The Harsh Blue-Collar Reality of Working as a Prison Guard

David Moloney’s ‘Barker House’ is a wholly unique look into America’s darkest corner

Prisons are terrible places, for-profit prisons are even worse and for-profit prisons during an epidemic are virtually mass graves. The U.S. has the most prisoners per capita of any nation on Earth — most of them there for non-violent offenses, including outstanding debt. It’s something that needs to be talked about a lot more than it is, and yet, the closest we’ve come in popular culture to showing the reality of life in America’s penal system was seven unbearably twee seasons of Orange is the New Black.

We also don’t talk about work much for a society where people are storming government buildings so that they can go back to their day jobs. Not wanting to get all Foucault-y here, but there are significant similarities between prisons and workplaces, from the panopticon layout of open-plan offices (which reduce happiness and efficiency at the expense of management surveillance) to the pseudo-military discipline and ruthless time management needed to cut costs when the rate of profit tends to fall. Again, the only time that our culture has had to grapple with life at work was nine seasons of The Office, three of which were basically okay if nothing else was on. 

And we definitely don’t talk about work in prisons. Our prison stories, whether they are The Shawshank Redemption or Get Hard, are nearly always from the point-of-view of the prisoners — totally valid, but not the whole story. On the other side of the bars are deeply flawed people who often don’t have much in the way of choices about where they work or what kind of people their job will turn them into. When we see them in fiction, they’re often sadists, overgrown schoolyard bullies drawn into the one job that allows them to hurt people more or less with impunity, and if you want real-world prisons reformed or abolished, you need to go deeper than that.

David Moloney’s book Barker House is about the people who work in prisons, which means that it’s also about you, since if you live in anything even approaching a functioning country, there are correctional officers, or COs, taking great physical and mental risk to keep bad people away from you (at least in theory), and you owe it to them to know their stories.

Moloney grew up in Lowell, Massachusetts, home of Jack Kerouac, wanting to be a writer and teacher. He started cutting classes in college, eventually dropped out and found himself working as a counsellor in a state mental institute. From there, it was easy enough to transfer to work at New Hampshire’s Hillsborough County Department of Corrections — 20 percent of inmates in jails and 15 percent of inmates in state prisons have a serious mental illness, so he had transferable skills. He was drawn by the solid benefits package and a pension that would kick in after 20 years. The job also paid well: COs in New Hampshire currently earn on average $40,130, well over the U.S. median wage of $31,099. (That said, private prisons tend to pay a lot less than state or federal facilities.)

He was something of a rarity on the prison floor, however. “A lot of COs are people who want to be cops, or wanted to be cops and just didn’t get a college degree,” he tells me. “Other people are ex-military. A lot of people I worked with were veterans of Iraq or Afghanistan, and they’d go on tours for six months to a year and come back. You’d see them snap; it was just a really difficult place for them.”

He explains that COs have an exceptionally high suicide rate, higher than the military, and the emotional strain exacts a heavy physical toll. “They say that if you work in corrections for 20 years, you take 20 years off your life,” Moloney notes grimly. “I worked with guys who died at 55 of heart attacks. It’s a job where you’re not allowed to be sensitive. If something bad happened, if somebody hung themselves, there were no counsellors to talk to. We went to the bar, drank it off and we were expected to move on.”

Moloney is frank about the damage the job did to him and the structures that made it harmful. “It was a county jail, but it was privately owned, so it ran by its own rules,” he says. “We were constantly going to court, constantly being sued. It was a difficult place to work. I still dream full shifts almost a decade later.”

With his mental health background, Moloney was assigned to a protective custody unit, “hanging out” with child molesters throughout his workday. During his time there, he endured an eight-month stretch where high-profile inmates confined to their cells for 23 hours a day threw shit at the guards every single day, for all three shifts. That was what broke him, and in 2011, he left.

Once a free man, he took creative writing classes, and his teachers pushed him to deal with his time at Hillsborough. He spent nine months writing and two years tweaking the nine stories that make up Barker House, “revising, messing with the structure, deleting characters.”

Moloney cites Tim O’Brien’s classic The Things They Carried as an influence, and it’s clear why: Like Barker House, it’s a series of semi-autobiographical stories centering around ordinary people in a psychologically impossible situation. He says that he was particularly inspired by “the way [O’Brien] treats masculinity in that book — I wanted to do that with this book. I wanted it to be a masculine book, but also to show the dangers of masculinity.” Other novels-in-stories like Stuart Dybek’s I Sailed With Magellan and Elizabeth Strout’s Olive Kitteridge were also big influences, and Strout’s endorsement of the book (“Here is a voice to listen to!”) takes pride of place on the front cover.

The result sits at that satisfying borderland of genres — not a novel, not a collection of short stories, neither fiction or autofiction. You could call it a series of character studies: the working-class, non-college educated whites that journalists left New York to try to understand in 2016; Trump voters not to get tax breaks or an ethnostate but because he was a guy they recognized from TV. They sometimes, too, moonlight as criminals: Big Mike (the character Moloney says is most like him) is a low-level bookie with his father, who is dying of cancer and relishes the opportunity to lay into errant payees. Later (or perhaps earlier), Mike is a bouncer at a strip club trying to stop the dancers from OD-ing on the opiates the manager gives out to keep them in line. Moloney talks about wanting to portray the “very fine line between the men in orange and the men in brown,” and he nails it.

The book isn’t a polemic against the carceral state exactly, but only because it doesn’t have to be. Moloney can write clear, unaffected prose about getting shit thrown at you by child molesters and the staggering level of suicide amongst COs, and if you don’t see that this whole system needs reform, then something is very, very wrong with you.

It’s also an absolute punch in the gut. I’ve deliberately avoided talking about specific events in the book, because all discourse around spoilers aside, there are emotional beats that will hit harder if they take you by surprise. Moloney describes having to go back over the manuscript and take out all his “writerly tendencies” toward literary acrobatics and reduce the prose down to the bare essentials so that nothing gets between the reader and what is being described. Minimalism is a hallmark of a lot of novels that, whether they know it or not, tackle masculinity (think Hemingway, Raymond Carver, Bret Easton Ellis), but it’s also perfectly suited to the subject matter — a world of antiseptic hallways and identical orange jumpsuits doesn’t need pretty prose.

And damn if it all doesn’t work. A series of character studies like Barker House lives or dies on the strength of the ensemble, and the characters in this novel feel real, likely because many are. The single father trying to coach his son through Skyrim, the sole female officer who restores furniture to cope while her male coworkers pound beers — every one of them has more dimensions than I could list here, and their appearances in other stories cast new light on them, forcing the reader to reassess what they thought. 

Crucially, the book refuses easy answers: The COs are neither fascist pigs who deserve the guillotine after we’re done with the bosses and landlords or the products of a broken system who need to be healed. The prisoners aren’t solely their victims or their tormentors. People are just people, and when those people are as marginal as correctional officers, you need to listen.