Fight or flight


TORRINGTON – Imagine yourself being on the job for three months, you volunteer to stand watch in the chow hall while the inmates eat lunch. As you’re watching over the facility, you see someone stabbing another person. Right then, you have to make a decision; fight or flight.

This was the situation playing out in real time in front of Correctional Officer Cullen Calderon on Sept. 10, 2019 at the Wyoming Medium Correctional Institution
in Torrington.

Calderon was working as the Recreation Officer that day. His duties were to monitor the yard during the inmates’ recreation time. When lunch rolled around, he decided to help out inside during chow time. 

“I remember one of my buddies asked me ‘You okay to stand chow?’’ Calderon said. “I told him, ‘I got this.’”

Calderon was standing in the corner of the room next to the beverage station and was constantly scanning the room, looking for any sign of danger and to ensure the inmates remained safe.

While he was standing next to the beverage station overwatching the inmates, he noticed something suspicious taking place immediately to his left. He saw an inmate stand up and walk over to another inmate who was eating.

The next thing Calderon knew, the inmate who was standing up began to thrust a sharp object repeatedly into the other inmate’s neck.

“I couldn’t see the knife,” Calderon said. “But I just knew in that motion what exactly was going on.”

Without hesitation or a second thought, Calderon’s training kicked in. He immediately ran 15 or so feet toward the inmate in an effort to stop the attack and save the other inmates life.

As he was running toward the inmate, Calderon reached down to his utility belt to grab his Oleoresin Capsicum (OC) pepper spray, but he dropped it. He knew right then that he didn’t have enough time to stop and reach for the pepper spray and still save the inmate’s life.

Calderon continued moving toward the inmate, who was still stabbing the other inmate in the neck. He was alone and now without a secondary use of force to help protect him.

He ran up behind the inmate to get a better advantage point and immediately tackled the inmate to the ground. Calderon landed on top of the inmate with his chest pushed into his back. Instantly, Calderon reached for the inmate’s left hand, which was holding the weapon, and pinned the inmate’s wrist to the ground so the inmate was unable to stab him.

“After I tackled him to the ground, time just slowed down completely,” Calderon said. “It was completely quiet. I couldn’t hear any radio traffic, couldn’t hear people yelling. All I could hear was my heartbeat in my ear.”

Shortly after Calderon took the inmate to the ground, the rest of his team showed up and he was greeted with a face full of OC pepper spray. During the struggle, Calderon was able to take the knife out of the inmate’s hand, put him in handcuffs and take him away.

When Calderon stood up, he remembers checking his entire body to ensure the inmate didn’t harm him during the struggle. After assessing himself, he checked the surrounding area to make sure no one else around him was harmed and that everything was clear.

“I took a quick second and thought, ‘What did I just do?’” Calderon said. “It’s something you think you just see in the movies and then it actually really happened in front of you. It was a life changing event for sure.”

After the incident, Calderon returned to work for the next three days. He had friends and coworkers constantly asking him if he was okay, or if he needed any help. Calderon kept telling them he was fine and didn’t need anything, but on that fourth day he finally broke down.

“I remember on day four, right around 12 o’clock, after so many people had asked me if I was okay, my sergeant asked me, ‘Hey are you doing okay?’” Calderon said. “I just remember saying, ‘No, I’m not okay.’ I was just overthinking everything and thought there could be a hit out on me.”

His sergeant released him for the day and told him to go home. Calderon remembers being brand new and not knowing many of the other people at the time. He received messages nonstop on Facebook from people he didn’t even know offering their support and letting him know they were there for him.

Calderon was approved to take some time off because mentally he still wasn’t able to perform his job 100%. He didn’t even want to leave his house and was constantly looking over his shoulder thinking someone was after him.

Multiple people had given Calderon their phone number, including the previous warden at the prison. They all told him to call if he ever needed anything. On one really bad night at 2 a.m., Calderon needed to make one of those phone calls.

“I’m not the type of person to reach out, but even at 2 o’clock in the morning, I remember I called [the warden] because I wasn’t doing alright,” Calderon said. “He stayed on the phone with me and talked me through it and I’ll never forget that. The amount of support that I received from people I didn’t even know; I knew I wasn’t going to quit and I knew I was a part of a family.”

For three weeks Calderon took time to himself to recover and ensure that he could mentally handle being back at work. He knew he would be back to work at the prison with his new family and would conquer another day.

After the incident, Calderon was unable to talk with the inmate who had been attacked while the incident was under investigation. Once the investigation was completed, Calderon had the opportunity to watch over the inmate later on when he was in a long-term care facility.

He was able to talk with the inmate and saw how he was able to survive the attack. The inmate thanked him for jumping in and saving his life.

Calderon remembers a few times when he was watching over the inmate and the inmate would receive a phone call, he would tell the person on the other end that they wouldn’t believe it but the person who saved his life was in the room with him.

“Hearing them thanking me on the phone, it felt good knowing my quick reaction saved someone’s life,” Calderon said.

On Feb. 4, 2021, Calderon was awarded with the Medal of Valor from the American Correctional Association. Wyoming Governor Mark Gordon was the person who presented Calderon with the medal.

“I was just super excited to tell my family and just bring honor to my family,” Calderon said. “Just to have that experience and to be recognized for that was very honorable and something I look forward to telling the generations to come after me. I’ll remember that for a lifetime.”

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