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Singeli Agnew for Al Jazeera America

Ex-Guard: 'Everything that happens in the streets happens in prison'

A former correctional officer discusses how order is kept on the cellblock—and the kind of environment it is for a minor

In "Forgotten Youth: Inside America's Prisons," Fault Lines examines what happens to young inmates when they are placed in adult prisons and investigates their claims of physical and sexual abuse. The film airs on Monday, July 20, at 10 pm Eastern time/7 pm Pacific on Al Jazeera America. | Click here to find Al Jazeera in your area.


As part of a nationwide trend to be tougher on crimes committed by youth in the 1990s, the state of Michigan passed legislation making it easier to try a minor of any age as an adult. Seventeen-year-olds are automatically prosecuted as if they are adults.

The decision to treat youth as adults in prison can have profound impacts on the inmates. According to the Michigan Council on Crime and Delinquency, minors sentenced to adult prison are more susceptible to violence in adult lockup, and are also found to be more disruptive than their older peers. Being behind bars effectively ends any chance they had at getting an education, as young people in prison only get about 8 hours per week of school.

Thomas Burke worked as a corrections officer in Jackson, Michigan, and was in charge of an entire cellblock of inmates—the number of which nearly doubled when, in early 2000, the state of Michigan began shutting down facilities and relocating new inmates to his. He retired in 2010 after 25 years on the job.

Fault Lines spoke to Burke about the difficulty of managing that many inmates, what sort of incidents happened on the cellblock and how the environment affected the youth offenders who were housed there. An edited version of the conversation follows:


Fault Lines: When you first started as a corrections officer, how many inmates was each officer responsible for?

Burke: Well, my cellblock was at full capacity. There were two officers per 162 prisoners in the cellblock I was assigned to. And it was not so bad. I mean bad things happened. We're dealing with a lot of bad people, right?

By the time you left, that had gone up to?

Almost 300 people.

For the same amount of officers?


Wow. That must have made your job a lot more difficult.

My job became very difficult because there was so much movement in the cellblock. It was hard to really control movement because there were a lot of prisoners who did other things outside the cellblock—like they went to work, they're going to their library call-outs, they go to their medical call-outs. There was always some type of constant movement in the cellblock, which made it really difficult to control movement within the cellblock.

Now when there were 162 prisoners, I was able to control the movement a lot better. There were some things happening, but I was able to keep an eye on things a lot better.

When you say things are happening, what kind of things are you talking about?

I was struggling to prevent assault. I was struggling to prevent people having their items stolen, you know, thievery inside the prison. If a prisoner found out that another prisoner knew that this other prisoner stole something from him, that's almost like a death wish.

What, specifically, do you mean by assaults?

Stabbings, just regular, like, fighting, rapes, you know, and maybe even just consensual sexual relationships. I'm sure there was a lot of consensual sex inside the prison. I think, if I can recall correctly, in my 25-year career, and mostly as a cellblock officer, I have only had one rape reported to me.

One rape reported to you? Why do you phrase it like that?

Well, because people say things to me like, “I bet there's a lot of rape going on. A lot of prisoners probably got raped inside the prison.” Yes, it's probably happening. But if prisoners do not report it, then you can't do anything about it.

Why wouldn't that be reported by a prisoner?

Because snitching, number one, is a bad thing in prison. Snitching is a bad thing in the streets. Prisoners do not like snitches. If you are considered to be a snitch, it might cost you your life. Depends on what the situation is. But nobody in prison likes a snitch.

So, say there is a sexual assault going on in the showers, wouldn’t a corrections officer notice that?

Even if there was a corrections officer supposedly there, you know, observing the shower area, the prisoners have a knack of distracting staff. Things can happen right under your nose and you sometimes wouldn't even see it. You might have heard people screaming. Then, you know, you get to the area where you may have heard the screaming, but by the time you get there, there's nothing happening.

So how is a victim of abuse able to seek justice?

If a prisoner really wants to seek justice inside the prison, they'll get away to let you know something's going on. They either write notes and leave them around—you know, leave them on your desk—or some prisoners might even just come out to you and try to tell you something face to face.

