The state exacerbated the staff shortage when it suspended its correctional officer training program in 2003 and 2004. At the time, prison officials anticipated a drop in the inmate population and thought they would need fewer guards.

The training program has since reopened and been expanded. The Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation hopes to train as many as 3,700 new guards between this summer and next.

Basic training takes 16 weeks. Applicants must be at least 21 years old and have a high school diploma, or the academic equivalent.

Until relief comes, Donovan guard Harold J. Judd volunteers to work overtime twice a week. By volunteering, he has more direct control over his work schedule.

His regular shift starts at 10 p.m. Sometimes he doesn't leave until 2 p.m. the next day. He earned nearly as much in overtime pay last year as regular pay.

Many guards say they would give up the extra money in exchange for a regular, 40-hour workweek and more officers on each watch.

Near the end of a recent marathon day, Judd manned a gate and patted down a string of inmates.

“I'm still feeling 100 percent,” he said, smiling weakly. “But as soon as I get home I'm getting in bed.”

Stories of rogue guards surface now and then. Guards who mistreated inmates, guards who abused their power.

Many rank-and-filers complain the media portray them all as bad apples. They bristle at the term “guard,” considering it outdated and insulting.

So they call themselves correctional officers and carry on.

Because of the handsome paychecks. Because they're in a growth industry. Because many are drawn to law enforcement and the uniform is a good fit, even if outsiders don't have a clue about the capricious environment they work in.

In a report last year, the state Legislative Analyst's Office said the California prison system appeared to have the highest level of inmate violence in the nation – even more than Texas or the federal prison system, which both have roughly the same number of inmates as California.

Most of the violence was inmate on inmate, but prison staff members were often targeted as well.

Correctional officer Manuel A. Gonzalez was stabbed to death last year by a convict at a prison in Chino, the first state prison guard killed on the job in 20 years.

In August, a riot at Calipatria State Prison left one inmate dead, plus 25 inmates and 25 guards wounded.

And earlier this month, a female correctional officer was released unharmed after a 10-hour hostage standoff at California State Prison Sacramento. The inmate, who held the guard at knife-point, was serving time for robbery and false imprisonment after being convicted in San Diego County.

Risk is part of the job description, guards know, even if most days are uneventful.

“Believe me, I'm fearful every time I go to work and go through that gate. Even today,” said correctional officer Nick W., of Pelican Bay. “You just never know what is going to happen.”

Other moments leaven the uncertainty.

A few years ago, when a Pelican inmate died of cancer, the guard felt a tinge of empathy. He sensed some kinship with the prisoner – both had once served in the same branch of the military.

The prisoner had also saved the guard twice from being gassed by other convicts.

The guard always remembered that