Sgt. Josh Roberts: Working behind the walls

Tom KingAnderson, Our Town Heroes

Seen on a T-shirt worn by a correctional officer: “No guns. Just guts.”

Hans Herbert Toch was a Vienna, Austrian-born social psychologist and criminologist. He studied jails and their guards, at all levels. His definitive quote: “… Officers are imprisoned by our ignorance of who they are and what they do, which is the price they pay for working behind walls.”

The Anderson County Sheriff’s Office (ACSO) has a corrections officer who has worked behind the walls of the ACSO Detention Center at 308 Public Safety Lane in Clinton for eight years. He plans to be there until the day he retires.

Sgt. Josh Roberts

That man is ACSO Sgt. Joshua “Josh” Roberts, 44. He is a soft-spoken professional. “When I got this job, I immediately felt this is what I was meant to do. I found my niche, my home at work.”

Any law enforcement job can be described as “thankless.” But working in a jail takes the notion of thankless to a different level. These men and women are hidden from the public. Faceless. They see one another at work. The inmates see them. No one else.

On average, the daily ACSO prisoner count is around 350 – men (270) and women (65). Those are approximate numbers.

“Jails everywhere have high turnover rates and we’re no different.

It takes a special kind of person to do this work for a long time,” Roberts says. “I like the routine and that can be a hard trait to develop. It takes a lot of patience. You have to be a people person to work with all of the different kinds of people in jail. They’re all very upset that they’re here and in crisis. You have to know how to deescalate bad situations. We have to stay as calm as we can, talking in a calm way and talking them down.”

The shifts are long – 12 hours – 7 to 7. Roberts is a supervisor. “Each day here is different. You have no idea what you are walking into every day. It can get to you, but I am a calm person and it takes a lot to get me angry. I’m pretty laid back and can be a little OCD at times and I tend to overanalyze things at times. But I maintain my composure here. If I don’t, the people I work with will lose their composure.”

Incidents or confrontations happen a lot, he says. If an inmate is resisting or engaging officers to fight, tasers calm things down quickly. He says the long hours and the daily stresses can lead to burnout. “We have use of force situations pretty often. Some inmates come in high on drugs and alcohol and aren’t in their right minds. An officer can get hurt if we’re not real careful,” Roberts said. “We use our verbal skills and if that does not work, we use the chemical spray and tasers.”

As part of the job, jail officers must experience the effects of the chemical spray and the taser. “You can spray me 100 times but don’t use the taser, please. The taser really hurts and is painful,” Roberts said.

His world prior to his ACSO job includes four years of active duty in the U.S. Air Force and 10 years at UT Medical Center, the final five years administering EKGs. In 2014 he joined the Tennessee Army National Guard and today is a sergeant in the 278th Armored Cavalry Regiment. The 278th is an armored brigade combat-ready team. Roberts is a gunner on a Bradley Fighting Vehicle. He has made one deployment, to Poland, in 2018-19 to support NATO.

Roberts is surrounded by stress every shift, emanating from a variety of directions. His escape: home and family. He and wife Sara have a blended family – her three children and two from his first marriage. The “kids” range from Andrew, 23, an ACSO patrol deputy who is in the U.S. Marine Reserves; Peter John, 21, now at Marine boot camp; Scarlett Hall, 18, studying at Pellissippi State Community College; Miriam, 17, and Stevie, 15, both at Anderson County High School.

“I stay at home the majority of my time off. I’m a real homebody. I’m around people for 12 hours at work … and lots of talking and screaming. I like to decompress at home. I like quiet. My wife and I enjoy cooking together,” he says. Word is he makes a killer Shepherd’s Pie, too.

When you ask his “bosses” about him, here’s what you get:

From Detention Facility Capt. Shaine Vowell: “Sgt. Roberts definitely has a servant’s heart. That is shown by his military service and his service with the sheriff’s office.”

And from ACSO Sheriff Russell Barker: “We’re very fortunate to have someone as committed, skilled and well-rounded as Sgt. Joshua Roberts on our team.”

Tom King has been the editor of newspapers in Texas and California and also worked in Tennessee and Georgia. If you have someone you think we should consider featuring, please email him at the link with his name or text him at 865-659-3562.


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