By Jeff Balke
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TDCJ did not allow the Press to visit the Terrell Unit for this story, despite the fact that the agency's media policy allows access to prisons except "during periods of unusual tension." But while Bledsoe describes a world of incredible tension behind the razor wire and locked doors, it's not at all unusual.
She has seen a dirty SSI (service support inmate) hung by a shoestring for failing to deliver the marijuana he promised another prisoner. She has seen female officers get "walked off the farm" after falling in love with manipulative convicts. She has seen a 23-year-old try to commit suicide because he sees no way to turn his life around. She has seen inmates cut their arms and legs in order to get into the relative safety and comfort of the "psycho ward." She has seen the aftermath of a rape, a skinny boy bloodied and "greased up like a pig." Her eyes have teared at the pepper spray that permeates the cell block after an inmate has been forcibly removed from a dayroom. She has seen inmates throw feces and urine at correctional officers. She has seen mafia-style hits planned within the prison walls make their way to the outside world; she never stops anywhere while she's wearing her uniform, just in case. She has been called "bitch, whore, bitch-ass ho." She has been masturbated on or, as they say inside, "killed." She says she has not seen officer brutality.
She has watched as death row inmates leave for Huntsville to face their sentences. "It's kinda hard working with a person, I mean with inmates, all day long and then one day they're gone," she says. "I really don't have an opinion on the death penalty. If you could look up their records and see what they've done, it's kinda hard to feel sorry for them. You feel sorry for them because they're gonna die, and they know when they're gonna die. We don't I just can't imagine what's going through their minds." This job is tough, Bledsoe says, not physically but mentally.
When Bledsoe graduated from the academy, TDCJ sent her to work at the Ferguson Unit, 65 miles away from home. She was assigned to work in Administrative Segregation with prisoners who, because they were dangerous or in danger, were locked up 23 hours a day, leaving their cells in handcuffs only to shower and recreate. "Uh-uh," she thought at first, "this isn't for me. I'm gone. I'm leaving. I don't like this." But there were advantages over her previous job: "At Wal-Mart, you cannot get rude with a customer. That's the difference. You're the boss at the prison."
She also liked the sense of camaraderie she felt with the other officers. "When they go places, they go together, even in the outside world," she says. "Nobody can relate to what we do unless they work in there." There were shift parties and barbecues. Bledsoe moved in with another female officer who lived closer to the prison. Her family was grown and gone, but she had found a new one.
When Bledsoe was transferred to Terrell after two years, the insecurity returned. The prison in Livingston was so much bigger than Ferguson that she didn't know if she would ever find her way around. And she had to hold the inmates by the arm when she escorted them; she didn't like touching them. Soon Biff, her youngest son, started working in the general population area of the prison. They met in the officers' dining room every day before their shifts.
But there was also a less fortunate addition to Terrell: death row. Last year TDCJ began moving the 445 inmates into Bledsoe's Administrative Segregation section because it was more secure than the Ellis Unit, but the prisoners were unhappy with their new accommodations. At Ellis, they had television privileges and group recreation time. The bars on the doors there provided more interaction with guards and other inmates than the solid steel doors at Terrell. Bledsoe was wary. "On death row, you don't know what they're gonna do," she says. "They're quiet. You don't know what they're thinking."
People often ask her how she can work in a prison. "Who stands behind you in Wal-Mart?" she asks, clearly paranoid after 39 months on the job. "Do you know that person? Do you know that maybe that's a convict? Do you know if maybe he's been in prison or maybe he's killed somebody and he's still on the run? Do you know who's standing beside you? At least these are contained. The ones out here aren't."
Jeanette Bledsoe doesn't look much like a prison guard today, nestled in a big recliner in her cool, dark manufactured home surrounded by the Piney Woods of a two-stoplight East Texas town called Onalaska. She seems small and a little shaky, the grooves around her eyes and mouth deepening into an approval-seeking smile. She's more comfortable showing off the photographs that line her hallway than arguing for a pay raise for correctional officers. Of course, the photographs tell of hardships as well as happiness. There's Paige, the granddaughter that Bledsoe raised who died in a car accident when she was only four. And there's William, also known as Dude, the troubled son who died of a drug overdose just before Bledsoe went to the training academy. And there's Biff, her baby, who she worries about every day he works at the prison.