by Joe Thomas

It was jarring to walk into the Cathedral of St. Phillip and see officers from the Georgia Department of Corrections patrolling the aisles.

I hadn’t been in a church in a while, but I remembered what to expect – usually the most intimidating presence is the usher, whose subtle and quiet guidance to an empty pew is more of an invitation than a command. Seeing the sky blue shirts and navy pants that symbolize the Georgia law enforcement community here was at once disturbing and distressing, so out of place against the clean stone and marble of the center of the Episcopal Diocese of Atlanta.

The officers were there to escort Voices of Hope, the choir made up of inmates at Arrendale State Prison, a women’s prison located in Habersham County, GA. The choir had come to lend their voices to the Homeless Requiem, an annual service memorializing those members of Atlanta’s homeless population who lost their lives in the past year. It is a powerful and moving event, one that brings people together from across our diverse community to celebrate, mourn, and advocate for this often-ignored group of Atlantans.

I was there for the homeless community, but I can’t shake the images of the corrections officers. After reading so much recently about our criminal justice system, it was discomfiting to be in such close proximity to actual prison guards. All of them were white, as were the warden and assistant warden of the prison who were also in attendance, though the choir was in the neighborhood of 80% black. There were two women officers, one of whom seemed particularly interested in the women she was guarding. She stayed closest to them, and while they performed she sat in a pew, leaning forward and watching intently. She seemed to genuinely care about the women in her charge, and it was refreshing to watch.

One of the male officers reminded me of an Atlanta Police officer that spent a lot of time at my high school that we called “Officer Hardass.” He appeared to be in his thirties, and had either extremely short or no hair. His face wore a constant smirk, and he alternated between sitting at the front of the church staring at his phone and wandering around the sanctuary with the air of someone looking for a fight, a walk I know all too well from my time in bars in Athens. He made me wildly uncomfortable, and I can’t imagine what he did to the psyche of not only the inmates he was escorting, but also the guests at the service from the homeless community. Statistics vary, but researchers estimate that anywhere from a quarter to half of the homeless population in America has been incarcerated at some time. How difficult it must have been, then, to be reminded of that at a funeral service for a member of one’s community.

The average base salary for a corrections officer in Georgia is just over $28,000 a year. The job, I would imagine, attracts a variety of people. Prisons are often located in communities where a salaried position with benefits working for the state of Georgia is something to aspire to. In many places, the prison is the largest employer. It is an industry, one that turns the incarcerated into a product, and the officers charged with guarding them into the equivalent of an assembly line worker, offered little compensation for what can be dangerous work, because it is the only decent job in town. Like any other job, there are employees that work hard, take it seriously, get paid, and provide for their families. But there are also the ones who use their position to take out their frustrations and insecurities on those they are guarding. It is another product of a flawed and unjust system of punishment that is deeply in need of fixing.

I ended up leaving the service after passing the peace with my neighbors in the pews – I was troubled and needed to get out of there. Maybe next year I’ll be ready.