Prisons protect public safety by locking up offenders and preventing escapes. Their layout facilitates the segregation, isolation and surveillance of prisoners.
In the 18th century, the job of prison officers was limited to opening and closing doors. In the 19th century, positions became specialized. Correctional staff were responsible for watching, supporting and reforming prisoners, and they had full authority in this regard.
Prison Guards, Changing with the Times
Up until the 1950s, prison guards would watch over the inmates and enforce the rules. This role has changed. Now called correctional officers, they help inmates with their social reintegration. What attracts young people to this profession? Renée Gobeil, who teaches future correctional officers, answers this question and explains how the position has changed over the years.
After obtaining a college diploma in Correctional Science (now called Correctional Intervention), a Bachelor of Criminology and a Substance Abuse Counselling Certificate, Renée Gobeil worked for the Services Correctionnels du Québec for several years, namely as a probation officer, keeping a close eye on people on probation, people with conditional sentences or those on parole. She now teaches Correctional Intervention and Police Science at the Collège Ahuntsic.
Interview with Renée Gobeil
Jailers from Father to Son
Master of the house, the jailer ruled his prison with an iron fist. Although he came under the sheriff and the prison inspector, he was still responsible for security, hygiene and discipline in his prison.
This was a highly regarded position in the community. The jailer and his family lived in the prison or in a residence on the prison grounds. In Trois-Rivières, three successive generations of the Gennis family held the job of jailer, from father to son, over a period of more than fifty years. The wife or mother within the family filled the position of matron for female inmates.
Jailkeepers and Guards
They would keep watch over detainees at all times, both in their cells and in common areas. They controlled all their movements. They conducted searches and used force in emergency situations: they were the jailkeepers and the guards.
The jailkeeper was also called the “turnkey”. He reported directly to the jailer. The guard had a more specific job: watching the inmates. Actually, it was only in larger cities’ prisons, like Montreal, that these two positions were separate in the 19th century.
In the 1960’s, guards started losing some of their authority over prisoners to parole officers, who handled the process of releasing prisoners into the community. Their work took on a more social dimension to which they had to get accustomed.
Looking After Women and Children
Female guards, also called “matrons”, were hired to watch over female inmates in specific wings or prisons assigned to them. Sometimes, such as in the Trois-Rivières prison, the wife or mother of the jailer was the matron.
Female guards would look after inmates and their children incarcerated with them. Correctional institutions actually allowed children to stay with their mother, in some cases until weaning, after which the kid was placed in the family or in an institution. The pain of being separated from their children and the trauma from spousal violence and all sorts of abuses caused deep wounds to incarcerated women. Female guards had to take this into account when dealing with these prisoners.
Watching Day and Night
In prison, the correctional staff had to be aware at all times where the inmates were and what they were doing. Every action taken by a prisoner was checked against the rules of the institution.
Metal bar doors deprived inmates of any privacy. Numerous locked doors set up in the wings slowed down movements. As for inmates on hard labor or working outside, balls and chains tied to their feet impeded their movement, thus making the job of guards watching over them easier.
At the end of the 20th century, with the advent of video surveillance and automated door control technologies, the same functions were accomplished with less people.