Policy Today magazine cover
July 5, 2006

What's it like inside our prisons? Few law-abiding individuals have any idea. PT sits down for a conversation with Vick Kemp, a prison guard for 17 years and a member of the California Correctional Peace Officers Association.

PT: Can you tell us a little bit about your experience as a prison guard?

Kemp: I've worked at Donovan State Prison for 17 years. Donovan is a level III facility. In California, prisons are rated from level I, minimum security, to level IV, maximum custody.

PT: What is it like to work inside a prison in California?

Kemp: Because it's a level III, the prison contains inmates who are going home eventually. We have 5,000 inmates and some will be there for 20 years. We have 500 lifers out of 5,000. The rest of them will be paroling some day, so the mood is a little different, perhaps a little calmer, because of that.

PT: Do you notice the high recidivism rate that California is purported to have?

Kemp: I work in the reception yard and so I see the inmates as they come in. I see the same guys over and over. I've seen people I grew up with who keep coming back, and I've seen people coming back to prison from when I first started working there; they were young when I started.

PT: What do you think is the reason for this?

Kemp: When you come to prison it's different from being out on the streets. When you come to prison you get civil rights. You get treated a certain way. Most of your homies are in there and you can see them when they get off the bus greeting each other. Also, 80% of these guys are addicted to drugs. If they weren't in prison, they'd probably be dead. They get meals in prison. The food isn't bad. They also get medical treatment. Top-of-the-line medical treatment.

PT: Should prisons offer more rehabilitation programs?

Kemp: I think they should. It's difficult to know if the inmates would be interested. Skills training would be useful. They used to have small engine repair, upholstery, and vocational training, but they cut out all of these programs.

PT: Prisons are popularly perceived as places infested by gangs and violence. Is this accurate?

Kemp: The gang aspect is definitely accurate. Most of these guys who come to prison meet up with people they were running with in the streets. If, on the other hand, you come in to prison and you've never been in a gang, you're going to join a gang. There's no choice about it. If you're white, you'll have to join the white gang, etc.

This is impossible to prevent; in fact, it's the prisoners who segregate everything. If you let them shower, they'll carve out showers based on race. When I tell them to shower, I tell them "You go to this shower, you go to this shower." Some of them say, "I won't. A black inmate just got out of that shower, so I can't shower there." I heard a story about a group of Christian inmates up at Folsom who worked in the barber shop, cutting hair. The white gang told this group, "We don't want you to cut anyone's hair that isn't white," but this group said that they wouldn't follow those rules. The gang ended up stabbing those guys about seventeen times each.

PT: Some people say that prison guards are paid too well in California. What do you think?

Kemp: Not really. We make around $60K tops for the top C.O. But I work in a building that houses 200 inmates, with 40 more on the floor. If at any point, one of them wakes up on the wrong side of the bed, and decides to grab me and cut my neck, how much would that be worth? Many officers at my prison can't even buy a house in San Diego. We don't get holidays off. The prison runs full-time, and you can get killed at this job. Beyond that, a lot of the expense in the budget comes from overtime, which we don't want to work. 90% of the time, our overtime is us being held against our will. No one wants to work 16 hour shifts with no breaks. There simply aren't enough guards.

PT: How often do you work overtime? [Vick actually missed our first appointment for this interview a week earlier because had been forced to work an extra 8-hour shift.]

Kemp: Now, I've got seniority, so I get ordered on overtime at least twice a month. That's 16 hours total overtime per month. For the people who have been there only three or four years, they have to work overtime at least twice a week, and each time it's usually another 8-hour shift. Rod Hickman shut down the academy in 2003 to save money, but now they've paid out $400 million in overtime pay in the last 2 years because we're short on officers. The union argued against them, saying "We've got people getting hurt and retiring every day." Now they're so short of prison guards, they've relaxed the admission requirements for the academy. In addition to that, before they shut down the academy, they were running vacancies to save money. They had positions they should have hired officers for, but they didn't in order to save money.

In fact, for about four or five years before they shut down the academy, I never worked overtime. After they shut down the academy, the CDC got sued by inmates, and the courts mandated they had to come up with certain positions. So they had to bring all of these positions online as mandated by the courts, and they didn't have any officers to fill these positions. That's another reason why they're understaffed.

PT: Mr. Kemp, thank you for your time.

Vick Kemp has served as a correctional officer for 17 years. He lives in Chula Vista, California and instructs jazz piano in his free time.