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Two Sheets of Music

July 16th, 2009

Recently two correctional workers and I were discussing what helps staff stay “sane.” Without hesitation both said, “Correctional workers must be able to switch their mindset from work to home.” One added, “I learned how to live in two very different worlds and still not lose ‘me’.”

Indeed, corrections personnel live in two worlds. These worlds are like two sheets of music. Daily staff is asked to switch from one tune to the other. These two worlds involve very different assumptions about what is expected, how people must behave, and what constitutes a “good day.”

At work corrections staff knows that danger is always lurking in the background. They get trained to be always on their guard and to have their psychological shield up. Safety and security are top priorities. The general expectation is that people will lie, manipulate, steal or kill to get what they want. Staff learns to assume that what they witness may be a game. To avoid getting “conned,” staff learns to suppress natural tendencies toward caring or being helpful. So corrections staff becomes overly cautious (paranoid may not be far off), mistrusting and “hard.” And a good day is when all staff goes home alive and intact.

At home though, corrections staff are confronted with a very different set of assumptions and requirements. Loved ones expect them to be trusting, compassionate and forgiving, willing to share both power and responsibilities. In the “free” world most people assume others to be law-abiding, peace-loving, and caring. A good day on the outside is when people enjoy life, and love and support one another.

Problems ensue when corrections personnel cannot quite make the switch from work to home, when the staff’s negative outlook and cynicism come home with them, often with heartbreaking results.

How can staff learn to switch their tune, to transition between the inside and outside worlds more effectively? Here are some ideas on this.
1. It is crucial to remember that the two sheets of music are to be played by the same musician. The same person goes to work and returns home. Their core remains the same—their values and principles. That core needs to be the foundation of their operating in both worlds. What does that core need to be like to make the transition successful?

In my opinion what it takes is embracing worthy, positive values to guide one’s choices and actions consistently, no matter what the setting. That makes switching between sheets of music easier. Examples of such values and principles are honesty, respect, fairness, self-control, trustworthiness, willingness to acknowledge one’s errors and to make amends, caring for the common good, and the ability to forgive/let go and not succumb to hatred. Such values make it possible for staff to behave wisely and constructively both at work and at home.

2. Staff needs to also have concrete markers to remind them that indeed they have switched from one sheet of music—one world—to the other. To help them come out of their corrections role when they get home, staff can use routines and rituals. They may take a shower and change into casual clothes. They may talk with loved ones about each other’s day or vent for a time before focusing on their home life. They may work out, spend time with their children, tinker in the garage, garden, feed their animals, volunteer somewhere, or take the dog for a walk.

3. Staff need to frequently correct their thinking and remember that what may be common on the inside often does not apply as much, if at all, on the outside. For example, they need to remind themselves that, “I’m not just a cop. I’m also a parent, spouse, friend.” “There ARE decent, kind people out there.” “Kindness is not weakness.” “I can keep an open mind and give people a chance to earn my trust.”

4. Letting loved ones in on this whole tune-switching process can make it much easier. Staff can share with them about struggles and successes regarding adapting from the inside world to outside realities. They can ask for help (yes, you can) through patience, understanding and reminders that the free world is very different on the average than the corrections world.

5. On the other hand, when one is ready to go back to work, it is important to remind oneself of certain basic corrections-related principles. Safety first. Be on the lookout for trouble. Complacency can kill. Have each other’s back. Weigh the legitimacy of offenders’ requests. LISTEN. Leave personal needs at home.

Yes, this all takes intention and effort. On particularly tough days when work incidents are branded in your mind, heart and brain, it takes extra time and energy to switch between the two sheets of music.

However, this switch can and needs to be made if you are to maintain your sanity and your quality of life in both worlds.

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  1. Kellie Guenzel
    August 3rd, 2009 at 12:56 | #1

    This is so important!!!!! I would like to add….do not give up friendships with people outside of the correction world. In fact, seek out friendships outside corrections! It is very important to interact with people that have no contact with corrections. I have been called on my thinking by people in my private life. They will repeat things I have said and while we at times laugh about what was said, I often see the crazy thinking that I place on people outside of corrections.

    While no one, and I mean NO ONE, can even imagine what occures in our field, they can soften the edges that we often cling too with all of our being! It is really helpful to have friends and loved ones on the outside that feel comfortable calling you on your funking thinking. I was reminded of something I said to my loved one when we first met and while we laugh about it now…..I am sure it surprized him at the time. It is something that I keep in the back of my mind now to keep my inside and outside thoughts straight.

    Keep up the good work!

  2. August 3rd, 2009 at 21:20 | #2

    Thank you for the terrific comments, Kellie! I couldn’t agree with you more. Staff need to remain open to old friends from their “past life” and to others they meet along the way, even though at times it’s like trying to connect with someone from another planet. It’s a key way to catch themselves “correctionalizing” the world.

  3. Rudeman
    May 4th, 2011 at 15:44 | #3

    I’m a CO from Ontario Canada, and when I first started in corrections in 1994, I always maintained that separation of work and home, and literally took on a different persona when I stepped through the jail doors. You see stuff that most people will never see or want to see in their life, and if you don’t learn to switch gears it will eat you up.

    It was akin to putting on a suit when you got to work, and then taking it off when it was time to go home.
    It protected my mind and my sanity to know that at the end of my shift I am no longer a correctional officer, but a father and a husband…my real job.

    Thanks again Catherine for providing vital information to help CO’s maintain that delicate balance of work and home.

    Rudeman CO Ontario, Canada

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