The Discipline Series: Interview with a Corrections Officer
"Without structure, you invite anarchy”
I sat down with Tom Ahearn, an active member of St. Greg's parish, for a cup of coffee and conversation about discipline in his life. There are a few things you need to know about Tom. Tom is a solid guy. Physically and spiritually. Shaking his hand can be compared to grabbing a bear paw. As a retired corrections officer, he still has the means to flip you upside down. Instead, he uses his heart to make a difference in people's lives.
All too often we banter back and forth around the cafe with double or triple helpings of sarcasm. You can hear his lighthearted laugh from a mile away.
A: Thanks for joining me today Tom. Tell me about your career working in corrections.
T: I worked at the jail for 20 years. It was a tough role and there was a lot of peer pressure that leaned on my conscience. How did I get to that point? My father was a Buffalo firefighter and we grew up on the East Side. My neighbor, Mr. Simpson was a police officer and was a huge influence on me. I looked up to these guys. They served people everyday and saved lives. I first signed up as a young man to take the civil service exam but the blizzard of 77 canceled it that year. In the meantime I had to buy my time and worked as a manager at a shoe shop.
I took the test for correction's officer in 1982, I didn’t study and earned a whopping 70%. That's low but the demand for the position ended up scooping me in. I started in the academy and then completed four weeks of on the job training. Spent the majority of my career at Attica jail with some tough guys. The pay was low but the benefits were very good. It really helped me take care of my family.
Sometimes I see my life as a contradiction. There are times when I think about the things I’ve done at work where I have slipped. As I'm sure you can imagine, prison life is not easy. I've been hard on people. Sometimes I would say, “the ends would justify the means and the means justifies the end,” just to get through. It’s difficult to be in a toxic work environment that challenges your faith. I would go to my priest and ask, "how can I do some of these things and be a good person?"
I was injured a number of times, broken nose, knuckles, two total knee replacements. I always went back to work after because I needed to take care of the family. My family is what keeps me focused. Eventually the injury's finally caught up with me and was officially retired by HR.
A: What keeps you on track?
T: 1. My wife.
I had a great career. I learned a lot about politicians by being the vice president of our union. There are honest ones, fair ones, and liars. I could have gotten into politics and was tempted to. I was invited to run for office a number of times but my wife always said “over my dead body”, and she meant it. So that was that but I found later that it was her disciplining me. I listen to her and trust her judgement. Janet has always encouraged me to keep going through law enforcement but when it came to politics she saw something else. The saying is true, behind every good man is a great woman. She keeps me grounded. She actually brought me back into the Church when I was younger. I found that I was straying but when I met Janet, she kept me on the straight and narrow.
From there I kept getting involved with the Church in various roles from parish counsel to helping with the Eucharistic Ministers. Janet was always behind the scenes but was stronger and smarter than I. If discipline is a backbone, Janet is my backbone. It’s important to get each others back when we are running short. To keep each other disciplined. That’s marriage.
"If discipline is a backbone, Janet is my backbone."
2. My father.
My father’s discipline in prayer was instrumental in showing me how to be diligent. Being Irish Catholic was unbelievable. We knew how to have a good time but you wouldn't mess with the faith. He would have us go to church every Sunday and build prayer into our routine as we grew up. This stayed with me as I grew up. Before he passed, he had a Catholic prayer book by his side in the hospital room while waiting for his surgery. I'll never forget that he carried this faith to the end.
A: What would you want to share with people about discipline?
T: You can look at discipline through a variety of ways. Life, family, church, and prayer. Without structure, you invite anarchy. Prayer is a great way to build that structure. I love the liturgy of hours, a discipline where you pray at certain hours with those around the world. I grab a cup of coffee in the morning and sit down for my prayer time.
If I can give one piece of advice, live your life with Jesus at the head of it. The rest will fall in place.