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Exposing the Hook

October 28th, 2013

From what I’ve heard repeatedly over the years, there is one type of incident that has a profoundly demoralizing effect on corrections staff and even entire corrections agencies. This type of incident can shatter trust, respect and pride in the profession like no other. What I am referring to is the disillusionment that follows after staff find out that someone they looked up to in the profession came up short—significantly short. Examples are when employees discover that staff they considered to be exemplary professionals, role models and even mentors, are found to have violated policies ranging from employee harassment to inappropriate relationships with employees to inappropriate interactions with offenders. Such behavior is experienced by employees like a personal betrayal, and many of them have difficulty trusting or respecting fellow staff again. Not wanting to be “burned” twice, they build up walls around themselves to guard against the possibility of experiencing such a letdown and betrayal again.

All of us have heard the stories. Sometimes it is staff in enviable positions, staff who were shining stars and who were going places in the profession. On other occasions it is staff who have performed reliably and honorably for years. Then, seemingly suddenly, they make a choice that is against professional ethics, against wisdom, against common sense, even against the law at times.

Staff that self-destruct in such ways may throw away years of commendable performance in one swift move, one act of poor judgment. These choices invariably involve the violation of policy and of professional boundaries. Lamentable choices might be the romantic pursuit of a subordinate, often in spite of the fact that both parties may be involved in other long-term relationships. They can even be about being romantically or financially involved with offenders, and actions that are associated with that, such as transmitting messages from offenders to others, and bringing messages and/or contraband in to them.

What is at the root of such destructive choice-making?

I’ve pondered this question many a time, taking seriously the saying, “There but for the grace of God go I.” (If we are honest with ourselves we will acknowledge that we also have made some impulsive, unwise decisions in our lives, perhaps not of the magnitude described above and perhaps not in the professional arena, but foolish decisions nevertheless. No one is immune to foolishness, from those at the top to the foot soldiers, so to speak.)

The best answer I came up with to the question of what drives such behavior is what the Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous calls “self-will run riot.” That is, more often than not, the root of misconduct and unethical professional behavior is the pursuit of self-gratification outside what is allowable in our current circumstances. (Some people would say that such behavior is motivated by greed or lust.) This happens when the dictates of our basic “wiring,” which drive us to need satisfaction, collide with higher-order professional boundaries and ethics.

Civilization requires the spelling out of what constitutes legal, ethical, and acceptable behavior. To co-exist in society relatively peacefully, we need to know and follow the parameters within which we can operate legally, ethically and safely. Many of these expectations are immutable, written in stone. Others fall in the grey zone, perhaps to be evaluated on a case-by-case basis. For example, in the present corrections environment, personal involvement with offenders is never acceptable and sexual involvement can be grounds for prosecution through PREA. Additionally, in some jurisdictions flings with subordinates may be grounds for dismissal or a strongly urged resignation or early retirement, whereas in other workplace cultures they may be considered acceptable behavior and even be common practice.

To convince ourselves to cross a professional boundary line, we generate a multitude of rationalizations regarding why the behavior is permissible. Remember, our visceral, gut-level wiring drives us to get our needs and even our wants met (“the lust of the eye”). So, when under its influence, we may try to talk ourselves into excusing infractions or boundary violations. If the temptation is seductive enough, we may tell ourselves that the existing rules are too rigid, that they do not truly apply to our situation, that our case is a very special exception to the rule, that if it were wrong it would not feel so right, that we are being unfairly deprived of a good thing, that this is a once in a lifetime opportunity we don’t want to miss, etc., etc. At that point we are so mesmerized by the prospect of having “it,” that we downplay or ignore potential costs of boundary and policy violations, because we are certain that “it” will ensure our happiness and satisfaction.

The hook, the root of such disastrous choices, is talking ourselves into believing the lie that there is something outside the proscribed boundaries which is wildly desirable and much better than what we have or what we are allowed in our circumstances. We get hooked when we start feeling unjustly deprived—that good things are being unfairly withheld from us by “life,” by our administration, by society, or by whomever. When that happens, it is only a matter of time before the next step is taken, that of violating rules to meet personal wants or needs in a professional setting. So the concealed hook is the falsehood that the “forbidden fruit” is much superior to what we already have, that we are being “done wrong” by having it withheld from us, and that breaking some rules to get our hands on it is justifiable.

