Rowan man earns Order of Long Leaf Pine
By Nathan Hardin
When John Brawley started his career at the North Carolina Department of Correction in 1977, he wasn’t thinking about one day receiving one of the state’s most prestigious awards.
He was thinking about surviving a prison riot.
This was one of several stories told at Brawley’s 2009 retirement party, which capped an eventful 32-year career in the correctional system; a career that led to the presentation of the Order of the Long Leaf Pine award earlier this month.
The Long Leaf Pine is an award handed down from the governor for a proven record of extraordinary service to the state and contributions to the community. According to the Office of the Governor, 6,010 awards have been given out to North Carolina citizens since its creation in 1965.
The 55-year-old Mt. Ulla man said he’s thankful for the award, but is more thankful for his supportive family.
“It was a joy to receive the highest award honored to any North Carolina person. I think it’s something my family was proud of when I received it,” Brawley said. “They’ve had to put up with me being gone all the time and absent from home, when I was out working late or chasing convicts or going down to the coast and evacuating prisons.”
Brawley, who for over 30 years assisted in fugitive searches, inmate transportation and served on the Prison Emergency Response Team, said the 1977 riot remains his scariest experience.
Just a year out of South Iredell High School and six months into his new job at the Huntersville Correctional Center, Brawley was the only guard inside the prison during a more than 50-inmate riot.
There were only three guards on duty, Brawley said. One patrolled the outside parameter, while the other hid in the bathroom.
As inmates threw televisions and pulled the plumbing from the walls, he did his best to monitor the situation, writing down names of the participants and containing the riot to the single-cell facility.
According to Brawley, the riot was fueled by a racial dispute and wasn’t suppressed until 6 a.m. the next morning.
After the riot, Brawley’s testimony in court led to further convictions of the riot’s leaders.
“In 1969, the GA passed a law making it a felony if convicted in rioting and my testimony led to the conviction of 12 inmates for rioting,” Brawley said.
After his cooperation with prosecutors, Brawley was quickly promoted to the PERT team and later to inmate transportation.
Debbie, his wife of 28 years, said his commitment to the correctional system was out of job loyalty.
“A lot of it was loyalty to the job,” Brawley said. “It takes special people to handle that lifestyle and the abuse they do take on a day to day basis. They’re probably the ones that deserve the most respect and get the least in any type of law enforcement.”
John Brawley said the Long Leaf Pine is his second greatest achievement, next to his family.
“If we ever had an emergency, we’d have to be called in. I couldn’t be with my family sometimes. Most of the time I had Christmas off, so I was fortunate to have that,” he said.
After tearing his rotator cuff in training in 2009, Brawley was set to be transferred to a position with minimal inmate contact. But he wouldn’t stand for it.
He wanted a hands-on position. So he retired from the Department of Correction, only to take a public safety officer position at Presbyterian Hospital in Huntersville shortly after.
Brawley said his sister, Pat, pushed him to send his credentials to Raleigh. After receiving an approval letter from the state regarding his award status, Tanya Blackmon, a Presbyterian Hospital administrator, agreed to present the achievement.
Brawley said the hospital is a far cry from dealing with inmates, but that he enjoys the less stressful environment.
“It’s a different animal down there. Last week we had a psych patient jump on one of the safety officers,” Brawley said. “I felt like I was back at the prison again.”
Despite the dangerous working conditions he faced in prison, Debbie said she stopped worrying about her husband over the years because it became the norm.
“It was pretty much an every day thing. He was always for the job and anything he could do for it,” Brawley said. “I did feel confident that he could take care of himself and others. I think that’s why he’s still in public safety now.”
John Brawley said the key to surviving as a correctional officer is good awareness.
“Always be aware of your surroundings. Always be alert,” Brawley said. “Never let your guard down.”
Most officers get hurt because they let their guard down, he said, and also because inmates’ mentalities have changed over the years.
“It’s a different breed of convict in their now,” Brawley said. “You got these kids who don’t give a crap. That’s the best life they have is in prison. It ain’t what it used to be.”
When he began his career, Brawley said, inmates would give guards a certain level of respect and even give them tips to contraband violations.
“They’d give you more respect than anybody,” Brawley said. “The guys with a life sentence, they had a lot to lose, they would give you all kinds of respect.”
Prison weapons have changed, too, Brawley said.
Razor blades melted into toothbrushes, socks with metal locks in them and socks with bars of soap in them, he said. These are the types of weapons inmates often carry in prison.
“I think they want to hurt each other more than they want to hurt the guards,” Brawley said. “Pretty much the inmates are in charge, we’re just there to make sure they don’t escape and to protect the general public.”
When asked why he didn’t switch to a safer job, he said, “I didn’t want to do anything else.”