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How to Write a Realistic Prison Guard Character (Hollywood gets this wrong)

I worked as a Deputy Sheriff for 7 years over three different counties. If you would like to write a character who is a prison guard or jail deputy (both are nearly identical, and adjust as needed for fantasy genres) then I will talk about the core basics your character should follow in order to be believable. I will also define certain terms often used in a jail-type setting.

First, what is a prison guard? A prison guard is someone who is recognized by the state as being a law enforcement entity trained and certified on maintaining the safety and security of inmate, staff, and facilities.

A prison guard’s responsibilities include:

-- Feeding inmates

-- Providing inmates with a safe place to sleep

-- Making sure inmates get their proper medications (most facilities have a full-time nursing staff who actually give the inmates their meds)

-- Transport to court and the hospital (a jail is at the county level where you will go to court until you are sentenced. Once you are sentenced, you will either be released from jail with "time-served" or sentenced to prison. Jails only house inmates up to a year or so. Prisons are set up to house inmates for life.)

On uniforms:

-- A guard’s uniform consists of: shirt, pants, stab vest, boots, duty belt, and body camera. All guards wear the same uniform.

-- A duty belt can consists of these tools: a ring of keys, pepper spray, taser, straight baton, magazine pouches, gun holster, belt keepers, 1-2 handcuffs, radio. Go to this website to get pictures of each item: No guns are allowed in the facility (for fantasy, this might be a knife/sword/ax) The knowledge is that once a guard steps into an inmate housing unit, or cell, those inmates have access to all the tools on his belt, given that the guard is overpowered and taken hostage. The guard can survive being tased and pepper sprayed, but he won’t survive being shot. So no guns are allowed in the facility, but the guard will take his gun with him everywhere he goes outside the facility, even if he is with inmates.

-- A female guard will have less room to put these tools on her belt because of the circumference of her waist. A larger man will have more room to put these tools.

-- No tools on the belt should be worn around on the back, because the spine can be damaged if the guard is pushed to the ground and lands on his back, and it also stilts his ability to roll if he is on the ground.

-- Belts can be made of either black leather or black nylon, as well as all the applicable components attached to it.


Shank: a homemade weapon. Can be made out of anything.

Kite: a fillable form inmates use to communicate official correspondences to staff. They can request hygiene items, request to see medical, and other court-related information.

Cadillac (this term might change from facility to facility): an unauthorized device inmates use to pass notes and other items from cell to cell. Usually done by tying a long string unraveled from a towel, blanket, or prison uniform to a bag or some container and throwing it under the door of their cell in an attempt to slide it under another door, and then pull back.

Kiosk: a computer inmates can use to fill out kites, and/or a machine used to deposit money.

A Jail includes these special areas:

Booking: the place in the jail where inmates are searched, their personal belongings inventoried and stored, and they are processed into the jail. They will be assigned a housing unit here as well.

Housing: where inmates are housed.

Kitchen: inmates gotta eat. Usually the inmates cook the food, and they are supervised by a civilian hired by the sheriff to work in the kitchen (they go through special training), or a deputy.

Laundry: clothing and bedding have to be washed.

Medical: to see inmates inside the jail for common ailments. For severe cases, inmates will be transported outside the jail to a normal hospital, escorted by a deputy.

Courtroom: some jails have small courtrooms where the judge comes to the jail and sees the inmates in the jail. Otherwise, inmates are transported outside the jail to the actual courthouse.

Recommended Tips:

-- All court is public information. Call your local courthouse, find out when the next trial is, and go and sit in the court room and watch.

-- Some jails will let you take a tour of the jail (your tax dollars pay for it, after all). Call and find out.

-- Support your local law enforcement. Thank them for their service.

Prison Guard behaviors:

-- Never let an inmate get behind you. Because of this, guards will typically hate it when he’s out in the general public and someone walks behind him. He will also most likely sit so he’s facing the door when he’s at a restaurant. When he’s escorting an inmate, he will walk behind the inmate. 

-- Prison guards will notice everything in the room, especially anything that could be used as a weapon against them.

-- Prison guards will always keep an eye on people’s hands because if hands disappear into their pockets, that person could be reaching for a weapon.

-- Hollywood has prison guards all wrong. Hollywood likes to write prison guards with cruel, uncaring, beat-em-up tropes. This is not true. A REAL LIFE prison guard will have conversations with inmates, make jokes, deliver meals on time, and see that their medical is taken care of. There is no room for bias in the jail. A personal experience: an inmate came to our jail who committed murder. I walked by this inmate’s cell and he asked if he could have an extra blanket. I then went to booking and grabbed a blanket and took it to him. This inmate said, “Thank you.” I said, “You’re welcome,” and continued on my way.

-- A realistic prison guard does NOT beat up inmates. They don’t spit at them, they don’t say ugly things. The prison guard is human too and is really just waiting until his shift ends, so he will do his job -- house inmates, feed inmates, watch their medical status -- and go home. This erroneous “bully guard” trope Hollywood is stuck on is not true.

