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In the Slammer

Special Programs, Brig Duty

It's 4 a.m., and Petty Officer 1st Class Melissa Mayer is heading to jail.

Her morning begins with the clanging of locked doors opening, almost constant intercom announcements from other guards, and general chatter from inmates and staff. Daily life inside Naval Consolidated Brig Miramar Detachment Pearl Harbor is far less relaxed than its setting on a beautiful Hawaiian island would indicate, said Mayer.

"If you're pinpointed as weak, you're going to be treated like you're weak," she said, pacing a cell block inside the facility as inmates watch her pass by. "You have to come in here with an attitude that will make you look strong, and make it so people aren't going to walk all over you."

Mayer's stay at the brig is not permanent, nor is it sentenced; she voluntarily took orders to serve as a brig duty officer inside the facility, essentially serving as a prison guard for the installation. Seeing her interact with inmates or confidently walk the corridors of the brig, it might come as a surprise to learn that Mayer wasn't always so comfortable with the job.

I didn't feel ready at first. Walking through that first door coming back here, it was just scary. I was so nervous to stand that first watch, even though I was under instruction."
- Mayer

For Mayer, and many Americans, the closest reference point to what life is like in a prison or brig environment comes from television and movies, which often portray it as violent and intense.

"'Orange is the New Black' just came out when I started this," said Mayer, laughing. "I just don't think TV portrays brig or prison life accurately. People are expecting something completely different, but it's a very professional place."

Mayer's primary job as a brig duty officer is ensuring the safety and security of prisoners and staff. Since the brig is not a civilian prison, the prisoners are not serving life sentences and will either return to active duty or to civilian life, meaning the staff must also help them prepare for that reality.

"It's not a harmful environment; they're safe here," said Mayer. "It's about rehabilitation here. It's not mean - it's very professional."

Once Mayer got over the initial culture shock of switching from the damage control community to working as a brig duty officer, she immediately began taking on more responsibilities until she became a standout Sailor. About a year into her tour, she became the brig duty officer for an entire section of seven to 12 other guards, acting as their supervisor and planning out watch bills and duty assignments. She has also served as the evidence custodian, fire marshal, sexual assault victim advocate and the operations chief for the command. She even finds time to volunteer at a local animal shelter when not busy working.

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It didn't take long for her to be noticed for her hard work; Mayer was named as the 2016 Military Corrections Professional of the Year for the Navy by the American Correctional Association, a sought-after award in the military and civilian corrections community.

"I'm still in shock, actually," said Mayer. "It was a really big deal."

As far as her future, Mayer is finishing up a bachelor's degree in criminal justice, and hopes to stay in the field as a lawyer. In fact, she plans to apply to join the Judge Advocate General Corps someday.

"This helped me decide that, actually," said Mayer about her time in the brig. "Learning about law, and interacting with this side of the law, makes it so when I leave I'll know just a little bit more than everyone else, since a lot of people have never even been inside a place like this."

As Mayer paces the cell blocks, her uniform adorned with radios, belts, keys and a gold badge, she holds her head high with confidence and authority. The buzzing of the large metal doors unlocking and the loud din of voices and intercom announcements echoing through the cold, concrete hallways are just background noise to Mayer, who said she feels comfortable in the environment.

"I don't even notice the doors clicking anymore. I don't even notice the announcements anymore," she said. "It's really just a great place to work. We have a lot of great people who work here."

Mayer pauses to answer a radio call, silently laughing as if to acknowledge the busy nature of her job.

"You know, basically I won this award," she said, after ending her radio conversation. "But it really should have been the whole facility, because we all got the award together."