When we’re at work, we all have a number of roles — we can take on other jobs, wear many hats. Albert Watson is a Detention Officer at the Dane County Juvenile Detention Center, where he also hosts a cooking club. Here, he tells the story of the day he saved a life by taking a bit of his own advice. He shared it at a storytelling event and on the podcast, “Inside Stories.”
I had ten minutes left in my shift before it was time to go home. I was headed to the control room to relinquish my equipment when the timer went off and I informed my coworker, Walter, that I’d head back to the pod to check on the male youth.
See, every 25 minutes, our policy is to check on every kid that’s in their room. This was a kid whose moods seemed to change as the day went on. It seemed like the more people he talked to — whether it be a social worker, public defender, the police — the more emotional he became.
I’ve been a detention officer for almost 10 years at the Dane County Juvenile Detention Center. I’ve been training for lead worker position and recently became the President of the Wisconsin Juvenile Detention Association.
For the past five years, I’ve facilitated a cooking group at detention. No, I have not been to culinary school. A passion for cooking started with my dad.
I’m the oldest of four boys and my dad would get us up at 6:30 a.m. just so we could eat breakfast consisting of sausage, salt pork, homemade biscuits, eggs and tomato gravy. Yeah, I’m country-er than a sugar sandwich.
My dad could take some neck bones and barbecue them in the oven and make us licking our fingers, shortly after engaging that dish. So when I cook with these kids, it’s from the heart and with love.
We’ve made many dishes over the last five years — from deep fried Twinkies and Oreos to fried chicken and waffles. We’ve done homemade meatloaf, five-cheese macaroni, lasagna and homemade garlic bread, patty melts, paninis.
We always like to celebrate other cultures, so during the month of March — giving respect to the Irish — we did corned beef and cabbage, shamrock shakes and bangers & mash — which isn’t really an Irish dish, but was one of the recipes that popped up when I Googled, “Irish dishes.” It’s actually a dish of the British Isles.
So every Thursday, I make lunch with these kids that earn it. Unfortunately, the kids that don’t earn it? Their meal is a bit different.
You see, this cooking program is a program that the kids in the system enjoy and appreciate. I’ve been told it’s the only good thing the kids have to say about being in jail.
Damn, I forgot to mention that we always have some sort of dessert, whether it be brownie sundaes or smoothies. And I can’t forget the Kool-Aid. Kool-Aid is special when you’re locked up.
I bet you’re all wondering: what do the kids get when they don’t earn the lunch? They get hot dogs; hot dogs I boil for about four hours. All I do is keep adding water to them. These turkey franks go from looking light brown color to this pale off white, spongy Vienna Sausage frank.
I once added green food coloring on St. Patrick’s Day. I’m a damn fool at work.
Some people think it’s mean or cruel. I call it “get your sh-t together.” I can’t reward negative behavior. You can’t disrespect staff or be verbally abusive and earn the lunch.
You can’t steal a car Wednesday night, get locked up and earn the special lunch on Thursday.
We’ll shoot for next Thursday.
The point I’m trying to make is: Do your job.
A kid who’s incarcerated has only one job and that’s to follow the program so you get the hell up out of detention.
As I entered B pod, I walked to a room, B3. As I opened a small window of B3, I wasn’t sure if what I was seeing was real, but it was. The male youth was hanging from the side of his toilet seat. Typically, when there’s a crisis or incident at work where we need assistance from 911 or the sheriff deputies, I just push the orange panic button on my radio. However, these were the radios that hadn’t been synchronized.
I radioed for staff to call 911 and asked for assistance in B pod. I then opened the door of B3 and entered.
Walter had just arrived. I instructed Walter to open the first aid drawer and grab the scissors from the first aid kit. See, you gotta know where things are where you work.
Once I had the scissors in my hand, I began cutting the part of the sheet that was wrapped around this kid’s neck.
The kid let out this GRUNT of a sound which let me know that he just might be OK.
I began saying to myself, “We got time. We got time.” I gently placed this kid on the floor and wrapped several blankets on him to make him as comfortable as I could, and continued to talk to ensure him that he was going to be OK.
Of course, he had a pulse and was breathing. Why do you think I put the blankets over him? I was being a smart ass.
The point I’m trying to make is that I was doing my job that day. That timer went off after 25 minutes and that kid needed to be checked.
A good thing happened from doing my job. That’s what I try to teach these kids during their short stay at the Dane County Juvenile Detention Center.
This transcript has been edited for brevity and clarity. Albert Watson told his story on the “Inside Stories” podcast, which features Madison storytellers and digs deeper into their lives.
(This story originally aired on January 5, 2021).