Doing the hard cell

Jesse Bobbitt

Photo by Larry Dalton

Five days a week, Correctional Officer Jesse Bobbitt reports for duty at CSPS (California State Prison Sacramento), a place where being alert can make the difference between going home safely and falling victim to a slashing, maiming, stabbing or worse. This is not Oz and it sure as hell ain’t Kansas, Bobbitt’s hometown. Correctional officers at CSPS make daily trips into this maximum-security facility adorned with rows of razor wire and ominous rifle towers. Stakes are high on a level IV yard. Trained gunmen watch from three stories above ground, ready to shoot an inmate that attempts to “shank” someone or escape. CSPS is one of the toughest prisons in the state, housing convicted felons that are considered to be among the most violent and incorrigible offenders in California. Much of the inmate population is serving time for armed robbery, assault or manslaughter. Some are serving life sentences for first-degree murder. In an environment where many inmates (and some guards) live by force and fear, men such as Bobbitt must do their best to deal with the ongoing chaos that can prove challenging to even the strongest individuals.

What makes a prison maximum-security?

The level of the inmates that they house. Thirty-four points and above is maximum-security. They’re given points based on the number of offenses that they accumulate. Certain acts or convictions raise their point level. They are considered a bigger escape risk—possibly.

Is prison anything like The Shawshank Redemption, American Me or Oz?

An accumulation of all, really. At times, it changes: one day, it’s The Shawshank Redemption; somedays, it’s Oz; somedays, it’s Disneyland. [Unlike Hollywood] we don’t fire shots in the air; we fire shots to the ground for safety reasons. There’s a lot of over dramatization [in Hollywood]. There’s acts of aggression against their fellow inmates that the average person can’t even begin to contemplate.

Do correctional officers really walk the toughest beat?

Yeah, because of the fact that we have a more concentrated group of criminals around us on a daily basis. We’re locked up with them. There’s nowhere to run.

What type of self-defense techniques did you have to learn?

Basically, self-preservation techniques—keep your eyes, ears and mind open. You have to learn to have eyes in the back of your head. Listen to people walking behind you, and only let people get so close.

What types of weapons are you trained to use?

We have, basically, gas canister guns that shoot rubber bullets and baton rounds. The Mini-14 is the basic tower weapon. It’s a small semi-automatic semi-assault rifle. It shoots a .223 round. We have a side handle baton, handcuffs and pepper spray.

Have you ever seen an inmate or guard be stabbed?

Yes, I’ve seen both on several occasions. I remember them perfectly. I can’t get that out of my mind. It’s not like it bugs me. You get used to seeing it after a while—to a certain extent.

Is it common for inmates at CSPS to assault guards?

Lately, it has been common where I work at. Higher-ups have taken most of the control from us and given more rights to the inmates. I realize some people may have abused some things in the past, but the old way was working better due to the fact that we had more control.

Is it common for guards at CSPS to assault inmates?

Nah, not really. It’s not commonplace. You may get a little carried away if your adrenaline is running. If somebody assaults you or you’re trying to stop a fight, somebody may say you got a little carried away. When somebody’s fighting and they’re not stopping, you’re doing your best to protect yourself. If they’re not stopping their aggressive act, we have to get aggressive.

Describe a cell extraction.

The main objective of a cell extraction is to use the less lethal means of force to get an inmate out of the cell. The more aggressive the inmate—the more aggressive the act of getting him out of the cell.

Have you ever seen any celebrities at CSPS?

I met cousins of famous people. I met Dion Sanders’ younger brother and Keyshawn Johnson’s cousin. His cousin worked for me on the back dock.

Describe a hard day at work.

When you walk in and the yard is down. There’s been an incident on the yard, and before you can start your job assignment, you have to start doing escorts and pat-downs.

Is the pay worth the trouble?

Well, at the end of every 30 days, I always think, "Yes it is" because of the benefits and pay days. It’s worth the headache. It makes it worth it on those days.