Sometimes what the prisoner had was what we call a kite system. That was a piece of paper that went into the department of correspondence. The prisoner can write on the front of this kite who they want this kite to go to—to the warden, to the shift commander, or even myself, Officer Burke. They put on a kite whatever it is they want us to know about. And if there's something dealing with an assault—maybe a stabbing or rape, or anything of that nature—they may be put on a call-out.

In a video conference with an attorney, an inmate who entered prison as a 17-year-old, describes the years of sexual abuse he's suffered at the hands of his fellow inmates.
Courtesy of the Law Offices of Deborah LaBelle

Like, if this prisoner sent us a kite saying that some drugs are being brought in by this prisoner's family or, you know, this prisoner has drugs in the cell, or you know, this prisoner has been running other rackets. So they would set that prisoner up to be placed on a call-out and make it look good. And they call this prisoner out. At that point, with nobody else knowing about it, the inspector, or the warden, the administrative assistant or maybe one of the shift commanders, they might be in on this. One or two of these administrators may be in a room when that prisoners comes into this room.

And then they can tell the authorities about the assault?

Yes. In secrecy.

So what's the problem then?

Because somebody runs their mouth. You know, an officer may have said, “Oh, prisoner so and so was up front, you know, talking.” Just when you don't think another prisoner is around or listening, they got ears and eyes all over the place. Someone is listening and someone is watching, especially when a prisoner is going into the control center or a prisoner is going over to the administration building at an odd time.

You know, if something is going on inside a prison, somebody knows. Somebody's seeing something or saying something.

Why would a guard tell another inmate?

He wouldn't tell an inmate directly. He would be in a conversation with another officer or an administrator. Other inmates can find out what's going on. One thing I know that I used to not like is when officers talked about things sitting at the officer’s desk. Because in the cellblock, prisoners’ cells are five to 10 feet away from you. The first cell might be five feet away from you.

There are prisoners that locked on the first gallery that can look down at the officer’s desk. Those prisoners that are locked near the officer’s desk, they may have wanted to be planted there so that they can hear everything what's going on. They may have been receiving misconduct tickets, which constitutes them to have closer supervision. His purpose is to keep an eye and listen to everything that they are saying and see things what's going on around the officers.

It's like being in the streets. Everything that happens in the streets, happens in prison. Only difference is inside the prison, it's a closed environment. Everything we talk about, everything we do, before the incident or whatever's happening is over with, it's all over the prison. It has spread from point A and got to point Z, from zero to 60 seconds.

So what would be the consequences for, let's say, a youthful inmate making an allegation of a serious sexual assault against another inmate?

Youthful offenders ages, 14 to 16, back in the beginning of  2004, were placed in a separate area inside the cellblock. The area was fenced off to keep them isolated from the older inmates. It doesn't make any sense. It's backwards to me to sentence a young man inside an adult male facility and then turn around and treat them like a kid.

What was their state of mind, these young guys?

Scared. Frustrated. Sad. Very remorseful.

So were they mentally prepared to be in that situation?

No, they weren't. I mean you have a 14-year-old locked up in an adult male facility, where you have these seasoned enemies, or prisoners. They're walking past their cells—you know, not close to them, from a distance—but they're saying things to them such as, “Hey little boy.” “Hey little kid, do you want a lollipop?” “Hey, little boy, you want me to bring you some ice cream?” “You want me to tell you a bedtime story?” You could see that the youthful offender becoming withdrawn. And they're not so tough.

Everything we talk about, everything we do, before the incident or whatever's happening is over with, it's all over the prison. It has spread from point A and got to point Z.

Thomas Burke

former prison guard

Every time they come out of their cells, they had to be under escort. They had to take their showers during a different shower period. They couldn't come out of their cells to eat, their meals were brought to them. There was a yard set up for them outside the cellblock. There was a fence put up, and designated this area for the youthful offenders. I used to call it “the sandbox.” And while they were out, the other offenders were, you know, really really talking to them.

So is them being threatened the biggest issue with sending a 16-year-old to an adult prison?

