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June 15th, 2009

If you ask me what I think are the two most important focus points for effective functioning in corrections, I’d have to say the two top ones are SAFETY and SANITY. And these two are interdependent. If you don’t have safety, there goes your sanity. And if you don’t have sanity, you can forget about safety.

The corrections workplace—particularly jails and prisons—cannot operate effectively without a sufficient degree of staff safety. Safety helps staff survive not only physically, but also psychologically. Lack of safety contributes to psychological distress and even disorders, such as anxiety, panic and Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).

On the other hand, to perform professionally (that is, safely) on the job, staff must be “sane enough.” By that I mean that staff needs to be reasonably well psychologically. For example, they have to have what it takes to control themselves, calm themselves down, and motivate themselves when the going gets tough. They must also be able to withstand and manage conflict without cowering or becoming aggressive. Additionally, they need to be flexible and resourceful enough to be able to switch from the work mindset to that of the free world when at home, and back to work mode when they report once again to their facilities.

So, yes, safety and sanity are vital in corrections. Yet they both are also in the crosshairs.

Undermining safety is always the target of some inmates. Employee complacency and short-staffing threaten safety further.

Sanity also takes a hit in many ways in the corrections workplace.

Surrounded by felons 24/7, correctional employees are exposed to violence, injury and death much more than the average citizen, perhaps even more than law enforcement officers on the street. Security concerns cause staff hypervigilance, anxiety or even terror.

Cooped up during their working hours, staff essentially is doing time alongside the inmates in 8+hour shifts.

Also, there is not much joy, optimism, beauty and compassion in corrections, all of which are major contributors to mental health.

Instead, surrounded by toxic clouds of negativity, fear, anger, hate and grief, staff gradually get poisoned. And—Catch 22—seeking help is often seen in corrections as a sign of “weakness.”

Corrections staff have to work hard to maintain their health and wellness in every way—physically, psychologically and spiritually. Doing so is like pedaling uphill. If you ignore your well-being—if you only want to coast—you’ll be going downhill.

I want the contents of this page to challenge, inspire and encourage corrections personnel to think about their own well-being, and also that of their families and their colleagues. I also want this page to be a place where staff can read and share ideas about improving their wellness and shedding the deadly belief that seeking help from friends, family or professionals is a sign of weakness.

Let us all aim to stay SAFE and SANE!

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