Inside a Military Prison

Navy Prison
••• NAVCONBRIG Miramar houses up to 372 prisoners. Official Navy Photo

Like any well-trained leader, Boatswain’s Mate 2nd Class Brandon Wickersham spends the majority of his day smoothing the edges on his troops. His men are just rougher around the edges.

Every day, he makes sure they wear a squared-away uniform, eat chow and receive counseling about educational and military opportunities. Like any leading petty officer worth his salt, he ensures they get to work on time, make all of their appointments, have enough rest. At taps, he personally inspects each man with standards that would make a recruit company commander flinch, says goodnight and turns out their light.

Then he locks them away in their prison cells.

His men are prisoners at the Naval Consolidated Brig (NAVCONBRIG) Miramar, a Navy command with a multi-service staff comprised of Sailors, Airmen, Marines and Soldiers, and Wickersham is a staff correctional officer. Like all of the nearly 200 NAVCONBRIG Miramar staff members, he was handpicked specifically for his leadership abilities demonstrated in the fleet, field or sky.

NAVCONBRIG Miramar, which houses up to 372 prisoners, is part of the Navy’s corrections system, run by the Navy Corrections and Programs Division at Naval Personnel Command, Millington, Tenn.

The Navy uses three levels of incarceration, a tier system that is based on the length of a prisoner’s sentence. Waterfront brigs, afloat brigs, correctional custody units (CCU) and pre-trial confinement facilities house Tier I prisoners sentenced up to one year. Tier II prisoners are transferred to one of the Navy’s two consolidated brigs, located at Marine Corps Air Station Miramar, Calif., and Naval Weapons Station Charleston, S.C., for sentences of up to 10 years.

Additionally, all female prisoners within DOD serve their time at NAVCONBRIG Miramar to better facilitate the rehabilitative process.

“Before DOD sent all of the female prisoners here,” said NAVCONBRIG Miramar Executive Officer CDR Kris Winter, “it was difficult to run successful female-specific rehabilitation programs because there weren’t enough women in any one place. By housing them in one central location, we maximize their potential to be fully rehabilitated.”

Level III offenders–prisoners with sentences greater than 10 years, who pose a national security risk or are sentenced to death, are sent to the U.S. Disciplinary Barracks, Ft. Leavenworth, Kan.

In addition to being exceptional Sailors, all Navy NAVCONBRIG Miramar staff members are required to earn the NEC 9575, correctional specialist, at a four-week school held at Lackland Air Force Base, San Antonio, prior to reporting for duty. Despite being a prison, only the rated Master-at-Arms Sailor at the brig wears khakis. The rest of the Sailors come straight from sea-intensive ratings like personnel men, machinist’s mates and yeomen. And if you consider yourself a serious leadership scholar, then a three-year course at NAVCONBRIG Miramar is probably the best education you can get.

“These Sailors are trained to fix people with some pretty serious problems,” said NAVCONBRIG Miramar Training Director Charles Lyles, “… so, leading good Sailors on a ship afterward is going to be a piece of cake.”

Culinary Specialist 2nd Class Augusta Vistavilla specifically chose brig duty to concentrate on developing his leadership skills.

“I wanted a new challenge in my career,” said Vistavilla. “We don’t cook here as a staff; we concentrate more on security, leadership and how to work with the different branches of the military. That’s a nice change of pace from the galley, and it makes me a better Sailor.”

“Brig duty is a wonderful duty to hone your leadership skills,” said CDR Jim Cunha, commanding officer. “Staff Sailors here aren’t swabbing decks or cutting veggies. They supervise, that’s it.”

And supervision doesn’t get any more intensive than at a direct supervision facility like NAVCONBRIG Miramar. Staff members must plan each minute of every prisoner’s day.

“The most useful thing I’ve learned here is time management,” said Air Force Staff Sgt. Kenneth Williams, quarters supervisor at the brig. “Everything here is on a set schedule -- everything.”

They monitor everything the prisoners do -- what they read, whom they talk to, when they eat, when they sleep, how they wear their uniforms and even tend to their personal hygiene.

“One of the most difficult parts of dealing with the prisoners is watching them adapt to confinement,” said Aviation Boatswain’s Mate (Handling) 1st Class Reycard Abrenilla. “It’s a unique experience.”

Staff members must be prepared to handle prisoners with convictions ranging from unauthorized absences to murder. “We teach staff how to use their minds to bring potentially violent situations to a halt, and we give them the experience to know the skills work,” said Lyles.

One of the more useful skills learned at NAVCONBRIG Miramar is verbal judo. It’s a word skill taught to help defuse potential conflict and handle aggressive people, life threatening situations and the like.

But the textbook answer of leadership enhancement isn’t the only thing attracting the Navy’s best and brightest to brig duty.

“Duty here is a lot more fun than doing paperwork and kicking boxes,” said Storekeeper 1st Class Tamara J. Seguine. “I actually told my detailer I wouldn’t reenlist unless they sent me to the brig.”

Seguine’s excitement comes from the fact that she is one of a handful of staffers on the elite Command Emergency Response Team (CERT), one of the collateral duties available to staff members.

A CERT is made up of 6 to 8 people who are specially trained to respond to riots, fires, emergencies, escape attempts, high profile prisoner escorts and to serve as a show of force.

Another unusual level of responsibility at the brig is the requirement to qualify as the command duty officer.

“On an aircraft carrier, it would take a rank of commander to be responsible for 300 people,” said Cunha, “but here at the brig, we have first class petty officers filling that role, and it’s a tougher job because all of our people are known troublemakers.”

Cunha’s staff isn’t handpicked just because they pull a tougher duty day, though. Brig staff members realize the effects of serving as role models for incarcerated service members doesn’t stop at the razor-wire-covered fences. Eventually, prisoners get released back to society, hopefully as productive citizens -- the whole point of rehabilitation.

“How we treat prisoners here matters,” said Cunha. “These prisoners are eventually going to be out in our communities, at the movies, grocery stores, etc., so we have a responsibility to make sure they’re ready to be responsible citizens. To do that we have to start with the very best role models, and I have to know that each and every person who works for me is doing the right thing every day.” Cunha and his staff must be doing something right, according to Lyles.

“Prisoners call back to the brig and thank the sailors who helped them rebuild their lives,” said Lyles.

It’s no secret how prisoners end up at Miramar. They made the worst choice of their lives. But for the staff stationed there, getting sent to the brig is the best career choice they could have made.