Professional safety from such self-deception comes from acceptance of professional boundaries without arguing about their legitimacy and appropriateness. Professional safety (and sanity) are found in unques-tioning acceptance of the fact that policies and ethical guidelines are there for a good reason—even if that reason is obscure to us at this time. Professional safety is based on the fact that professional boundaries exist for the protection of our reputation, our self-respect and our peace of mind, and for the protection of social interactions and relationships. Moreover, in corrections, professional boundaries are intrinsically tied into safety and security of operations. To stay safe and to keep the workplace safe, we need to stay vigilant and on our toes, ready to reject ego strokes and other seductive lures designed to take us outside the safety of proscribed boundaries. We need to remind ourselves periodically that, truly, all that glitters is not gold.

It may sound overly simplistic or even condescending to some, but protection from boundary violations is found in our willingness to accept “No” in the same way that we want toddlers to accept that they are not allowed to touch a hot stove or to sprint suddenly across the road. The key is acceptance of limits and respect for rules without grumbling and arguing, and without trying to find loopholes to “beat the system.” Wisdom involves acceptance of the fact that the workplace is not the proper venue to meet intimate personal needs or to satisfy any type of greed or lust. We are at work to serve, not to be served. Character maturity can be measured partly by the ability to forego inappropriate gratification, no matter how alluring.

Yes, we know of cases where staff were ostracized by coworkers and “cut off from the herd.” Isolated from their own, their professional needs for connection and respect left unmet, they may become vulnerable to the pull of temptation presented to them through offenders. Still we need to remind ourselves of the obvious—two wrongs don’t make a right. Getting personally involved with offenders will only lead to more woe.

So professional safety is found in respecting professional rules and limits, and staying away from what is expressly prohibited or even frowned upon (grey-zone items) in corrections organizations. This requires self-discipline and resolve to separate personal needs for love, affection, admiration, and companionship from workplace activities. Applying emergency preparedness tactics at a personal level, we need to remind ourselves regularly of the importance of professional boundaries, and that they are there for good reason. We must also regularly practice telling ourselves “No” as soon as we detect that our personal needs and wants are trying to crop up inappropriately in the workplace.

The only way to avoid getting hooked is to not play with the bait.

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Weaving Positive Meaning

June 2nd, 2013

Many of us tend to be meaning-seekers, wanting to be a positive influence in our world. Meaning is the fuel that keeps us going, what gives our life flavor, richness and purpose—what makes ourlife worth living.

What we pursue, how we invest our waking hours, what fills our dreams, even whether we have dreams at all, makes a critical difference in our quality of life and even our health.

And for many, many reasons (I am sure you can name a few!), corrections is the type of work that challenges staff deep and hard regarding the creation and maintenance of positive meaning. In the field of corrections, positive meaning does not grow freely on trees all on its own while you are sleeping. Rather, it requires persistent breaking of fallow ground, digging rocks out of the soil, fertilizing and watering, and pulling stubborn weeds that make a comeback seemingly overnight.  It also requires coming back and doing this again and again after periods of drought, heat waves, storms and freezing cold.

Creating positive meaning in corrections, and hanging on to it day after day and year after year, is nothing less than heroic. It requires learning to see courageously with new eyes. It requires to relentlessly keep sifting, looking for grains of gold in the mud of a river bed. For they are there, waiting to be found.

For many years now I have seen that staff flourish when they learn to infuse even routine or menial work with positive significance. These workers learn to not take themselves too seriously, to not fall in love with their image or power or what others think of them, and to do their job to the best of their ability on any given day.

The ones I’ve seen doing gloriously are those who have learned to find goodness and beauty, and to be thankful (and even grateful) for little things and big things and everything in between — even for things that do not look good and that are hard to be thankful for at first.  These are the ones who have also learned to forgive and to keep going after hard times.

So, how do you go about creating positive meaning for yourself?

Here are some suggestions.

