Who’s On The Gun?

Little things on the inside

If you haven’t worked deep in the bowels of a prison, you might not know there a whole host of things that occur everyday that determine how your shift will unfold–uneventful, a grind, or worse. Some take it for granted, but if you’ve worked there–you know better.

Most seasoned prison folks say they can “feel” the tone of the unit when they walk in the housing unit. There is something about the ambient noise of 1,000 men crammed into a single five story cellblock. There is a constant level of chatter and movement you become accustomed to when you work in a prison. A tick up in the noise level might indicate the population is agitated about something, or getting ready for yard release after a long lockdown. Silence, is something else altogether. When 1,000 men go quiet, bad things are about to kick off. It’s an unnerving quiet.

One of the things unique about California’s prison system is that it is one of the few states with “gun coverage” inside the prison. Other prison systems have armed officers on the prison perimeter, or yards to prevent escapes, but California has gun coverage in the housing units to keep officers and inmates safe.  One reason is prisons outside California are built for 500 inmates–that is slightly more than the size of two housing units in a 3,000 bed facility in my home state.

When coming on shift, one of the things you look for, or outright ask, is, “Who’s on the gun?” The officer assigned to the armed post in a newer design prison will work from a control booth, with a view into the cellblock day rooms and the cells. The older design prisons like Folsom and San Quentin will have officers on gunwalks on the exterior walls, looking back at the tiers of cells.

Officer on Gun Walk via sac bee

Officer on Gun Walk image via sac bee

Officer in Control Booth image via SF Chron

Officer in Control Booth image via SF Chron










The response to the question, “Who’s on the gun?” meant one of three things:

  1. You knew the officer was going to have your back–literally. That officer on the gunwalk would shadow you as you went about your business on the tier. The officer wasn’t shy about chambering a round and drawing down on an inmate assailant when necessary.
  2. Some officers can become overwhelmed with the armed post, especially in the newer prison control booths, operating doors, controlling movement and providing gun coverage. If these officers were on the gun, you tended to be a bit more careful in your movement, and the fact the gun coverage might be a few seconds later always nagged into your mind.
  3. Then there were, for the lack of a better term, the cowboys. These officers would make sure you were covered at all time, but they might be quick to pop off a warning shot into the dining room roof. Which, by itself is not a bad thing. But it always seems to come at the end of your shift and you were stuck writing reports for another hour.
10 Tower Folsom image via getty images

10 Tower Folsom
image via getty images

Even today, when I visit a prison, I always look up and see Who’s on the gun.


  1. Delores · · Reply

    Not a place I’d like to work, but on the upside, when your 8 are done, they are done. Now it is someone else s job.

    1. Not necessarily. Prisons (like other law enforcement agencies) often have “drafts,” or “shift holdovers,” in which you are forced to work another 8 hour shift. It’s called “working a double.” My first day ever worked (at San Quentin), I was drafted to work another full 8 hour shift, on top of the “terrifying” one I had just completed.

      1. Oh, yeah the holdovers…I didn’t have to worry about that very often. They had guys at Folsom lining up for the overtime at one point. But what a way to do you first day at SQ, Joe!

    2. Hence the saying, “Do your 8 and hit the gate.” Actually I enjoyed working on the inside. You got to know the people you work with and you depended upon one another.

  2. Interesting. Good to know if I get sent to prison.

    1. Just send me a postcard from the cellblock and I’ll send you that cake with the file baked inside.

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