Iowa guard tells newspaper his story of inspiring prisoners; gets suspended

The story of what happened to an Iowa prison guard, suspended because he told a newspaper about how he treats prisoners decently, is so bizarre that I thought it surely must be part of an April Fool’s news hoax, particularly since the paper’s story isn’t online.

Alas, it’s no joke.

In the era of dwindling local news, the Associated Press says, John Cox’s story stands out as an example of governments’ increasingly heavy-handed approach toward silencing news of its activities.

Karen Spurgeon, the publisher of the Bloomfield Democrat in southern Iowa, was once Cox’s music teacher and when she ran into him last year and caught up on what he’s up to these days, she thought it would be a nice story of a decent guy doing good work and inspiring the prisoners at the Mount Pleasant Correctional Facility. She wasn’t wrong.

On Monday, she sent me a copy of the original story, reprinted here with her permission:

He’s 5 feet 6 inches tall and weighs only 155 pounds, but every day he walks into the Mt. Pleasant Correctional Facility unarmed and unafraid. He is one of 21-25 officers guarding 1,055 incarcerated individuals at any given time.

“My job is to walk in unarmed and keep the peace and tranquility within the institution eight hours every day and be their primary example,” said John Cox of Bloomfield. “I’ve worked this job five years and still love it.”

One might wonder what led Cox to follow this career path and how anyone could find satisfaction in such a job.

His story is one of making poor choices when young, but being willing to draw on the inspiration of others to turn his life around. Now he finds great satisfaction in helping others prepare for a successful life following incarceration.

Cox made the mistake of dropping out of school when he was only 14 years old.

“I owe my life to Edna Magill,” he said. Magill spent many years teaching GED classes.

“She was not supposed to help anyone that young, but she taught me twice a week for four hours a day and I was able to get my GED through Indian Hills Community College at 17.

“I remember her at my graduation pulling me aside. She looked at me and said, ‘John, I love you. Tonight is your night. Always remember, education is the one thing no one can take away from you.”

Magill’s words of advice were so well ingrained in Cox’s mind that even today he recalls her statement word for word.

Cox admits those teenage years were quite a struggle. While studying for his GED, he also worked full-time at the sale barn. “That taught me there is dignity in all work as long as you give it 100 percent, whether pumping gas, washing dishes, or shoveling cow manure,” he said.

Cox also drew on the inspiration of family members as he transitioned to adulthood.

He recalls the photos of his dad, Gary Cox, in his Army uniform as he served in Vietnam. He recalls photos of his uncles in their military uniforms — Phil Reyes, Tony Reyes, and Joe Reyes in their Army uniforms and Jim Reyes in his Marine uniform.

“It was the professionalism their uniforms gave them. When I looked at their photos, I could see the pride, honor, and integrity in their eyes. I wanted that feeling. That influenced me.

“When I was 18, I was ready to go into the military. My father told me I could serve my country, and there would be pride. But I could also experience demons that would haunt me for the rest of my life.

“He reminded me he would love me whatever path I took.”

After weighing the advice, Cox chose not to join the military and went straight to work at Rubbermaid in Centerville for 10-1/2 years until the factory closed.

“After Rubbermaid closed, I didn’t know what to do. I had three kids and had just built a home. I knew I had to do something,” he said.

At this low point in his life, Cox drew inspiration from his wife, Star.

“Star saw qualities in me I didn’t know I had,” he said. “She wanted something better for me as well as for her and the kids.

“She asked me if I had ever thought about college — I was 32!

“Prior to that I had applied for police positions. I always passed the agility test and the interviews, and then got a letter of rejection in the mail.

“Star looked at me and said, ‘You’re going to do it.’”
Cox entered the Criminal Justice program at IHCC. Out of a class of 88, he was one of only 12 that graduated.

“It was a tough course,” he said. “I think it was my age that made me successful. I had lots of reasons to be motivated.”

Following his graduation from the criminal justice program, Cox applied for a job with the Iowa Department of Corrections. He received a phone call asking him to take an online aptitude test. He passed the test, then received a call to set up an interview.

“The day of my interview — I wanted that job so much — I suddenly realized I didn’t know how to tie a tie,” he said with a smile. “Jim (his uncle, Jim Reyes) tied it for me. Looking him in the eye as he tied it, I knew I had to land that job. I couldn’t let him down!”

Cox’s interview with three captains in the correctional system only took 15 minutes. “I didn’t know if it was good or bad, but three hours after I got home, I got a phone call saying, ‘Welcome to Mt. Pleasant.’

“Every day when I make that drive, I tell myself it was worth it,” he said.