  • Look for the beauty in the gift of every moment.
  • Tap into what inspires you to be the best you can be.
  • Remember the ones you are providing for by doing this work.
  • Actively contribute to the welfare of others and the common good.
  • Remember that you are afforded the opportunity to influence people’s lives, communities, and even generations to come through your work, choices and actions.
  • Relish the pursuit of acts of courage, civility and integrity.
  • Celebrate every shred of progress in yourself and others. (Ban Perfectionism!)
  • Aim to influence coworkers and offenders positively through your professionalism, integrity and ethics.
  • Model behaviors you want to see in others.
  • Seek input from others who have what you want.
  • Seek honest feedback from colleagues with whom you interact frequently.
  • Highlight success stories and share with others.
  • Point out to others the skillfulness required of corrections professionals of all disciplines. During the workday you and your colleagues may employ skills related to psychology, social work, public health, education, cheer-leading, motivational interviewing, mentoring, law enforcement and warfare.
  • Whenever you get discouraged at work, think of how far you’ve come in terms of your skill development regarding managing yourself and managing others.
  • Whenever you face your fears and stand your ground and do the right thing, give yourself credit for being courageous.
  • Whenever you persevere in the pursuit of your goals in spite of disappointments, you demonstrate your courage, grit and gumption.
  • Whenever you assist offenders within policy, you impact them positively.
  • Whenever you exercise self-control in the face of provocation, you are commendable, acting truly as a mature, wise adult.
  • Whenever you choose to see the silver lining in the cloud, you are winning the battle of the mind, remaining optimistic and in control of your attitude.
  • Whenever you support colleagues and help them do a better job, you offer them gifts of teamwork and caring, and you reinforce why you are an asset to your profession.
  • Whenever you choose to inspire, mentor, or otherwise encourage your colleagues, you contribute to the creation of a positive workplace climate, and you inject positive meaning in others’ lives.
  • Whenever you choose to take the high road after you encounter injustice—choosing to not return evil for evil, but to do the right thing —you win what may be the most important battle of all, the spiritual one.

So ask yourself:

  1. What do I want to accomplish through my life and influence, including my family life and my corrections employment?
  2. What do I want to be my predominant mood and attitude, the mood and attitude I am best known by?
  3. How can I impact people positively in my family and at my workplace on a daily basis?
  4. How can I create positive ripple effects in my community through my day-to-day actions?
  5. How might my work and my actions have a positive impact for generations to come?
  6. How can I best respond when I accomplish something that to me is significant and noteworthy, yet nobody commends me for it or nobody even notices?
  7. How do I “bounce back” from disappointment and bitterness when confronted with what, to me, seems to be injustice towards me or others?
  8. How can I “refuel”—go from becoming discouraged to being encouraged again (in-courage)? What can I tell myself to accomplish that? What actions can I take?
  9. How do I move past and even grow from my failures, my poor judgment and my mistakes, so that I can continue living out my most precious convictions, principles and values?
  10. What kind of life do I need to be pursuing intentionally today to feel like I am fully alive?

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Uncategorized , ,

Desert Waters’ PTSD Costs Estimator™

December 15th, 2012

Desert Waters’ PTSD (Posttraumatic Stress Disorder) Costs EstimatorTM currently provides an estimate of costs to a corrections facility due to PTSD-related absenteeism, based on quantitative findings from the nationwide study of PTSD and health-related factors conducted by Desert Waters Correctional Outreach (DWCO). Read more…

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PTSD , ,

Desert Waters Study–PTSD in US Corrections Professionals

December 15th, 2012

Here is the link to the write-up of Desert Waters’ national study of PTSD in US Corrections Professionals. 

The results raise grave concerns about corrections professionals’ health and functioning in relation to workplace exposure to violence, injury and death, and the costs of PTSD to staff, families, administrators and the profession.

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Calibrating the First Part of the WCO

September 19th, 2012

We are currently collecting baseline sample data to calibrate our new Workplace Climate Optimizer™ for   Corrections (WCO)–a 10-day assessment and intervention program that evaluates work climate conditions in key content areas, introduces the systematic practice of effective behaviors, and proposes modifications as needed to optimize the health and functioning of the work environment.
We invite all employed corrections professionals who read this to please consider completing an online 49-item multiple-choice type questionnaire that inquires about aspects of their experiences in the corrections workplace in seven key content areas. The 49 questions are preceded by six non-identifying demographic questions. Participation is completely voluntary and anonymous. Read more…

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Research, Workplace Climate ,

Corrections Fatigue Status Assessment V.2

June 27th, 2012

The CFSA has been improved and refined. It is now called the Corrections Fatigue Status Assessment™ (CFSA) v.2. It takes about 5 minutes to complete. Take it to see how you score. The CFSA can be accessed at the home page of .

