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Behind the Mask

Desert Waters Correctional Outreach exists because our experiences with corrections employees have led us to believe that, especially for staff with considerable offender contact, psycho-spiritual struggles are not a rarity.

Corrections staff operate in an environment of chronic stress, continual alertness, and the ever-present possibility of violence. Staff is exposed to violence in a multitude of ways, the impact of which adds up over time. They read about crimes in offender files, they view videos of assaults or riots for training purposes, they hear or read about assaults on the news, they witness such assaults firsthand, or they themselves become victims of violence. Gradually, this exposure, coupled with the high stress and need for continual watchfulness, breeds symptoms of psychological disturbance such as anxiety, depression, post-traumatic stress, and secondary traumatic stress. As one of you said to me, “What I come across at work wounds my soul.”

We believe that in the absence of effective individual and organizational coping strategies, this build-up of negativity leads to stress-related illnesses, substance abuse, divorce, family violence and suicide. Not surprisingly, it also results in high rates of sick leave, disability and staff turnover. Of course some individuals will be more susceptible and some more resilient to these pressures. Why do some people bounce back, whereas others don’t do as well? What are the ingredients of healthy hardiness? Answers to these questions are vital to research and to identify.

 In case you wonder what types of struggles I am referring to, below are composites of staff stories, with details altered or removed to render them unidentifiable. These are NOT “problem children.” On the contrary, they are hardworking, seasoned and conscientious employees. When you come across people like them, you would never guess that they are struggling. They wear their “I’m good!” mask, acting like nothing bothers them. Are their struggles rare? I wish they were, but from my conversations with staff over the years I do not think so. Do their stories get the message across that staff needs more help and direction regarding dealing with the impact of the job? You read on and you decide. 

I have been a C.O. for 15 years. Lately I’ve been real short with my family. Four months ago I was viciously assaulted by two inmates. Since then I’ve become very somber. I don’t smile much and I keep replaying the incident in my mind. Even when I close my eyes at night I see the inmates lunging at me. In the morning I wake up feeling exhausted. Lately I started drinking before going to bed. It helps me fall asleep. I don’t like doing that, but I can’t see myself going to a shrink. 

I’ve been a C.O. for 9 years. In social situations I get terribly tense. I feel like I’m in danger and that I need to get out or push people away, even though I know that there is no danger! I make excuses to avoid social events unless I know that only a handful of people will be there. If I am given a table at a restaurant or even have to sit in a room with other people, if I can’t put my back up against a wall, I get so stressed, I have gotten physically ill. I hate not being able to enjoy social situations anymore. I feel like life is passing me by. 

I’ve been a C.O. for 17 yrs. I’m 55 years old, twice divorced. Time is ticking. I can’t shake the anxiety and depression, even on meds. I had a heart attack five years ago. I have nowhere to turn. I don’t want to be a burden on anyone. A week ago I did a practice run on empty with my 38, but when I loaded it, I could not go through with it. If anyone knew how I’m feeling, I’d be taken to the funny farm in a straightjacket.  

I have been a C.O. for 9 years now. The job is getting to me. I often catch myself treating my two boys like inmates, screaming at them if they make any noise, and expecting them to do as I say immediately. They don’t deserve that kind of treatment. My wife is fed up with me being mad all the time. If she tries to argue with me about anything, I blow up. If the house is messy when I come home, I fly off the handle. I then take it upon myself to clean the entire house until everything is clean and tidy to the extreme. I can’t relax till I’m done. I’m ashamed of my behavior and I don’t like living like this. I can’t go to the doctor for anything related to mental health because, if it gets back to work, I’ll lose respect and perhaps even lose opportunities for promotion. 

I’ve been a C.O. for 13 years. I can’t seem to get along with anyone anymore. The only people I want to be close to are my husband and my daughter, and they don’t want to be close to me because I am so miserable all the time. I get to the point where I feel like I just can’t stand my job anymore, but then I go back. I complain to my husband nonstop. I hate myself for it, but I can’t stop. I wish I could get out of this rut. I sit alone and cry when no one is around. Honestly, I’m nervous about going in these days. We have many gangbangers who (I hate to admit) intimidate me. And we have some staff who make each other’s life hell. Sometimes I don’t know who’s harder to take—the inmates or the staff. When I really think about it though, it’s the staff that is the worst. With inmates I know what to expect. But with coworkers, I never know what some of them are going to pull.

I am a C.O. I have been doing this job for the last 7 years, and am finding it’s changing me, and not for the better. I am negative, tired, gloomy. I know I wasn’t like that before starting this profession. I remember the way I used to feel about people before. I used to enjoy hanging out with people, meeting new people. Now I just don’t like people anymore. I don’t even like myself these days, the person I’m becoming. I need to be able to have fun again, to be cheerful again! I can’t go on raising a family feeling so grouchy and so exhausted. When I applied for the job I was sold—I loved the idea of being a correctional officer. My, was I in for a disappointment! 

Realities such as these motivate us to keep bringing the issue of corrections staff’s psycho-spiritual and career survival to the forefront. Staff needs both the permission to safely acknowledge their struggles and effective practical tools for dealing with the impact of their jobs.

A challenge acknowledged is a challenge half-solved.

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ctudor Corrections Fatigue , ,

  1. June 12th, 2009 at 17:12 | #1

    Hey, great post, very well written. You should post more about this.

  2. Joseph Toal
    June 17th, 2009 at 04:50 | #2

    Greetings Caterina Tudor,

    I am a Lt/ at a Maximum Security District Jail in Ontario Canada. I have 20 years experience and worked in several different centres including Correctional Centres, Remand Centres and extremely isolated facilities in the high arctic. (Namely Baffin Island - Polar Bears and no trees) - Holy! - your article hits the nail on the head. Thank you for your strength and courage in bringing this out - Polar Bear Joe.

  3. Mary
    August 12th, 2009 at 18:00 | #3

    Thank you for this. My husband is an ex-CO and I have tried to persuade him to get some help because I believe his experiences have affected him deeply. He has told me some of the things he saw as a CO, and I’m sure he hasn’t seen the worst of it. He hasn’t worked in corrections for about 3 years, and in the past year or so, he has started having nightmares and intrusive thoughts. He also startles very easily & has been depressed and anxious.

    I am going to send him a link to this post, but if you have any other advice on what I should say to him, I’d very much appreciate it. Thank you.

  4. August 12th, 2009 at 20:53 | #4

    Mary, you’re very observant. We’ve come across several correctional staff who took years to “deprogram” & start thinking like “normal people” after they retired. We’ve also come across people who were clearly having difficulties in relation to what they’d been exposed to on the job, even years after getting out of the corrections workplace. My strong recommendation is that your husband be assessed by a mental health provider who works in the area of psychological trauma, whether primary or secondary. There are techniques that can help him “digest” & put behind him haunting memories. Telling his story to a caring professional & being validated for the ways he’s been impacted can be very helpful as well.

  5. rudeman
    October 14th, 2009 at 22:00 | #5

    I can truly empathize with the author as well as the respondents.
    THis job really does affect more often in a negative manner and if you don’t have the supports at home or someplace else, the job will consume you!
    I’ve been fortunate to have been able to have a good support system in my family and friends, as well as having my spouse to keep me in check if I ever start treating her or my kids like inmates.

    The best advice I can give my fellow CO’s is “to get a life!” meaning hve a life outside of corrections, and make sure you keep “work” at work, which I know can be challenging some days.

    Best of luck to all CO’s!
    As a poem my father gave me years ago reads “We the willing, led by the unknowing, are doing the impossible for the ungrateful!”

    Rudeman

  1. July 6th, 2009 at 16:17 | #1