So what does a realistic prison guard look like in fantasy writing? Below is an excerpt I wrote for a fantasy novel of mine where my MC lands in jail:

He didn’t realize how much time had passed until the jailor brought in a food tray, a man in his early twenties with a trimmed black goatee.

“Thanks.” Cohthel accepted the tray through the food slot. “What time is it?”

“Eighteenth hour.”

“You sure?”

“Yep. I’m pretty sure.”

“Ah, okay. Have you heard anything about Torc Thoraus coming to talk to me?”

“No. He never talks to prisoners after the trial.”

“Oh, this is a special case and he probably got busy or forgot because he got busy. Would you, um, remind him I’d like to talk to him? Tonight?”

“I will pass the message. That is all I can do.”

“Thank you.”

The jailor left.


For the first time since the rangers knocked on Cohthel’s door in the middle of the night seven days ago, fear curled hooks into his heart. He’d never experienced betrayal. Now that he gave it attention, he felt its birth like an uncurling finger, the long nail scratching him from the inside as it straightened. The more he moved, the more it scratched. Scratch scratch scratch.

The shock arrived in a burst of heat prickling his scalp, bubbling nausea in his gut. He dropped to his knees and vomited in the straw.

“Help.” Louder. “Help!”

The jailor threw open the chamber door and rushed to Cohthel. “What’s wrong?”

“You’ve got the wrong man. I shouldn’t be here!”

The jailor’s sable face softened in sympathy. Cohthel wondered what the knightlord experienced when he looked at a man sentenced to die.

“Your feelings are understandable,” the jailor said. “I can get you an extra blanket and water, but that is it.”

Cohthel slammed his body into the bars. “My father framed me! Tell the torc I demand to speak with him! Please! I’m innocent!”

“I am sorry.” The jailor walked out of the chamber, closing the door behind him.


The jailor brought Cohthel’s breakfast tray. As soon as the knightlord walked into the chamber, Cohthel scrambled off his bed and slammed his body into the bars.

“Get away! You’re not safe!” Cohthel’s gaze shot left and right. His red eyes from having not slept and curls he mussed into a chaotic tangle added to the harried image.

The jailor ignored him and stuck his fat key in the tray port slot to give him breakfast.

“No no!” Cohthel jumped at the door and held the tray port slot closed. “Don’t—don’t open that! Don’t open the door either! I won’t survive, but I can at least save you!”

“Kindred, you were so normal yesterday,” the jailor said in exasperation as if he’d seen all the games prisoners play. He looked like he approached the end of his long shift. Tired and uncaring. “I know you don’t want to die—”

“I’m not worried about me. I’m worried about you. What?!” Cohthel spun and faced the back of his cell, then flipped back to face the jailor. “It’s close! Get out of here before you can’t!”

“So you don’t want breakfast?”

“Run! Run! It’s coming! It’s coming! AAAHHH!”

The jailor walked out of the chamber with Cohthel’s breakfast.

And finally….

Four knightlords entered the chamber two hours later, the clatter of their heavy boots, keys, and manacles jangling against armor. The jailor came in with them, flipping through his ring of oversized cell door keys.

“Decided to act all crazy during breakfast,” the jailor said. “Nothing the four of you can’t handle.”

Cohthel lept from his bed. “NO! NO! It’s here! Get away or it will get you too! Run!”

The four knightlords didn’t spend enough time with prisoners to become desensitized to their thematics and imaginations. They all chuckled.

“What’s coming?” asked one with amusement.

“The void! The void! Don’t you understand! Blessed Paragons, get out of here before it gets you!”

The jailor stuck his key in the door.

Cohthel grabbed the bars. “Don’t open the door!” Cohthel’s feet jerked back along the floor. He landed on his chest and screamed. He flipped onto his butt and stared under his bed, where his feet pointed. Kicking and thrashing and churning the straw, an unseen force dragged his body toward the bed.

His screams reached a fever pitch. Still, he rolled onto his stomach and reached out to the five bewildered knightlords. “RUUUNNN!” The unseen force sucked him under the bed. He ceased making a sound.

“Thematics,” the jailor explained. He turned the key. The door lock made a heavy thunk. Hinges squealed as the door swung open. The jailor stepped in. “Come out, Cohthel. I’ve seen all the games before. You’re not doing anything new. You’re best off acting with grace. Your family watching would want you to walk out dignified. Don’t embarrass them.”


“Cohthel, if you don’t come out, we’ll go in to get you.”


I wrote the above scene using my personal, real-life experiences dealing with inmates. Prison guards -- gasp! Hollywood would revolt! -- CARE about inmates. I’ve had inmates thank me for being so nice to them. One time in booking, all the deputies were laughing at a random joke and the inmate sitting there started laughing and said, “You guys aren’t mean at all!” It’s true. We’re not mean. We were there to do a job, to get paid for doing it, and go home.

Don’t copy Hollywood. Write a REAL prison guard. Your readers will love your novels so much more.


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