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Corrections Fatigue Self-Assessment™

May 24th, 2012

The Corrections Fatigue Self-Assessment™ (CFSA) is here!*oXsw

This instrument is a web-accessible software application that measures individual corrections employees’ Corrections Fatigue level anonymously and confidentially. It takes about seven minutes to complete. A score and its interpretation, with recommendations, are provided automatically upon completion of the assessment, and can be printed.

The CFSA can be completed as often as needed for the purpose of monitoring one’s Corrections Fatigue score following interventions such as Desert Waters’ Well-being Monitor or 7×7 Intervention, following utilization of EAP services or peer support activities, or following changes in working conditions or job assignment.

The CFSA is offered to individual corrections employees at no charge. It can also be administered anonymously to employees of an entire facility, agency or department to assess the Corrections Fatigue level of those employees and to identify areas that may need improvement through systemic interventions.

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Sexual Exploitation of Female Offenders

May 24th, 2012

There was yet another mention in the press recently about the systematic and prolonged sexual exploitation of female inmates by male corrections staff.  The description of the inmates’ helplessness and victimization was almost too painful for me to read.  A question kept ringing in my ears, a question posed by corrections officials nationwide who are baffled as to why corrections workers would risk going to prison just to get some sexual gratification from offenders. Given the Prison Rape Elimination Act of 2003 (, staff who sexually assault offenders are subject to felony criminal charges punishable by prison sentences of their own and/or fines, as well as discipline by their corrections agency. However, those dire consequences do not seem to be sufficient to deter some corrections employees who contemplate engaging in sex acts with offenders. Why might this be so? Read more…

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Boundaries, professionalism ,

Metal Fatigue as an Analogy for Corrections Fatigue

April 27th, 2012

In our signature training From Corrections Fatigue™ to Fulfillment, we talk about Corrections Fatigue being analogous to metal fatigue.  To understand what we mean by that we need to comprehend a little about what materials engineers call “metal fatigue.” Let’s see what Wikipedia says about metal fatigue, and examine how the concept of Corrections Fatigue parallels that phenomenon metaphorically.
In materials science, fatigue is the progressive and localized structural damage that occurs when a material … is subjected to repeated loading and unloading.
If the loads are above a certain threshold, microscopic cracks will begin to form at the surface. Eventually a crack will reach a critical size, and the structure will suddenly fracture. Read more…

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Corrections Fatigue

Corrections Staff Well-being Programs–To Implement or Not?

February 1st, 2012

© Gregory Morton, Mike Denhof & Caterina Spinaris, 2012

This article examines issues that correctional agencies might consider when discussing the implementation of programs designed to prevent and remediate Corrections Fatigue and related organizational climate and staff well-being issues. Briefly, our qualifications for offering our perspectives on corrections staff’s well-being are the following: Gregory Morton has served at the Oregon Department of Corrections since 1975, including eight years as Staff Training Administrator. Concern for the professional and life skills of the corrections workforce has been his primary motivation throughout. Mike Denhof is a clinical research psychologist with over 12 years of  experience working in correctional and mental health settings, including extensive experience in inmate mental health and risk assessment, and general clinical-behavioral health and outcomes research. Mike has played a lead role in the development of clinical-behavioral assessment models for the State of Colorado, for multiple large behavioral health organizations (BHOs), and for numerous mental health centers, jails, and different types of correctional organizations. Caterina Spinaris is a licensed professional counselor and the founding director of Desert Waters Correctional Outreach, with 11 years of experience training and treating corrections staff and their family members. She is also the author of the book Staying Well: Strategies for Corrections Staff.

In our role as correctional employees we are problem solvers. We don’t like letting problems fester. We are trained to confront difficult situations. We are eager, sometimes even overly so, to address issues when we see them. We don’t like unfinished business or letting obvious oversights go uncorrected.

However, there is one historical predicament that impacts all of us but that none of us have ever addressed fully – the mental and emotional toll that the profession itself takes on its practitioners. Read more…

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Corrections Fatigue, Leadership, PTSD