‘I teach them’

Cox takes his job seriously and wants the inmates to learn from him.

“How I present myself, whether it’s my attitude, my mannerisms — they learn from that.

“This is my primary tool, how you communicate. It’s not force,” Cox said. “It’s how you talk to them. My job is to gain control with the least amount of force necessary. If I can do that through verbal commands, it’s rewarding.

“I’m one of the smallest officers there at 5 feet 6 inches and 155 pounds. By just communicating with them verbally, it helps build rapport, even though I may be just saying hello and asking them how their day is.”

Cox said he does offer advice and guidance, but the first step is to get them to understand what they did was wrong and accept the responsibility of their actions.

“As far as being punished, their court sentence is their punishment. It’s my job to rehabilitate them — make them better than when they arrived. I firmly believe if anyone wants it and is willing to put in the work, they can change. I teach them that any behavior they choose to practice — they also choose that behavior’s consequences.”

Cox said the institution does provide multiple types of training to prepare inmates for re-entry into society. If between the ages of 18 to 21, inmates without high school diplomas must work toward their GEDs. They also have opportunities to pursue higher degrees of all kinds.

Iowa Workforce assists with writing resumes and filling out job applications, and the institution provides apprenticeship programs in several trades including carpentry and welding. Inmates can also apply for jobs within the institution and work toward certifications in food safety, blood-borne pathogens, and CPR.

As Cox gets to know the inmates, he reminds them that wealth isn’t measured in social status, the car they drive, or their bank account. “Wealth is measured in what you achieve in life,” he tells them.

“One of the biggest challenges of my job is to not be prejudiced according to the crime they committed. I have to treat everyone equally,” he said. “That’s hard.

“I’ve had a lot of sex offenders who have shown no remorse. They are often manipulators and will tell officials what they want to hear. But amongst the prison population you will hear them bragging. One told me personally he was always looking for a victim.

“If they can tell you that and say they are really changed, they have another victim,” he said.

“I have to find ways to manipulate them when they get comfortable and then I can find out the truth. When I have a guy come to me voluntarily and talk to me, I know he’s comfortable.

“Then I ask about his childhood and what influenced him to commit the crime. It’s a feeling out process. Then I can start giving advice and guidance.”

Cox shared one success story that touches his heart:

“I’ve got a young guy in his mid-20s who has lots of tattoos and spends a lot of time lifting heavy weights. He writes music and draws portraits. He has a creative side that no one had discovered. He hasn’t even acknowledged his own talents.

“One day I got him to sing to me when he was depressed. To look at him, he’s intimidating…but to get him right here singing to me? I shared with him that music takes us where words cannot. I told him those are talents he needs to pursue and share with the world. He’s now getting better at doing that.

“I’m trying to teach him that as long as he labels himself as a drug dealer and an inmate, he’ll label himself in his own mind as incarcerated for the rest of his life.

“He understands that. I see a lot of progress in his mannerisms and the assistance he gives other incarcerated individuals. That’s our goal,” he said.

“I’m not just a correctional officer, I’m a teacher,” Cox said. “I’ve had a lot of guys come up to me and say, ‘Mr. Cox, I leave next week. Thank you for all you’ve done.’ Then they’ll reach out and shake my hand.

“It’s rewarding. I know I’ve made a difference.

“On the other hand, you’ll have that guy who says ‘I can’t wait to get out and get that 12-pack — or drugs.’ I know I’m going to see him again.”

Cox is now in his forties, and says some of the 18-year-olds who enter look at him as a father figure. “A lot tell me they look up to me because no one else ever took the time to listen.

“I’ve got a similar background to a lot of guys here, and the one thing I want to get through to them is — ‘In your moment of weakness or despair, there is always a way to persevere.’

“It’s better to take the long road than the shortcut. Even though there are ups and downs, potholes and curves, you can still reach your goal.”

Cox said some of the “down” moments in his job occurred when he had to supervise some of the guys he went to school with. “When they’re here, they don’t call me John, they know me as sir, CO (Correctional Officer), or Mr. Cox.”

Reflecting on what happens in life to cause individuals to go astray, Cox said, “A child is the most innocent form of life, but if that child grows up seeing mom or dad smoking, drinking, fighting, or doing drugs, they think that’s OK. Their parents are the two people they trust the most.

“When that child’s at school acting out, that child unfortunately gets labeled as a bad kid because we don’t know what’s going on behind closed doors.

“When these guys arrive at this institution, I have to teach them the skills and qualities that should have been taught by their parents — I have to become a parent figure. It’s tough, but I love it. I’m one of the smallest guys there and yet I walk into a house of 1,055 inmates with no fear.”

