The majority of them are the Skinheads that come out of the East County area of San Diego, and we do have some heavy hitters, some big players in these prison gangs."