Prepping for prison: What it takes to become a correctional officer

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Prepping for prison: What it takes to become a correctional officer

By Marcelino Benito. CREATED Nov 20, 2013

TUCSON (KGUN9-TV) - It's a place most of us will never see for ourselves. Places that hold almost 41,000 of Arizona's most violent and problematic people.

"It is a difficult and demanding environment," said Cdr. Ivan Bartos.

Men and women are smack dab in the middle of it.

"Does it take a special person?" asked 9OYS reporter Marcelino Benito. "It does take a special type of person," replied cadet RaeAnn Torres. "You have to be strong."

But before they step inside prison, they must survive this. Welcome to the Correctional Officers Training Academy, also known as COTA.

"It's a stomach twisting experience," said cadet Aron Passion.

"As long as you're mentally strong, you'll never break," said cadet Berman Comon.

Seven weeks of grueling training that prepares cadets for real life scenarios they could face on the job. Commander Bartos oversees the academy and gave 9OYS exclusive access to the training.

"We want to use our brain, not our brawn in this business," said Bartos.

Meet COTA class 986. 9OYS caught up on day one.

"I'm excited to be a part of it," said cadet Kathi Mullooly.

"This is my first big boy job I'm walking into," said cadet Aron Passion.

The work starts in the classroom drilling home respect and a military-style precision to everything they do, even lunch. They practice frisking after.

"They've learning is lifelong," said Bartos.

As weeks go by, the training gets tougher. Self defense classes teach men and women, young and old how to fight back.

"To make sure our graduates go home in same shape they came in," said Bartos.

A mock prison facility helps them visualize their training, helps cadets learn the tricks that allow 38 correctional officers to control a prison population of 11,000 usually violent men.

"Any woman would feel concerned walking in there," said Mullooly.

But the female cadets aren't intimidated.

"Sometimes the female presence can get compliance where the biggest buff officer wouldn't," Bartos said.

Days before their graduation they face their hardest challenge yet. Every cadet regardless of sex or age is pepper sprayed. And it hurts. Badly. You hear it and see it on their faces. But it's necessary. They need to get a taste of what it does to prisoners and what it one day, if things go wrong, could do to them.

"It's pretty painful," said Torres. "One of the worst pains I've ever felt."

They're growing pains.

"I'm ready to go right now," said Comon.

That make them ready for a job on the inside. Next stop: prison. They'll join the ranks of the more than 5,600 men and women who keep the bad guys locked up and in line.

The academy graduates a class every other week. Some of the cadets graduate this Friday. They'll be assigned to prisons across the state.