THE BLOG
09/30/2015 05:36 pm ET Updated Sep 30, 2016

The Meaning of the Pope's Prison Speech According to an Ex-Con

Pope Francis' speech at the Curran-Frumhold Correctional Facility was not explicit in any one message. Throughout, the Pope referenced Jesus' washing of the disciples' feet and taught about service, not serving time, but people in power serving others regardless of their present status.

In the absence of a hammered-home communication, I take the Pope's speech as a call to correction officers to resurrect their commitment to public service, the reason why they took their jobs in the first place.

There's a long record of my pretty bad treatment by a number of the staff at York Correctional Institution in Niantic, Connecticut. But I would be lying if I didn't say that, despite any harassment, assaults or mistreatment I experienced, I still feel for those men and women. I watched them every day for 2291 days.

During that time, I witnessed one, leaning on his knees, practically about to cry, begging one frequent guest of the state: "Please... please... you can't come back here. For you." I listened as another one exhort an inmate who wanted to sleep past the 3:30 AM wake time to work in the kitchen, even if it meant losing her job and facing discipline: "Come on, girl. You can do it. I have faith in you. Have enough faith in yourself that you can do this."

Another older man who identified himself as a recovering alcoholic and wore his reading glasses around his neck with an old-ladylike chain told an unrepentant addict: "You need to go to meetings. I'll tell you where they are." These guards washed the inmates' feet. As an occupation that requires daily interface with people whom no one else cares about, being a correction officer is true service. And if someone who was treated the way I was can say that, then it's true.

Because of this potential in their jobs, there are many correction officers who have single-handedly turned inmates' lives around because, more often than we know, a kind word can flip a switch and change a person's life completely. Conversely, you never know when cruelty will pull a plug and that's, unfortunately, a reality imposed inside institutions by mass incarceration.

From the Beat-Up Squad of prison guards in New York that is the target of investigation into an inmate's death, to the guard in Florida who gouged out a mentally ill inmate's eye, to the women in Delaware's female only prison who were sexually assaulted by prison staff, understandably and justifiably, correction officers often get a bad rap as inmate rap sheets grow longer and longer through failure to rehabilitate.

On Sunday, The Marshall Project's "Why It's So Hard to Fire an Abusive Prison Guard" detailed how guards in New York's correctional system are almost immune to termination, even when they assault and maim the inmates. Union representation is the typical scapegoat for protecting officers who abuse inmates. A friend to labor, the Pope knows that the watchmen must watch themselves if anything inside prisons is to change.

These events leave the rest of the correction officers ashamed of their jobs. To defend themselves against the bad apple accusations, guards want people to think they're cops. It's like they sneak into the thin blue line in an attempt to convince people of the dangers of their jobs and how they suffer every day.

And while correction and police officers are both in the 'peace officer' category, correction officers aren't cops. Experts predict that more than 1000 people will be killed at the end of police officers' guns by the end of 2015; not being a cop is a good thing this year. Yet, when you tell a guard that he's not a cop, he usually feels insulted.

Correction officers do themselves a disservice by comparing themselves to policemen. Police have a brief interface with suspects and defendants; they arrest them, process them and deposit them somewhere else, either in a correctional institution if they cannot afford bail or home if they get sprung. Cops ultimately have discretion in whether to detain someone and charge that person.

Correction officers have no such discretion. They take us as we come, often in droves. They have no ability to fight the unjust feed that pushes prisoners into their custody. They can't free inmates who are being denied a mini-furlough to go to their mothers' funerals. Directives prevent them from doing things that can help the inmates. They do time with angry, scared people in eight-hour shifts.

As a result of the intensity of contact with troubled people, the fiduciary duties carried by a correction officer are much greater than any police officer ever bore. Very few people know this.

Correction officers work at another unique disadvantage because, when they are successful, they can't witness their results. The inmate leaves the facility, lives a productive life and is never seen again; ex-offenders don't go back for reunions. Yet, when an inmate succeeds, the 'system' is finally working; guards get no credit, individually or collectively.

This year, Connecticut's only women's prison underwent another scandal when three officers were terminated and arrested for statutorily raping one particular inmate. Having been acquainted with the victim and the officers, I know that the situation is all grays; the victim was sexually assertive to the men and none of them took her by force. Victim and perp manipulated each other.

When the three men were arrested over the course of several months, my outrage directed itself at the fact that the organism we call incarceration has grown so big and out of control that now it's eating itself, consuming staff by converting them to inmates.

When the first of the three was sentenced recently, the question of the fairness of his punishment - pleading to a lesser- included non-violent misdemeanor and serving ninety days in prison, with the possibility of becoming a correction officer again in two years -- surfaced. The man had been accused of having sex with a woman who, by law, could never consent to the connection. Is he a rapist? If not, what kind of criminal is he and what should we do with him?

I think one of the first and biggest sins of the three Connecticut correction officers -- and any correction officer in the country who engages in misconduct -- was that they gave up. They surrendered their commitment -- one they willingly entered into -- to protect their wards. They stopped washing feet. The consequence of their actions should be to return to the basin of service.

To be sure, some men and women are actually attracted to corrections work because they need to express their sadistic sides. They were never and will never be servants to the public. But these guards are the minority, even if it doesn't seem that way in the media.

The oft-cited reasons for becoming a prison guard: union-raised wages, comprehensive benefit packages, unrelenting demand for their services -- aren't enough by themselves to bring someone to a training academy to work in a prison. I know that many of them had a special plan in his or her heart to do some good for people cast away by society when they decided to work in corrections. I pray that they can go home to that place in their hearts and not recidivate.

The Pope may not have taken all the opportunities in his United States visit to instruct us on what we need to do to clean up our justice system. To me, though, his message to the Curran-Frumhold Correctional Facility was clear and it was directed at the staff: be the servant you meant to be.