Sgt. John Bennett, center, was honored for serving CIM for 40 years. He started in 1977 as a correctional officer and promoted to sergeant in 1987. Warden Dean Borders, left, and Chief Deputy Warden David Holbrook presented Sgt. Bennett with special recognition.

By Lt. Tom Lopez, AA/PIO
California Institution for Men

In 1977, movie audiences were watching “Star Wars” and “Smokey and the Bandit.” Meanwhile, John A. Bennett was embarking on a correctional career that would span 40 years and counting.

In celebration of his long career, Inside CDCR spoke with Correctional Sgt. Bennett and he shared his memories of how the California Institution for Men (CIM) has transformed over all those years.

Sgt. John Bennett began his career at CIM in 1977. He still works at the institution and said he has no solid plans for retirement.

He started his career with the department on Aug. 28, 1977, at CIM in Chino. He reported to CIM for two weeks as a Permanent Intermittent Employee (PIE) and was off to the Criminal Justice Training Center located in Modesto where he trained for two weeks with Marines, Youth Authority as well as County Sheriffs.

When he returned from the Academy, he worked several positions as a Correctional Officer including housing unit and recreational yard positions. He said his favorite position was on the field crop crew.  Back then, in the late 1970s and early 1980s, CIM didn’t have walls.

“I provided various jobs on horseback,” Sgt. Bennett said. “I would provide perimeter checks on horseback and repair outer fences, which basically kept all the animals on grounds. The job was great (because) it was basically like being a cowboy for the day. I would report to work and saddle up one of two horses at CIM, Babe or Keno, and provide security and maintenance on the farm.”

Sgt. Bennett has seen many changes in the training over the course of five decades.

“In the 1980s, I got involved with the range as a Range Master Instructor and was part of the Special Emergency Response Team (SERT),” he said. “There wasn’t a departmental school back then, so we were trained and certified through the Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI).”

After his early years as a correctional officer, he was promoted.

“I promoted to sergeant on the (10-year anniversary) date I came into the department – Aug. 28, 1987. One of my best moments as a supervisor can be summed up in two parts,” he recalls. “In 2004, there was a riot on the Reception Center East Facility (RC-East). I observed one inmate in pursuit of another inmate with an inmate-manufactured stabbing instrument. I immediately intervened and utilized my Oleoresin Capsicum (OC) pepper spray to quell this incident. I received the department’s Silver Star for my actions at the Medal of Valor Ceremony. The other best moment as a supervisor was pinning my son’s badge on him in 2005. I went to Galt in uniform and was treated very well by various instructors and dignitaries. I was in uniform and they could clearly see I had almost 30 years in the department and I knew several people up there due to my time in the department.”

Sgt. Bennett has seen not only changes in procedures and technology, but staff as well.

“In my career, I have seen so many changes in this department. I have served with several great people and have served through approximately 15 different wardens. In the old days, we were a place for inmates to come serve their time, but a lot has changed since then. Now there are rehabilitative programs to send a more productive inmate out into society,” he said.

Much of what made CIM unique in the 1970s has also transformed.

“The institution’s layout has also changed. Where there were once dairy and farmland as far as the eye can see, there are now $700,000 homes,” he said.

How much longer does he plan on serving the department?

“I’m taking it day by day. My mind tells me I can work forever, but my body sometimes tells me different. The bottom line is this has been a very rewarding career for me. I enjoy the people I work with and my family is here. My son is now a Correctional Sergeant in the department. My daughter works in Personnel and the soon-to-be Mrs. John Bennett works as a Correctional Case Records Manager. I still feel very productive at work and enjoy my job as the Developmental and Disability Program Sergeant, but for now I will take it day by day and listen to my body.”