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Sense of Community: A Greene County Corrections Officer Uses Words to Lessen His Risk of Danger

[Sound of jail doors closing shut]

Shane Garver, a corrections officer at the Greene County Jail, is working a 12 hour shift watching inmates. He spends hours at a time in Bravo Pod, which is at the very end of layers of concrete and several sets of locked steel doors.

We enter the pod.  This jail is one of only a handful of so-called “direct supervision facilities” in Missouri.  That means guards don’t sit behind a glass window to observe the inmates…they’re all in the same enormous room, like this one.

“The only thing we carry in here is OC—mace, pepper spray.  Sergeants and above can carry a Taser,” he said.

The men who are standing a few feet away from us are charged with the most violent crimes:  murders, first degree assaults, armed robberies and rape.

He says rather than put all his trust in martial arts, mace and muscle to defend himself, he relies more on his brain to try to prevent problems from happening in the first place. And that involves strategically choosing his words.

“You kind of build a rapport with these people, so you can learn to read them.  It comes down to:  if you treat someone like a human, they going to act like a human.  So you treat people how you’d want to be treated. I treat everybody with respect, and 99 percent of the time, I get respect back,” he said.

Aside from the risk of being physically assaulted, though, Garver said there’s the risk of contracting a disease.  Corrections officers like him are constantly around the spit, mucus, and other bodily fluids of inmates, and they’re not all healthy.

“We have a guy right now who’s in isolation for Tuberculosis possibility.  So, I could open up the cell door and he could spit in my face. And if he’s got TB, then I have the chance of contracting TB. And that goes for HIV, AIDS, Hepatitis, all those diseases,” he said.

We leave this pod and head over to Delta Pod, where one guard, again, sits at the front of a large room full of cells. When we enter, the inmates are at work cleaning their own cells.

Garver: “Our count’s at 110, with one officer in here.”

Moore: “And sometimes, you’re that officer?”
Garver:  “Yes.”

Moore: “So what would you do, in a pod like this, outnumbered 110 to 1, if the inmates got angry, or got together and decided they were gonna take you down?”

Garver:  “There’s nothing you can do. You can get on the radio and call for help...If you’re gonna be attacked, you’re gonna get hurt before someone can really get up and help you.”

“Inmates don’t come in with weapons. However, they have plenty of time to think to make weapons,” he said.

Sometimes, the inmates manipulate a “spork” utensil to make a dagger.  He has also discovered how inmates have filed down caulking from the building joints to create a sharp weapon and hide it in a cell. Also, they have used the threads in their mattresses to saw back and forth on their property bins, creating friction, which also created a sharp shank.

“I was speaking with an inmate that was found guilty of murder. He made a comment, [saying] ‘What keeps me from punching or assaulting another officer? Nothing. I’ve already been sentenced to 30 years to life in prison…if I punch a CO or beat up a CO, I’m gonna get seven more years. What’s that to me?’ It’s true. Because he has nothing else to lose.  So that’s when you learn to talk to people. And if they have an issue, you learn to deal with it,” Garver said.

Garver is also a veteran—he served in the infantry, and now, in addition to his job at the Greene County Jail, he’s also an MP with the National Guard. He responded to the tornado in Joplin, and the flooding in eastern Missouri.

In this week’s Sense of Community series, we’re profiling people who perform dangerous jobs in order to make our lives and community better. Join us again Wednesday afternoon at 4:30 when we interview a soldier who finds explosives overseas before they find his fellow soldiers.

I’m Jennifer Moore.