Cox said he instructs the inmates that when “we run out of ways to communicate verbally, then we resort to the physical. If needed, take a deep breath or walk away for five minutes to avoid conflict.”

Cox tries to help the inmates “make good out of a bad situation.”

“Look at this as a program you can graduate from successfully, not as being incarcerated,” he tells them.

“The night is the worst time for them,” Cox said. “During the daytime, the inmates interact with officers, other inmates, and get phone calls, but the toughest guy in the world will be in bed at night crying.”

Cox said the inmates will be offered minimal perks at Christmastime. They will be able to purchase more items in the commissary and given goody bags and a meal of ham or turkey. “I always try to recognize special days by wishing them a Merry Christmas, Happy Birthday, or Happy Thanksgiving,” he said.

Unfortunately, many of the inmates are forgotten. “When they are chemically dependent or incarcerated, many families shun them,” he said.

“In prison, we try to praise them for the good they do while here, and we help them realize that when they re-enter society they will need support. Everyone is assigned a counselor who will help with the release and line up support programs.”

Cox said he is not allowed to give the inmates his contact information upon release, even though he would like to sometimes follow up with them and their progress.

Cox said the Mt. Pleasant facility is minimum security, but the most dangerous institution in Iowa because of dorm-style living. “We have the most populated institution in Iowa with the most assaults — inmate on inmate or inmate on officers — on a regular basis,” he said.

Fort Madison and Anamosa have the most violent inmates and they are locked in cells 23 hours per day. The officers in those institutions carry firearms.

“We have firearms,” Cox said. “But they are in an armory outside the institution.”

As for Cox, he will continue to walk into the facility unarmed and keep the peace and tranquility as he leads by example.

He also asks the public’s help in assisting inmates. “If you have a loved one who has fallen, try to be the one to catch them. Be a positive support system — not the enabler.

“Remember, kindness is the gift that doesn’t cost anything!”

A correctional system couldn’t buy better publicity than that. Cox seems like just the sort of person the system needs. Nothing that Cox said about the facility isn’t already a matter of public record.

But the Iowa Department of Corrections suspended him for three days for talking to the media, the Associated Press reported.

“He got disciplined for talking to the newspaper. That is just insane,” union president Danny Homan tells the AP. “What are we running in the state of Iowa, a dictatorial state where you can’t say anything about the state? I guess that means that I get to be the one who says it. It’s just wrong.”

This, the union boss said, is why he tells state workers not to speak to the media.

This is the darkness that is descending.

(h/t: Karen Spurgeon)

  • Thank you, thank you for this story.

  • Kristen Hirsch Montag

    First, he sounds like an amazing individual; thanks for sharing his story. I’m guessing that it is possible it’s due to employees not being authorized to do media interviews, which is pretty standard for any company. PR and leadership like to oversee and know about any media coverage/contacts. There could even be a rule in their employee handbook/union contract/etc. That may be why the heavy-handed approach. But the story is indeed a good one and I hope he continues to love his job.

    • jon

      I can’t speak to Iowa, but in MN any publication of information coming out of a prison usually needs to be approved by the prison (warden) before hand.

      Knowing what I know from talking to people who have worked/volunteer/been incarcerated in prisons this suspension doesn’t surprise me in the slightest.

      • Nobody owns your own story.

        • Ickster

          That’s exactly what I was thinking. This wasn’t a story about the prison. This was a story about Mr. Cox and his philosophy.

          • Exactly. If I do an interview with some media and tell people what I do for a living and how I approach it and what my philosophy on writing is, I don’t cede the ownership of that to Minnesota Public Radio at all. I *do* cede the rights to audience data or strategic information to them, of course, because they own THAT. But they don’t own my story. I do.

            And what’s going on here is that the prison knows that too. What the state is trying to do is simply serve notice what the union president said: don’t talk to the media at all. Period. About anything.

          • Jack

            Honesty terrifies those in power.

          • jon

            “I’ve got a young guy in his mid-20s who has lots of tattoos and spends a lot of time lifting heavy weights. He writes music and draws portraits. He has a creative side that no one had discovered. He hasn’t even acknowledged his own talents.”

            That is information about what is happening in the prison, information about an inmate… one that he also states was a drug dealer.

            He can tell his story, he can say he works as a prison guard, he might even be able to talk about his method and approach to being a prison guard, but the specifics are likely the part that crossed the line to give without running it past the prisons administration prior to publishing.

