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Corrections officers’ jobs are far from routine

Butler County corrections officers Joshua Newman and Dawn Maier work at the county prison. Ed Thompson/Butler Eagle

Silverware is counted after breakfast is served to inmates at the Butler County Prison. It’s counted again after lunch and dinner.

Daily activities in the county prison may follow a strict schedule, but working in the facility that can contain as many as 512 inmates is far from routine, according to two of the jail’s corrections officers.

“You have to count cups, forks and trays,” said Dawn Maier, a 30-year county employee who has been working as a corrections officer for the last 14 years, about the after-meal routine.

“They (can) get filed down to a shank,” said officer Joshua Newman, a nine-year prison employee veteran.

What makes the job less routine are the people Maier and Newman care for, the inmates at the jail.

Butler County corrections officers Joshua Newman and Dawn Maier work at the county prison. Steve Ferris/Butler Eagle

It’s not uncommon to see the same faces pass through the prison, according to Butler County Prison warden Beau Sneddon, and with those consistent interaction comes care and sympathy for inmates, especially those struggling with addiction.

“It’s a battle with good and evil,” he said to describe substance abuse disorder, explaining it is hard for those who have never struggled with it to watch someone go through it.

“You’re zoomed out, and you say, ‘What are you doing?’” he said. “They think they have a handle on it, and (they don’t).”

Sneddon said he enjoys seeing relationships develop within the prison between the corrections officers and inmates.

Sneddon commended his corrections officers for their care and attitude toward the inmates.

“It’s the corrections officers working round the clock and making the biggest change in people’s lives,” he said.

A day at the jail

Each shift begins with a roll call and issuing assignments. The corrections officers are assigned to each of the eight housing units before they receive their handcuffs, keys, radios and other equipment.

The prison currently employs 107 full-time officers, five part-time officers, six captains, one major, one warden, two deputy wardens, two administrative assistants, one maintenance supervisor and three maintenance workers.

Inmates are counted before breakfast is served at 7:30 a.m. After breakfast, the silverware is counted.

In most of the housing units, meals are served in day spaces, which are an open areas where inmates can walk around when they are not locked in their cells.

After the potentially dangerous kitchenware is counted and collected, a nurse comes to each unit and delivers prescribed medication to inmates. Officers then have to make sure the inmates swallow their pills instead of hiding them in their mouths and then selling them to other inmates later.

“You have to check, so they don't cheek their meds,” Maier said.

Not all medication is distributed the same way.

Inmates recovering from a drug addiction are treated through the medication assisted treatment program. Inmates go to a processing area and are strip searched before getting medication. They get a snack after getting their medication and are strip searched again before returning to their housing units to make sure they don’t smuggle anything.

MAT inmates are held in pods located within certain housing units.

When an inmate in a MAT pod or in protective custody feels sick or requests to see a nurse, officers have to lock down those units so the sick inmate can be isolated. Inmates who receive treatment outside of the pod are strip searched before going back.

Inmates have some recreation time after the two-hour MAT distribution process and before lunch begins.

Again, cups, forks and trays are counted after the inmates are finished eating, and medications are distributed after the meal.

The afternoon recreation time then runs until 2:30 p.m. when the entire jail is locked down for the employee shift change.

Like the morning shift, the afternoon shift begins with roll call, assignments and equipment distribution.

Inmates receive recreation time from about 3:20 p.m. until dinner begins at 5 p.m. Again, silverware is counted following the meal.

Evening medication is distributed around 7:30 p.m. followed by recreation time until 9 p.m., when the final daily lock down takes place.

In between meals, counselors from the prison and Glade Run Lutheran Services meet with inmates, and medical staff from PrimeCare, the prison's health care contractor, come to provide MAT medicines to inmates.

“They're in and out all day,” Newman said, about the counselors and medical staff.

At 10- to 25-minute intervals during their shifts, officers make rounds of their units including each cell. The frequency depends on the security level of the unit.

A variety of other disruptions to the schedule in the prison can add to the officers hectic day.

Officers retrieve inmates for required court appearances, take them to a room where they can participate in a court proceeding remotely and take inmates to meet with their attorneys in the prison.

“They constantly come and go for court,” Newman said.

Inmates spend their first three to five days in the prison in the restricted housing unit, which includes the intake unit where inmates are “booked” when they enter. Rules are explained to the new inmates, they are seen twice by medical staff, and they are classified, a process officers use to assign inmates to housing units.

The restricted housing unit is a challenging unit because it places “new inmates with the worst inmates,” Newman said.

Inmates are taken there as discipline for fighting or other rule violations. Inmates can be locked down in single-inmate cells and remain handcuffed as punishment.

Inmates suffering from drug withdrawal when they enter the prison have their vital signs checked three times a day.

Officers deliver meals to inmates in the restricted housing unit and make “scattered” rounds every 10 minutes in addition to normal rounds every 25 minutes. Inmates are separated into small groups for recreation time to keep troublesome inmates away from each other, which requires officers to oversee numerous recreation times.

Inmates in the restricted housing unit are strip searched every time they enter, even when returning from a meeting with an attorney. Those searches are normally conducted in the shower, but the entire unit is locked down so a search can be conducted in another area if the shower is in use or not available.

“Needless to say, the inmates are not happy about any of that. They spit on guards, kick the door, flood the cells, grumble, threaten your family,” Newman said. “They go above and beyond to make your job as hard as they can.”

Some inmates are isolated in administrative segregation, in which they are separated from other inmates in the restricted housing unit. One such inmate was Robert Bowers, a federal inmate who was found guilty in 2023 of the massacre at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh in 2018.

“He was never around any other inmate,” Newman said.

The diagnostic classification unit is for first time offenders as well as inmates charged with crimes against women or children who would encounter problems with inmates in other housing units.

A unit known as fox pod is for inmates with good behavior and allows them to work in the kitchen and receive an extra hour of recreation time.

“They're pretty chill,” Newman said.

However, they can lose work privileges if their behavior declines, he said.

The bravo unit is where female inmates are held. It is unique among the units because it houses all female inmates regardless of classification. The entire unit is locked down when behavior issues arise, instead of sending the rule violators to the restricted housing unit.

“It’s like its own mini jail,” Newman said.

Corrections officers receive a lot of training, including in-house training for newly hired officers. Annual training covers first aid, hostage negotiations, self-defense, firearms and tasers, suicide prevention and report writing.

Eagle staff writer Molly Miller contributed to this report.

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