Book excerpt: If the Walls Could Talk

Any new job can be stressful, but that stress is multiplied when your first day is working as a CO on death row

Gary Pickering held positions from correctional officer to superintendent inside maximum security prisons during his 27-year career in corrections. The following is excerpted from Gary’s book “If the Walls Could Talk.”


The huge, ominous stone building sat prominently on the hillside overlooking Toronto’s Don River, its massive front entrance doors guarded by an intimidating figurehead directly overhead. Mere mention of this place causes a multitude of impressions and feelings to leap into the minds of those who, for one reason or another, have come to know the Riverside Jail.

All manner of men and women have passed through these huge oak portals. Rich, poor, young and old. Both guilty and innocent have seen the inside of this place, some for longer periods than others. For some it created fear, for others control and for still others, hate. But for all, it creates memories; good, bad and always everlasting.

(Image/Gary Pickering)
(Image/Gary Pickering)

I began my new job in 1975, early in the morning. My first day in the Riverside was on death row, although I didn’t know it at the time. There were four small cells and a tiny day area directly in front of the cells. This area was officially called 9 Holding.

I was very nervous. Being locked in was a brand-new experience for me. I had never been in a jail before, let alone the infamous Riverside Jail. I didn't want any trouble and for sure I wanted to meet and even exceed expectations.

The uniform pants issued to me, made of scratchy wool, were hot and itchy. I felt like I needed fresh air, but I was afraid to open one of the dirty windows behind the bars, for fear it would set off an alarm somewhere. And I had just arrived!

I wished that I could talk with someone. Unfortunately, the only other person nearby was the inmate locked in cell #2 and he wasn't very talkative. I later discovered that he was sentenced to hang.

And it was so quiet; the thick walls kept out any street noises and the jail itself wasn’t yet stirring; it was deathly quiet.

I could not see out beyond the steel barred gate that led into the center of the building, because a fine steel-meshed screen covered the bars, preventing contraband from being smuggled.

Moments later, I began to hear the jail waking up. People coughing, dishes rattling and keys jingling. The repeated clanking of heavy steel doors being opened and slammed shut rang through the air and quickly began to reverberate inside my head.

The dead silence had quickly escalated to pulsating activity. I probably felt like thousands of inmates who experienced their first time in jail, except there was one major difference. I was not an inmate. I was a guard! 

A guard with no training and at a loss as to what to do; I began to read the Log Book, a book used to record all the times and activities of the previous day.

The first entry read, "0700 – assumed duties and keys for 9 holding. One inmate in custody."

This was followed by, "0720 – breakfast dishes removed from cell." 

I looked at my watch and noticed it was 7:25 am. I had been on the job for less than a half hour and already I was behind schedule! 

"Hey guy, hand out your dishes will ya?" I said to the inmate sitting on his bed in cell #2.

"I'm not finished yet," he spoke sullenly as he took another spoonful of Rice Krispies and milk from the Styrofoam bowl.

"I don't care! I'm five minutes behind – now give me the dishes!" 

Sighing, he handed the bowl, spoon and the little remaining cereal out through the food service hatch.

“What next?” I thought. Better check that Log Book again.

The next thing recorded was, “0735 – breakfast dishes to kitchen." 

I wondered how I was supposed to take the dishes to the kitchen, when I was told that, under no circumstances, do I leave my post.

I yelled for a guard. No response.

Pausing and yelling louder, "Guard! Anyone! Can you come here?" Silence.

It was now 7:50 am, I was fifteen minutes behind schedule and I was worried. I was hotter, itchier and getting more and more nervous. My first day on the job and I have to do this right. I have those expectations to meet and hopefully exceed. I kept peering at the doorway hoping that someone would arrive to remove the dishes.

No such luck.

I looked at the dirty and faded cream walls behind me, noticing what appeared to be a doorbell button and a wire leading from it towards the landing. Ah, a buzzer to call the guard!

I pressed it.

Immediately the hum of activity surged to a thunderous roar!

Shouting outside, boot steps pounding and keys being frantically jostled. Clambering on the floor outside the meshed door, men grunting and panting. It was all coming closer to me.

I heard someone excitedly shout, "Quick!! Open the door! Open the damn door NOW!!" 

Keys dropped on the floor. It was obviously quite a commotion right outside 9 Holding. I wondered what the excitement was.

All the while, I stood patiently holding a yellow plastic tray, a soup spoon and a Styrofoam bowl. Finally, my door burst open and several supervisors and guards charged in. Through another locked gate one of them yelled, "Did you press the alarm?"

"No, sir. I just rang the buzzer," I said, pointing to the button.

"No! No!" he yelled. "That is the panic button! Never press that unless there is an emergency!"

The supervisors and guards milled around, catching their breath and staring at me. A few had a bit of a smirk on their faces.

That first day, forever etched in my memory, earned me the nickname, “Ring for Service Pickering.” And from these humble beginnings began my 27-year career in corrections. 

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