Well, you know, a kid is a kid. He may have committed an act and be treated as an adult committing that act. But a kid is still a kid. He can be easily controlled—he can be easily mind-controlled, he can be easily physically controlled. Look at me: I'm not that big, but I'm not that small. I have life experiences, you know, been all over this country, I’ve been outside the country. I'm semi-educated, I have some college. As opposed to a kid that hasn't even finished high school, hasn't been outside of his own city where they live, hasn’t owned a home, has not ever driven a car.

I can use my experience and control that prisoner to do whatever. If I want him to go and steal something from another prisoner, if I want him to go and, you know, hit another person, if I want him to give me his prisoner commissary, you know, give me his food off his tray, I can.

Some people might say, “Well, that's not a big deal. I mean it's a prison.”

Well, it is a big deal. It is a big deal. We're not giving those youth a chance to develop. We're not giving the chance to what we want to call rehabilitate, you know, by locking them up in an adult male facility. I think if we give these young, these youthful offenders a chance at being involved with a mentor, you know, giving them a real fair chance to school, to try to help set them up in a nourishing environment, you know, he can find a job.

Are there programs that could help with developing youth?

Twenty to 25 years ago there were programs—there were GED programs,there were college programs, there were work programs—that help prepare an offender for when he's ready to parole or go back to the real world.

But by the end of your time these programs didn't exist anymore?

Not at my facility, not where I worked at. We didn't have the programs that were really helpful to the offenders.

Former prison guard Thomas Burke shows Fault Lines Correspondent Sebastian Walker how to handcuff and subdue an inmate.
Singeli Agnew for Al Jazeera America

These kids, we heard that attitudes toward them from inmates are that they look young, they haven't got hair on their face, they look maybe more feminine, so they get cat calls and people calling them fresh meat and targeting them for sexual abuse. Have you actually seen that yourself?

Innuendos, yes. There was one of the block porters (prisoners who helped keep the block clean), he was an older prisoner. He had been doing time since 1958. He would make statements about young Caucasian male that had come into the block. He would say something like, “Okay I know what I'm going to have me for dinner tonight.”

If you heard those kinds of things being said by inmates, can't you do anything about it?

I would talk to the younger inmates and say, “Hey, stand your own ground. I know you're going to be approached for whatever reason. But if you can, think about this. You gotta let somebody know. These guys are going to make you feel otherwise. They're going to tell you things like, ‘Don't be a snitch. We hear everything. We watch everything you do. Be careful what you do.’”

So you would mentor them on how to behave. But why wouldn't you discipline an inmate you heard making these references?

Because there was no direct threat. There would be no direct threat. If I heard a prisoner say, “I'm going to rape him tonight.” Then I would have him in front of the inspectors. I would contact my shift commander, “Hey I heard this prisoner make a direct threat.” He may even have to pay the price of going to the hole.

But then if it wasn't reported, if there wasn’t an official grievance filed then effectively, if there's no formal grievance filed …

That's right. Like I said, there had to be some type of direct effect, some type of observation. If a prisoner reported that another prisoner threatened him, a lot of times there was nothing we could do because the stipulation would be, “OK, if you say somebody threatened you, threatened to kill you, threatened to do some type of harm to you, then we need a name.”

Now a lot of times, when something like that happens—if a prisoner comes to me and says, another prisoner just threatened me—the first thing I'm going to ask is does he want to be locked up for protective custody. And if he does, I will contact my shift commander. We further investigate or interview this prisoner. One thing he would not want to do is give up another name. And in order for us to continue our investigation or pursue locking him up for PC, he has to let us know who else is involved. So if he doesn't let us know, there's nothing else we can do.

So these younger inmates, what's your opinion on sending them to adult prison?

I'm against it. I'm against youthful offenders being sent to prison. These youthful offenders are not physically or mentally prepared to defend themselves. I mean life experience is very shallow for them.

So you don't think they should be there at all?

No not inside an adult male facility. I think they should be totally separated, and that's the way I absolutely feel. And they should have, with them being totally separated, there should be programs in play to help them prepare for a better future.

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