I work at a prison. I am a cook. My job is not to cook, but to control inmates while they work in the kitchen. I am a specialist; if you asked an average correctional officer to do my job, it would be a disaster unless the inmates chose to be very cooperative that day. I have to predict the future (how much to cook), maintain constant awareness of how quickly we are using food, multitask ceaselessly during a meal to obverse and direct (for example, things may not get cleaned or cooked if I don't order them so) If it somehow comes up as to why I would like to leave my old employer, the reasons are.... long. I will go ahead and describe, but this in an incomplete list of reasons I might want to leave.

I have worked here 4.5 years. From **** to ****, our staff turnover was literally 10:1 (20:2, to be exact.) Only very briefly were our days off or hours worked stable due to perpetual short staffing. That is not so bad, in and of itself. But when they were stable, the infighting was horrendous. My supervisor was trying to get me fired, his boss was trying to get him fired, another supervisor was trying to get him fired, their mutual boss thought both of them were gunning for her job, and another one of my supervisors was most likely supplying inmates with banned substances. One of my supervisors and an equally ranked coworkers were probably having illicit physical relationships with the inmates (although they were smart enough not to do it on camera, at least one of my coworkers spent months accusing a supervisor that he saw her physically with an offender, but this is only he-said she-said.This supervisor would constantly speak to me in a demeaning fashion in front of the resident criminals it was my job to control and in front of the institutional radio. Another one of my coworkers exposed part of her anatomy to more than a half dozen offenders "accidentally." that she was supervising. People were fired, demoted, forced out, walked out, ect, ect, ect.

Finally, we wound up with only two cooks left in our entire department (Remember the 20:2?). This was two men for approximately 18 hours per day, seven days per week. One of them was me. Desperate, officer supervisors (captains, seargents.) were pulled in to do our job instead of actual cooks. The captain directing was us essentially changed strategies: 1.) we would make little effort to keep the inmates form stealing massive quantities of food 2.) we would do much of the physical work ourselves in front of the inmates instead of asking them to work 3.) we would stop doing any paperwork to make life easier on the cooks.

The reason we were so desperate is because the offenders rioted and took over considerable areas of the prison (this was all during COVID), just before we lost everyone. Finally we hired a few more people who helped take over from the officer's supervision.

However, my new supervisor, just like the previous one above, would talk to me in a demeaning manner in front of the offenders I would supposed to control. However she was proven on camera to be having an intimate physical relationship with an inmate. She was also bringing in banned substances. She was fired, of course.

Around this time, my demeanor changed. Instead of wondering how I could do my job better if something went wrong, I would vocally blame anyone, be they staff or inmate, who made my job more challenging in my view. Instead of remaining professional in the face of verbal abuse (in view of inmates), I reciprocated it. I am witty and loud sometimes. This earned me far me far more respect from staff and obedience from inmates than I ever had before. I really stood up for myself even though my behavior would have been wildly unacceptable in most workplaces.

I was promoted shortly after I changed my behavior in this way.

We were so short staffed, only my title changed. My daily activities did not. I was really only supervising a correctional officer who was sent to work as a cook for punishment (she fell asleep while driving an armed patrol car and crashed it, barely spoke English, ect.)

However, circumstances not far from this time involved working 6 days a week for a very long time, coming in at wildly varying hours, ect ect.

Finally, we hired another real cook. I was her supervisor. She was also caught having physical relationships and bringing in contraband substances with inmates. She was fired.

After that, we hired another new cook; I was his supervisor. A former officer was hired as a supervisor of my rank as well. However, we kept find banned substances in the kitchen. In several of the places it was found, very few people, including myself, have the keys to access these areas. Worse, we found a working taser hidden about 10 feet from my office. We don't know who is dirty now, and nobody has been terminated.

Now, these are progressively more recent historical problems. The real issue I am having is that nobody seems to have to take an responsibility for the actions except me:

  1. The officers will not make offenders scheduled to work in the kitchen come to work.

    This means I cannot set expectations for my crew because they will be different - only offenders who feel like coming up, will. Most of the offenders who want to come up do so because they plan to trade or steal, not because they want to help. Those offenders who do come to work will feel like they are in a position to demand what their assignment will be that day - it's not like anyone has to come.
  2. Everything is broken. All the time.
    More than half of my cooking equipment was down for months. This made it impossible to comply with health code since I needed cook food to sit for more than four hours, or I would not be able to cook enough food. It made if very difficult to respond to changes or mistakes, because I had no spare cooking capacity whatsoever. 3.) The case workers would seldom enlist any discipline when I wrote inmates up.
    Without any effective punishment, offenders have little rational self-interest to obey me. I need to serve a specific amount of food at very specific times. I need to command enough respect from the offenders for 20 to 30 of them - per inmate shift - or this isn't going to happen.

Furthermore, we've had some internal problems. The only other cook who survived our 20:2 turnover period was not watching his offenders, and they were causing huge problems by for example: filling a large number of pans of beans halfway up after only cooking half of the beans, so it look like we have enough beans cooked to serve the meal but do not. They began actively sabotaging me (I think) soon after I began raising hell that offenders need to come to work and face discipline if they disobey, so I was having trouble serving a meal without delays immediately after I convinced people who make $10,000 more than I do per that the officers need to make offenders come to work, and that case workers need to honor my write-ups.

Oh, and we never have enough people for a cook to just watch one thing, at least not the supervisors. We tend to be worried about a whole lot of stuff at once. They lowered hiring standards for people I hypothetically supervise from something to literally nothing, although I don't want to reveal which prison system I work for so I won't say.

I have been recently been promoted to "Correctional Officer", and have stepped down from a supervisory position in the kitchen (pay is almost identical.) However, I will be working the kitchen indefinitely because their is nobody to replace me.

