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How Do You Train for This?

January 9th, 2010

The C.O. looked tough—what I lightheartedly like to call “the testosterone overload type”—and very professional. I knew he was a veteran who had seen it all during his 13-year corrections career—inmate murders, drug overdoses, beatings, stabbings, and staff assaults. What came out of his mouth though, and the tears that periodically welled up in his eyes, told a story that is rarely voiced.

As I sat listening to this warrior-like officer, I tried putting myself in his place. I ended up flooded with sorrow for the human condition, anger at evil, and a sense of urgency to be of assistance to this individual.

The C.O. described two incidents when he responded to inmate on inmate assaults. Both times he could not deliver the victims fast enough from their blood-thirsty would-be executioners.

In one case an inmate was getting viciously assaulted by his cellie with a lock in a sock. The C.O.’s “soul armor” was pierced by the abject terror in the eyes of the inmate who was getting pummeled—his wordless frantic begging for help. As their eyes locked, the C.O. was startled to experience overwhelming compassion for the victim, anguish for his suffering, and a powerful urge to save him from his impending fate, even if it meant risking his own life. However, he had to wait for more staff, as per policy. Not being able to do anything to help for what seemed like an eternity—less than three minutes in reality—caused him to unravel inside. He took his duties to serve and protect very seriously. To him, being unable to stop the fight shortly after it started meant that he had failed as an officer, that the inmates were in control, even if only for a short while. This thought weighed him down with guilt and shame even though the inmate survived his injuries.

In another case there were six on one in the yard. The C.O. tried to dive in the middle of the pile of human bodies to extract the targeted inmate, but a coworker kept pulling him back until a sufficient number of staff had responded to the incident. He helplessly watched the inmate get stomped and kicked, head eventually swollen as big as a pumpkin, while his assailants’ white tennis shoes turned red with blood. Not being able to intervene for a good two minutes devastated him. Again, grief, guilt and shame overwhelmed him.

The C.O. added that I was the only one to whom he had confided about how these two incidents had affected him. He stated that he would never tell his coworkers about it because he was certain they’d call him weak, an inmate lover and a hug-a-thug.

When I asked him how he dealt with these painful memories, in a resigned tone of voice he replied, “I drink. Every night.”

And in case you may think that this C.O. is a strange bird, I’d like to tell you that over the years I’ve heard similar stories from staff that had been wounded emotionally by witnessing horrific violence which they could not prevent or stop before grave damage had been done. They all said, “I don’t care if they are inmates. They are still human beings.” I even heard such comments from staff that were not at the institution when the assaults occurred, but who saw pictures or read reports days later.

As a psychotherapist I can state that some degree of psychological traumatization is practically unavoidable when people are exposed to gruesome incidents. Witnessing extreme violence firsthand rips open our “protective membrane” and penetrates our core where we “feel with” other human beings in their acute suffering.

How do correctional trainers prepare rookies to face such occurrences? How do they teach them to confront extreme violence and horror (a) without losing their own humanity by becoming totally calloused, desensitized and indifferent to others, or (b) without becoming devastated and suffering in secrecy for years after?

I believe that trainers need to acknowledge that, in different ways and to various degrees, all staff is affected by the horror to which they are exposed at work. Trainers also need to emphasize that being affected does not make staff “weak,” unless you call being human a weakness. 

Staff needs to be encouraged to seek professional help to process traumatic memories and acquire tools for healthy functioning on and off the job. Traumatic memories do not evaporate by themselves, and no amount of alcohol can wash them away.

And just as importantly, we need to change the culture so staff can discuss their reactions to horror openly and honestly without risking being ostracized, shamed or ridiculed by coworkers.

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