I WAS FIVE YEARS OLD when I learned about the occupational hazards of my father's job—for me. It was 1984, and my family had gone to our black community church in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, to see the Reverend Jesse Jackson, who had come to town on his Rainbow Coalition political tour. At the end of the service, we pushed our way to the front of the chapel to meet Reverend Jackson. He kissed me on the cheek, and we turned to leave. Suddenly, my father instructed me, my older brother, and my mother to walk out quickly and quietly, without making eye contact with anyone. He walked closely behind me, with my three-year-old sister in his arms, her face buried in his chest. He had spotted a former inmate who had been released from the penitentiary where my father worked as a prison guard.
To the former inmate, he and Randy Collins were equals outside the prison walls. Out of their different uniforms, they were just two black men in church. But nothing had changed for my father. The man was still a criminal who could pose a threat to his family. I still remember the fear and tension my family felt as the boundary between my father's job and his personal life blurred.
My father began his career in corrections in 1979 at the South Dakota State Penitentiary. It was never his dream job; his ambition was to be a teacher or a football coach, but by the time he was 23, he had a wife, an adopted son, and a new baby. He could never go back to school because there were always bills to pay, and so he has spent his life keeping other people safe.
In 1986 we moved to Garland. My father had made the decision to get out of the penitentiary's company town, where a growing number of our neighbors' cousins and brothers were ending up behind bars. Now I realize that it was easier for him to hide us in the upper-middle-class suburbs of Dallas. For a time he left prison work, guarding patients at a psychiatric hospital and working in hotel security. In 1997 he returned to guarding inmates, at the Jesse Dawson State Jail, in downtown Dallas.
When I was growing up, he never talked about his job. I always had trouble equating the man who took me to museums, matinees, and comic book stores with someone who was capable of the brute force prison guards must exercise. He tried to shield us from that too: He still forbids us to watch Oz and other TV programs that depict prison life. He escapes the realities of his job by keeping parts of his own childhood intact. He still has his old Spider-Man and Superman comic books and an impressive collection of James Bond movies.
After I turned 21, my father finally started to talk about his job. One day, after a ten-hour shift at the jail, he stretched out on the La-Z-Boy and said a single sentence: "Sometimes the people you work with are just as bad as the inmates." Later he would tell me that he isn't allowed to bring food from home to the jail because another officer was caught smuggling drugs to an inmate inside a hamburger.
For all my father's efforts to insulate his family from his job, sometimes he can't keep the two separate. One day, while working visitation, my father saw the father of a new inmate wearing a T-shirt for a high school booster club. It was the same high school that I and all of my siblings had attended. My father is a member of the same booster club. But he knew he could never talk to the inmate or his father about the football team. That incident changed my father. Now he watches my brother's friends and wonders which of them will end up inside the unit he guards.
I used to be angry with my father for choosing to stay in corrections, not only because he makes himself vulnerable—he has been assaulted by inmates so many times he has lost count—but also because he's had to work on Christmas and Thanksgiving and birthdays. When he worked the night shift, I would go days without seeing him, unless I woke up in the middle of the night to get a glass of water. There he would be, still in uniform, hunched over a plate of leftovers in the kitchen. Sometimes I'd skip school to hang out at home with him and watch reruns of the Rockford Files and afternoon cartoons.
My mother has confessed to me more than once that it is her fault he is in corrections, because she pressured him to find a stable job before he finished college. I look at her with a sad smile. After all this time, she ought to realize that even if he had become a football coach or a guidance counselor, he would still have been in the protection profession. He likes protecting people, as he has protected us.
Quincy C. Collins graduates from Southwest Texas State University in August.