            When you work in a place and are entrusted with information that you aren’t supposed to share with the press, and you share it with the press, you might well find you don’t have a job any more.

            If you work in healthcare, and you leak identifying information about a patient, you won’t have a job any more… even if the grander story is about your work in healthcare.

          • There’s no identifying information here.

          • Angry Jonny

            That is not PHI.

          • jon

            Which isn’t PHI? Personally identifying information on a patient? because that sure as hell can be.

            Example: “I work in a clinic that specializes in removing foreign objects from peoples rectums.”
            That’s a fine (hypothetical) statement, but if you add “there was this one patient [insert personally identifying information here]” Now I’ve not only given you personally identifying information, but I’ve also made it pretty clear they had a foreign object inserted in a place foreign objects aren’t normally inserted.

            Or are you suggesting that talking about a prisoner isn’t PHI? Because it doesn’t have to be, ANYTHING about what goes on in a prison goes through the administration before being published. I did not invent this rule, and while you can argue about if it exists, but I assure you all it does exist, as evidenced by the above mentioned suspension.

            I’ve heard from people about being chewed out by wardens, having prison programs canceled because people on the outside published something that happened in the prison without authorization…
            If it happens in a prison, it gets approved by the prison before it gets published, those are the rules (at least in MN).

          • The rules are increasingly used to provide a code of silence.

            It’s why the southern Washington County school board , fo rexample, won’t talk about how a pervert and (now) murderer was hired to ride the school bus, or an embezzler became a school principal, or a superintendent was suddenly fired.

            “That’s the rules” isn’t a get out of jail free card for those who are increasingly trying to shield themselves from inspection .

          • Laurie K.

            Mr. Cox does not work at healthcare facility and the information he provided in the story is not PHI or personal health information.

          • jon

            nor is an example of a similar situation the same situation.

          • Laurie K.

            But that isn’t that exactly what you tried to do in order to show that Mr. Cox’ situation is the same as the hypothetical that you outlined about? What was the point of your hypothetical health care scenario?

            My point is that because Mr. Cox does not work for a health care provider, health plan or health care clearinghouse, your hypothetical does not work because he is not subject to HIPAA.

          • jon

            My point is when you are given information at work that you aren’t supposed to have published, and you tell it to a reporter… you are going to have a bad time.

            Doesn’t matter if it’s PHI or military secrets or talking about sealed court files.

            I’m not saying the rule is right, or wrong, only that it exists, and if you break it there will likely be some sort of ramifications…

          • As I said, the publisher noted that all of what little information about the prison was revealed was already in the public record.

          • jon

            There are things that are public information that if I were to type them here in an non-approved release would still get me in trouble at work.

            Also Iowa has public records of a guy singing when he was depressed? I doubt that.

            Again it’s not about operational security… it’s anything that happens in a prison gets approved by the prison before being published, maybe it’s a dumb rule, I’m not here to pass judgement, but I’m not surprised a prison enforces their rules… it’s pretty much what prison bureaucracy spend all of it’s time doing.

          • No, it’s about control freak big-footing. And also a compliant population.

            It’s a way to fire a shot over the bow of anyone in the future thinking of talking to the media about things that are serious, including corruption.

  • Guest

    “A lot tell me they look up to me because no one else ever took the time to listen.”

  • Charlie Hurd

    Pretty much the same for the three school systems that I worked in. They don’t want people to know what really goes on.

  • J Allen

    He may have given information about where the institution’s firearms are stored that wasn’t supposed to be made public?

    • According to the publisher, that’s all public information.

  • Al N.

    This is almost certainly a violation of his 1st amendment rights. The state of Iowa (or any government) has a much higher bar to hurdle in order to restrict employee rights to free speech and this action probably does not pass the “Pickering Test” that the goverment must meet in order to prevail in curtailing public employee speech.

    This is a good explanation. https://www.isba.org/sections/laboremploymentlaw/newsletter/2011/12/publicemployeesandfreespeech

    1. Is the information a matter of public interest or concer?
    Yes probably, the public has a right and an interest in knowing what is happening to other citizens who are incarcerated.
    2. Does the speech unduely or adversely impact the government’s ability to conduct it’s business?
    Umm no. If anything it helps them.
    3. Is the speech being made as a representative of the government, or as a private citizen?
    Clearly he is speaking as a private citizen.

    All that said, the state of Iowa will probably hide behind the “Adverse Employment Action” language and say that because it did not impact his pay or include anything “adverse” like reassignment, demotion, etc., it does not count as a punishment and therefore does not count as government interference in free speech.

    Too bad, this guy sounds like exactly the kind of person you WANT working in a prison.