Correctional officers begin basic training
CHICOPEE, Mass. (AP) — The road to becoming a correctional officer with the Hampden County Sheriff’s Department begins at the crack of dawn in a Westover Air Reserve Base parking lot.
Lesson one is knowing where to park.
“What are you doing here?! Get that vehicle the hell out of here!” one of the instructors screams at a cadet who shows up 15 minutes early. The cadet’s offense? Parking in the wrong lot.
Over the next seven weeks, 19 cadets will undergo fitness training, defensive training and tactics, and academic work on jail procedures required for jobs at the Hampden County Correctional Center in Ludlow, the Western Massachusetts Regional Women’s Correctional Center in Chicopee and the Berkshire County House of Correction in Pittsfield.
But before any of that happens, they need to make it through Day One.
The instructors, all veteran corrections officials with the Berkshire and Hampden sheriff’s departments, yell themselves hoarse while getting in people’s faces, shouting commands, lobbing insults and pushing the cadets to the breaking point.
Everything uttered by one of the instructors on Day One is loud and punctuated with an exclamation point — even the questions.
“Holy smokes! This is the cream of the crop right here?! This is the best the department has to offer?!”
“Do you think it’s funny?!”
“Do you think you’re special?! Get out of that vehicle and beat your face on the ground!”
The go-to move for even the slightest transgression is pushups. There are also wind-sprints, laps around the parking lot and leg raises.
Often instructors bark words of encouragement, like: “You ain’t going to make it to tomorrow!”
The Day One tradition of heaping abuse on cadets goes back years. The Hampden County Sheriff’s Department describes this process as “a paramilitary team-building environment.”
On this March morning, sunny with temperatures in low 30s, things quickly heat up.
The team of eight instructors, seven men and one woman led by academy commandant Sgt. Joseph Celetti, seem like nice, ordinary people. Hanging around in the training building, they joke, make small talk and pose for photos in their dress uniforms.
But when they emerge from the building at exactly 7:30 a.m. and head across the lot to where the cadets are parked, it is as if a switch has been flipped.
For the next several hours, the instructors yell. And yell. And yell.
In the first 20 minutes, they scream about everything and anything, no matter how big or how small.
— A “thin blue line” sticker on the back of a car. “You’re not law enforcement! You are nothing!”
— A pine tree-shaped air freshener hanging from a mirror. “What is that?! Get rid of that crap!”
— Tinted car windows. “Are you a drug dealer?! Yes, you are!”
— Rust on a truck bumper. “What is this crap?! This shouldn’t even be on the road.”
A passer-by at this point would probably feel great empathy toward the cadets, but bear two things in mind: Each of them signed up for it. And the starting salary for a Hampden County correctional officer is between $50,000 and $63,000.
This empathy is perhaps why, in this anti-bullying climate, the Sheriff’s Office requested The Republican not publish video from Day One. No media had ever been invited to the event before, and the sheriff’s department afterward expressed concern the general public would get the wrong idea.
Inside of the first 20 minutes, each recruit learns several important things.
One is that the first word out of their mouths must be either sir or ma’am, depending on which instructor they are addressing.
“Sir, yes sir!” ″Ma’am, no ma’am!”
And it has to be delivered with conviction.
“I can’t hear you!”
“Sir, yes sir!”
Next they learn that the authority of the instructor is supreme.
When they say drop, you drop. When they say do sprints, you do sprints. When they command you to run around the parking lot shouting, “I am an idiot,” you run and shout with all the speed, volume and sincerity you can muster.
“What kind of running is that?! This isn’t Baywatch! Run!”
Another lesson is that cadets’ cars and their possessions must be secured at all times. In a jail, doors are locked unless there is a reason for them to be open.
For close to an hour, the cadets run back and forth, from their cars to the fall-in line. While the cadets stand at attention, instructors check their cars, and woe unto anyone who left their vehicle without locking the doors.
A female cadet who drops her car keys as she falls out is ordered to pick them up and run around the parking lot yelling, “I have found my keys. I have found my keys.”
A male cadet who left his car unlocked, allowing instructors to find a lacrosse stick and luggage inside, is ordered to run laps with it, yelling, “I am a lacrosse player!”
“We’re going to keep doing this until we get everyone on the same page that when they exit their vehicles, their vehicles are secure,” Celetti yells.
Somewhere between the pushups, wind sprints, getting in and out of the car, misfortune befalls cadet Andrew Brower. Half of his nametag is missing.
When one of the instructors gets in Brower’s face about it, what plays out is almost like an Abbott and Costello routine.
“What’s your name?!”
“Sir, Brower, sir!”
“Why does it say Bro?! What’s this?! Are you a Bro?!”
“Sir, no sir!”
“You think you’re a Bro?!”
“Sir, no sir!”
“Sound off! What’s your name?!”
“Sir, Brower, sir!”
“It says Bro! You say Bro! What’s your name?!”
“Sir, Bro, sir!”
Before Day One, cadets go through a six-week training regimen. By Day One, they are expected to be able to run a mile and a half and do a certain number of pushups and situps within a minute. The time of the run and the number of situps and pushups varies based on gender and age.
After completing the academy, correctional officers undergo physical fitness testing annually.
The sheriff’s department training manual allows for women to do a modified pushup with legs bent and knees touching the ground. That may be good enough for the training manual, but it isn’t good enough for Mia Piazza, the only woman among the eight instructors.
With her fists balled, Piazza gets in the face of male cadets to shout, “I will knock you down!”
Seeing one of the female cadets in the modified pushup position, Piazza howls.
“I never did any of that s---,” she screams. “If you want to be in my role, you better step it up.”
With her voice getting louder and louder, she dares the cadet to use her gender “as a crutch.”
“That’s bulls---. Don’t disrespect me!” she shouts. “Step it up. You want to step into a male-dominated role and you better step it up! Don’t ever insult me!”
Almost unnoticed among the screaming instructors is one man hovering on the periphery. If one of cadets seemed to be having a hard time with the pushups or the leg raises or the screaming, Michael Frost would sidle up and whisper words of encouragement.
“It’s only a movie. You can do this,” he would say.
Frost is 13 weeks away from retiring after a 37-year career with the sheriff’s department. A longtime drill instructor, he estimates he has gone through 50 or 60 training academies. And he has been as tough and probably tougher than any of the instructors today.
“Damn, I was spat out of the gates of hell,” he says.
His role today is essentially to make sure that the people discouraged on Day One come back for Day Two and beyond.
“Some of them are just 20-22 years old and this is the first time someone has gotten in their grill as fiercely as this,” he says.
If the point of the academy is to weed out applicants who are unfit for the job, then Frost’s role would seem to be paradoxical. Not so, he says.
“What I don’t want them to do is break and then to lose them because of a couple of hours of this stuff,” he says. “I do this because I’m afraid that someone is going to go to their car right now and take off.”
Day One is intended to be a shock to the system. It teaches discipline, procedures and respect for authority. Once that is done, it moves to a more academic and much more civil tone, Frost says.
Is it difficult for an instructor to be that mean?
Not at all, Frost says. “I think inherently we all have that.”
Information from: The Springfield (Mass.) Republican, http://www.masslive.com/news/