Woman jailer adapts to life behind bars (Video)

Feb. 28, 2013 at midnight
Updated March 3, 2013 at 9:04 p.m.

Cpl. Angela Moya speaks with a detainee in the female holding cell of the Victoria County Jail. Only women jailers are allowed to fully process women inmates, which can cause backups because fewer women work as jailers than men.

Cpl. Angela Moya speaks with a detainee in the female holding cell of the Victoria County Jail. Only women jailers are allowed to fully process women inmates, which can cause backups because fewer women work as jailers than men.   Angeli Wright for The Victoria Advocate

The thick, metal door slides closed as she moves down the hallway, the heavy clink of the locks latching echoing behind her.

She has voluntarily left the "free world" behind, in exchange for life "on the inside."

Life on the inside is different from the free world, she explained. There is no trust, no benefit of the doubt.

Surrounded for the next 12 hours by almost 400 jail inmates who are either awaiting trial or a trip to prison for charges ranging from traffic violators to murder, Cpl. Angela Moya leads a life of constant vigilance while on the inside at the Victoria County Jail.

She continuously walks the clean but pale-looking hallways armed with only a Taser, pepper spray, baton and an assumed sense of authority.

"Our control is perceived. Because I can walk into a 25-man cell and walk in there and start yelling at people for something stupid they are doing, and at any moment they wanted to," Moya said, snapping her fingers, "they can hurt me. I would be out numbered."

However, the single mother of two said she has learned an important lesson as a jailer - the prisoners, for the most part, don't want to hurt her. In the 11 years she has worked behind the metal bars, Moya said, she has been assaulted only three times.

The most recent incident was in January, when a woman inmate punched her in the face over a pair of shoes. A rush of jailers quickly brought the woman to the floor, where she was subdued and placed in a restraint chair to calm her down.

Moya went home that night to her 5- and 12-year-old daughters with only a bruise.

But not all attacks end so quickly or so cleanly, Moya said. The most frightening attack on a jailer happened in 2003, when an inmate on trial for murder and facing capital punishment managed to stab a jailer.

It is violent moments like those - reminders of what can happen if she lets her guard down - that keep Moya sharp.

Sgt. Joseph Randolph, supervisor on the shifts, worked in the prison system for almost 20 years before he came to Victoria. He said his guards must be prepared for the worst at all times and practice strict safety habits such as keeping 3 feet of distance between jailers and inmates.

"It is the unknown, the unpredictability - at any moment, anything can happen," said Randolph. "This isn't a bad job. I don't have officers getting assaulted every day. I'm not getting in a fight with these people every day. But that potential is there."

On a daily basis, however, Moya and the other jailers deal with a different type of abuse.

"You have to have really thick skin to work here, first of all. You better have really, really thick skin if you want to be a female and work in this position," Moya said. "They will say things you didn't know existed. Do things to you - in front of you - that should be done at home, alone."

To fend off some of the lewd behavior, Moya is careful to downplay her femininity.

In addition to the forest green uniform and black combat boots, her hair is kept in a strict ponytail. She applies little to no makeup, and the only jewelry she wears is a small pair of stud earrings.

But Moya said she has one girly accessory she sports proudly. Since the deputies, police officers and jailers can easily get their assigned silver or black handcuffs mixed up, Moya opted for a different color.

"I decided I wanted a pair of handcuffs that no one was going to want, especially men, so I got a pair of really nice, pink handcuffs," Moya said, laughing.

Respect is key, said Capt. Philip Dennis, who supervises the operations of the jail, for the safety of both the inmates and the jailers.

"If you treat someone like an animal, they are most likely going to lash out at you like an animal," Dennis said. "When you see them out in public, you try to have that same type of demeanor back there. That doesn't mean you trust what they are doing."

And since most of the inmates will eventually leave their barred cells to rejoin the "free world" and will see their jailers at Wal-Mart, H-E-B and the movie theater, Dennis said professionalism is especially crucial.

"I have run into subjects I've had to discipline in here while I was out shopping with my kids. . For someone to say that they have never been frightened because you can't control everything around you would be a lie. There is always that concern someone might do something to my wife or my kids," Dennis said.

Because Victoria is a small city, many of the jailers have acquaintances, friends or even family come through the jail as inmates, Moya included.

Dennis said all the jailers are trained to realize the inmates are never a jailer's friend - even if they were best friends before their incarceration.

"Everybody you come into contact with back here, they have bad intent. They are in here for a reason. They are locked up for a reason, and they don't want to be here," Dennis said.

If a jailer forms friendly relationships with an inmate, Dennis said, they are terminated and could face criminal charges.

Moya said she walks among her motivation for never violating those rules every day.

"One of my greatest fears is becoming an inmate, visiting my kids through glass walls, which is something I will never do," Moya said, after watching a slew of families - husbands, wives and children - come to visit loved ones through the glass and talk through a telephone.

Instead, Moya goes home at the end of her day or night shift, always careful to take her boots off before she steps in her house, to greet her two daughters.

Moya said her profession doesn't bother either of her girls. It is all they know.

She worked there when she was pregnant with her daughter who is now 5.

Her 12-year-old, Moya said, wants to be a cop when she grows up.

For now, they both need their mom to guard them, and she does diligently because of her job.

"I see these parents who let their kids go play in the yard, ride their bikes and walk to school by themselves, and I'm like, 'No! Don't do that.' There are pedophiles, child abusers. I'm just more protective," Moya said. "I'm more aware that there are people who do bad things to kids - we house them here."

Despite the risks and the sacrifice of time with family, Moya said she would never do anything else.

"I love dealing with the inmates and their issues and their problems," she said. "And you have 16 officers on shift and you have to deal with all of their issues just like all of the inmates. I like being a problem solver," she said.

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