Despite being an officer, I continued to work as a food service supervisor (per above.) I did my best to shield the next employee I was supervising from the many difficulties of the job. He didn't have to issue orders to offenders (I did 90% of that), I treated him vastly more respectfully than I was ever treated before I became a supervisor, ect. He walked out the day after I explained to him various bad things offenders got away with doing in front of him because they were angry I took their stolen meat away from them (that was supposed to be served to the entire camp, not a few guys in the back of the kitchen.) We don't really know why he walked out. I even fixed it myself so he could go home on time.

I had already made it clear I would work 16 hour shifts to help get new employees established in the kitchen, but if this was any test, I am not able to shield new employees well enough to make them want to stay. (Unlike many others, I strongly believe this guy was honest - and we have a dirty employee or two with us more often than not.)

This makes me feel like my entire career is putting a band-aid on a problem that can only be solved by raising pay until more honest people are willing to work there. I have worked lot of overtime and saved the government a lot of money (like everybody else) by reducing the number of people we need working there and doing what was previously labelled as way more than one person's job.

This was not quite a full description of all the reasons I might want to part ways with Corrections.

Now, I have not had a full week off from this place in the last 4.5 years. I have more than 200 hours of vacation and almost 500 hours of sick leave. I may want to stay on part time, because even part time I am given an allowance of $6000+ in tuition at a well-known university.

I am seeking other blue-collar jobs (I have state Firefighter and Emergency Medical Technicians, and Industry Lifeguard and Compita A+, Net+ certifications active.) I have a two year degree in math (I may not be strong enough to continue to a four year.)

Can someone please tell me how I should explain my reasons for wanting to leave after almost 5 years to a future employer? Or should I just say "Prison isn't for me?"

  • 9
    It's an interesting insight into the conditions of prisons, but for an employer, don't be afraid to summarise: "it's not for me, turnover is extremely high, chaos reigns", and leave it at that unless urged to give details.
    – Steve
    Sep 6, 2022 at 6:48

5 Answers 5


I'll be blunt here: an interviewer is not a therapist. Sharing even just a fraction of what you have written here will be counterproductive: Keep it simple and short.

Most interviewers will ask the question to determine whether the job at hand is a better fit than the previous. "I prefer not working in a prison" will do this just fine, unless you are applying to another prisons. If there are more questions, just answer them as asked. Again, short data-drive answers are more helpful than long emotional statements.

Instead you should focus on what you actually have learned and accomplished

  1. Working with difficult people and managing low motivation
  2. Getting the job done (i.e. food on the table) in extremely challenging conditions.
  3. Ability to handle high turn over in both staff and management.

I understand that this has been challenging for you but you managed to see it through which takes a lot of perseverance and strength. Be proud of this and use this to your advantage going forward.

  • The second paragraph is very important here: They want to make sure you won't end up wanting to leave the job you're interviewing for for the same reasons.
    – Theodore
    Sep 6, 2022 at 17:05

If you're applying to another prison, some of this detail might be ok. But to any other job at all? Provide none of it. Anyone would dislike what you're describing -- but you're also describing a large pile of "I put up with something most people wouldn't, for reasons" and "they were doing things they weren't supposed to but I kept my mouth shut, for reasons." These will not help you get a job "outside."

It might help to word yourself a semi-funny answer that essentially means "prison isn't for me" - something that implies it's incredibly terrible but you're not going to provide details. Perhaps "whatever you might have imagined it's like to cook in a prison, it's actually a lot rougher than that." Then smile and move on. "I didn't enjoy prison life" is not a controversial opinion that needs to be explained.


Can someone please tell me how I should explain my reasons for wanting to leave after almost 5 years to a future employer? Or should I just say "Prison isn't for me?"

Something like "I have decided that working in a prison isn't for me." should suffice. Provide more details only if specifically asked.

Certainly, there is no need to get into the lengthy explanation above. Most of them won't matter to a hiring manager.

  • 5
    I'd actually argue that this kind of rant would not only "not matter" but be deemed terribly unprofessional and count against the candidate.
    – Llewellyn
    Sep 6, 2022 at 18:33

Can someone please tell me how I should explain my reasons for wanting to leave after almost 5 years to a future employer? Or should I just say "Prison isn't for me?"

I know it feels like there is a power imbalance when you're being interviewed by an employer.

But don't let it affect you. You don't need to explain yourself. You don't need to justify your decisions. If you do too much of that, it will back fire on you.

You're a valuable employee. Believe it. They need you as much as you need them. Do not grovel. If they ask a tough question, it's your right to give them a bland non-answer like "Prison work wasn't for me."

No one shares their life story during interviews.


Answers to interview questions, like a cover letter when applying, are best when they're customized to the job you're currently applying to. I agree with the other answers that you don't want to go into the details you've written, but what's missing is that any interview question is an opportunity to tell your story from a perspective that is both true and helps the interviewer understand why you're the best fit for their particular role.

You have a lot of data here about why you're leaving, but there's probably data you're leaving out of your narrative above. Things like a desire to learn new skills under a new mentorship (you might mention this if the job you're applying to mentions they are proud of their training and advancement opportunities) or the opportunity to use job skills you excel at that are currently underutilized (you might mention this if this job you're applying to makes specific mention of needing those particular skills), etc.

The simple answer to "how much information is too much" is "any information beyond what's needed to show the interviewer you're a great fit for the role". The more involved answer to this question is only answerable in a case by case basis with the job you're applying to. Tell the facts that support your job application and that help the interviewer make the connection between what they say they're looking for and what you can do.

Negative things about your current employer are almost never useful in helping the interviewer see you as a fit for their own role, so leave it out unless you're absolutely sure it will help you get the job.

  • "Negative things about your current employer are almost never useful" 👍 Sep 12, 2022 at 4:43

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