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Correctional officers recognized for their efforts

CDCR shoulder patch.
CDCR peace officers help maintain public safety.

National Correctional Officers Week is May 3-9

By Don Chaddock, Inside CDCR
Office of Public and Employee Communications

Often working without recognition or thanks are California’s correctional officers. These officers maintain public safety and ensure rehabilitative programs are held in a manner consistent with institutional safety. They perform their duties around the clock, seven days a week. In 1984, President Ronald Reagan recognized their efforts by designating the first full week in May as National Correctional Officers Week.

“Historically, correctional officers have been viewed as ‘guards,’ occupying isolated and misunderstood positions in prisons and jails. In recent years, the duties of these officers have become increasingly complex and demanding. They are called upon to fill, simultaneously, custodial, supervisory and counseling roles,” President Reagan wrote.

“The professionalism, dedication and courage exhibited by these officers throughout the performance of these demanding and often conflicting roles deserve our utmost respect. The important work of correctional officers often does not receive the recognition from the public it deserves. It is appropriate that we honor the many contributions and accomplishments of these men and women who are a vital component of the field of corrections.”

Correctional officers walk “the toughest beat in the state,” as the saying goes. Their jobs are dangerous but also rewarding.

Lt. Mike Tuntakit began in 2002 as a correctional officer at Salinas Valley State Prison, a high-security institution.

“When I began, I saw a lot of negativity, violence, drugs, and gang politics. That was my initial impression of the prison as a big picture. Over the years, I developed a rapport with some of the inmates in my building. I spoke to some of the few who were willing to talk and understood more of what they were about. I learned they had family that cared for them. Without a doubt, the inmates cared more about their family than themselves. I always told myself to treat each inmate with the respect that they earned from me. I rarely had an issue and if I did, there were many inmates who would de-escalate it and even help solve potential issues I didn’t even know about,” he said.

Fifteen years later, Tuntakit was working at Avenal State Prison. The security was lower level but he saw some familiar faces.

“Several of the those inmates who had lowered their points and ended up where I was again. This time they were different. They were programming themselves to get out and staying focused on doing good things.

“I had several approach me, with smiles on their face and a look that was very different that before. They said thank you for treating me like a human, and thank you for not judging me. They said it was the little interactions with me that made them see us as human beings and not just guards. It was the interactions that over time made a big impact on the way they stereotyped officers,” he said.

“They began to realize that we were there to encourage them even when they weren’t ready to be encouraged. These small interactions later meant so much more than they realized and were happy to have an opportunity to express that. These inmates were sentenced to long terms. However, they were now getting dates and for once in my career I saw that every encounter we have with someone, whether a staff member or inmate, can make a huge impact and ripple in people’s lives.”

Tuntakit said it took him a while to understand his role in the prison system and inmate rehabilitation.

“In the beginning it seemed to be a redundant routine of feeding, counting, and observations of inmate routines. It wasn’t until I put effort into understanding my role as a role model, as a correctional professional, that I saw the changes I can make in a person. When I see that an inmate has made real positive changes and knowing they will be back on the streets, I feel a sense of real accomplishment,” he said.

Capt. Marlaina Dernoncourt began her career 16 years ago as a correctional officer.

“My career has been very rewarding. Encouraging words to staff and inmates really makes an impact. Giving positive feedback and expressing credit when credit is due. I have encouraged rehabilitative programs and restorative justice with the inmates at Solano,” she said. “I’ve introduced them to ways they can give back to the community that they once victimized. I have pulled in troubled youthful offenders that were getting in trouble and have encouraged them to focus that energy into positive things. (Rehabilitative programs) show them ways to be selfless and not selfish as some once were.”

She said positive attitudes can improve the atmosphere in an institution.

“Giving inmates positive and productive ways to express themselves and focus on others and also encouraging them to set the example and be positive role models themselves has started to really change the culture within the prison system.”

Some of those who have paroled, report back with positive news.

“Quite a few inmates I have known and encouraged have since paroled and have reported back about the positive things they are doing on the outside, such as mentoring the youth, volunteering with Special Olympics, volunteering at their churches and have thanked me for showing them opportunities to give back and how to be productive members of their community,” Dernoncourt said.

“I have a sign in my office that I look at daily and it simply says ‘Be the Light.’ I strive do that every day. Keep a positive attitude and greet everyone with a smile.”

Learn more about correctional officers:

Inside CDCR highlights the bravery of its correctional officers in our Above the Call series.

In 2019, Correctional Officer Hector Villareal received the Medal of Valor for his actions in stopping a serial shooter.

Last summer, Correctional Officer Amy Duncan risked her own life to jump into a river and save someone from drowning.

Correctional Officer Alfred Gascon, realizing no one else was helping, jumped in a canal to rescue a crash victim.