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Part 2: What is Psychological Trauma? Diagnosing PTSD

May 18th, 2016

The following has been reprinted with permission from Correctional Oasis: Volume 13, Issue 4.

The examples presented below are based on actual corrections professionals’ experiences, with details changed to render them unidentifiable.

If you happen to get “triggered” (become emotionally upset) while reading this article, I strongly advise you to stop reading, and to contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-TALK (8255), and/or your agency’s EAP, and/or 911. For non-emergency situations you can also call Safe Call Now at 206-459-3020, and Serve & Protect at 615-373-8000. And you are welcome to contact me at 719-784-4727 or through our website. More general suggestions are also presented at the end of the article.

My special thanks are offered to Greg Morton, DWCO’s Training Manager, for his careful reading and compassionate edits of this article.

Those who work in corrections have most likely experienced at least one traumatic episode directly, and/or also encountered traumatic material indirectly, possibly repeatedly. You may still be bothered by these exposures, and might be experiencing some of the symptoms that are mentioned later on in this article. Remember, even the “toughest of the tough” show signs of wear-and-tear as the number and types of traumatic material to which they are exposed at work continue to accumulate. We should consider this wear-and-tear outcome to be an inherent and practically inescapable part of our profession, and therefore a subject worth acknowledging and validating by all involved. Peers and colleagues, support each other when you recognize signs of discomfort and strain in your coworkers. Administrators and supervisors, let your staff know that corrections workers, like police officers, fire-fighters and military veterans, do get affected more or less by what they experience at work, and that these effects have nothing to do with weakness. Not seeking help when help is needed is the actual weakness, just like not keeping one’s tools cleaned or one’s vehicles maintained reduces their utility.

That said, please read the following with care. We at Desert Waters are not implying that corrections staff as a general rule suffer from these symptoms at a diagnostic level. Rather, we want to note that these symptoms can exist on a continuum from mild to moderate to more severe. Just because you might recognize individual behaviors in the descriptions below, that does not indicate a diagnosable condition. However, it would also be a mistake to believe that the very real consequences of incidents that happen during a corrections employee’s career might never rise to a severe level of dysfunction. This information is provided so that the profession overall can begin to recognize the possible severity of these outcomes at their most extreme, both on and off duty.

According to the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition, (DSM-5, APA, 2013)1, Post-traumatic Stress Disorder is comprised of four groupings of symptoms. These symptom clusters are intrusive remembering, avoidance, negative changes in thinking and mood, and increased arousal and reactivity.

If a certain number and combination of the four clusters of symptoms exist for more than one month following exposure to a traumatic stressor, a trauma-exposed individual can be diagnosed with PTSD. For such a diagnosis, however, experienced symptoms must also result in significant distress and impairments in functioning socially, occupationally, or otherwise.

Interestingly, it is possible that diagnostic criteria based on the above symptoms may not be met in full for six months or longer following exposure to traumatic stressors, in which case symptom expression is described as being delayed. That is, a person may show few if any symptoms at first, but months after the event they may start exhibiting enough symptoms to meet criteria for a PTSD diagnosis.

Again, please remember that PTSD, or any psychological condition, can only be diagnosed by a licensed clinician following direct contact, including a one-on-one interview with the person assessed, and perhaps also the administration of clinical tests. If you think that you are suffering from PTSD, please seek professional assistance. Your family and friends, not to mention all of us at Desert Waters Correctional Outreach, want only the best for you.

  1. Intrusive Distressing Memories

    This category of symptoms refers to repeated and unwelcome remembering of details of traumatic events. These details are based on our senses—such as, sights, sounds, smells, tastes, or textures related to the incident. It is as if sensory details are branded in one’s memory, popping up repeatedly in their raw format, unaltered, and like one hit the replay button. This involuntary remembering can be unexpected, “out of the blue.” Or it is cued (“triggered”) by reminders of the traumatic episode(s). Such reminders may be in the person’s external environment (for example, certain smells, sounds, sights, textures, people, locations, situations), or in the person’s internal environment (for example, their own thoughts and emotions). In the case of PTSD, intrusive memories are accompanied by intense emotional distress and physiological arousal, such as increased heart rate, shaking, or sweating. Flashbacks are dissociative reactions, a particularly disturbing type of intrusive remembering, when the person re-lives the event vividly, as if it is happening all over again. Intrusive memories can be experienced both while awake and while asleep (as in nightmares). Distressing dreams of traumatic events rob their victims of what is typically a refuge for all of us—peaceful sleep. Intrusive remembering can become so upsetting, that sufferers may resist falling asleep (trying to stay awake no matter what), as they do not want to re-experience their nightmares.

    Examples of Intrusive Distressing Memories

    A corrections case manager still has nightmares about violent incidents she witnessed during the course of her corrections career. The nightmares are like a movie playing or a slide show of still photos of the event. The images remain unaltered, identical to those on the day of the incident. Sometimes she hears sounds and smells odors related to the events. Invariably, she wakes up with a start, sweating, heart racing. To avoid her haunting nightmares that seem to strike unexpectedly, “out of nowhere,” and for no apparent reason, she tries to stay awake as long as she can. Or she has several stiff drinks before going to sleep.

    A corrections educator, who had been assaulted by an offender a couple of months prior, has a flashback of the attack while he’s driving. He “sees” the offender on his left side lunging at him, shank in hand. Overtaken by the vividness of the experience, and forgetting that he is in fact driving, he ducks and swerves to avoid the offender in his mind’s eye, driving his vehicle into the ditch. As the flashback subsides, he sits in his car shaking until he can compose himself enough to drive to his destination.

  2. Avoidance

    Avoidance is an attempt of trauma survivors to “insulate” themselves, to protect themselves from reminders of traumatic events (“trauma triggers”) in order to avoid or reduce the jarring distress they can cause. Trauma triggers may exist either in the outer world (that is, they are external), and/or they may be birthed in one’s own mind (that is, they are internal). Such trauma-related avoidance is persistent, active, effortful, and intentional. External re-minders that are studiously avoided may include people, places, activities, conversations, situations, and things. Internal reminders may be one’s own thoughts, emotions, or memories associated with traumatic events. It would seem relatively easy to avoid at least some of the external reminders. The harder part may be insulating oneself from internal reminders—from one’s own mind—that is, from oneself. How does a person escape their own haunting feelings, thoughts and memories? There is considerable research that suggests that substance abuse and other compulsive and addictive behaviors may be one method of attempting to avoid/block one’s own memories, thoughts and emotions that are associated with traumatic events.

    Examples of Avoidance

    Since he retired on disability due to work-related PTSD, a corrections officer avoids driving in the vicinity of the prison where he used to work, and he absolutely refuses to drive down the road that leads to the prison. When he needs to go to the next town, he takes a 40-minute detour in order to avoid driving by his old place of employment. He says that just thinking about the gate causes him to start having feelings of panic. He’s also told his wife he no longer wants her to fix spaghetti with spaghetti sauce for him to eat. What he did not tell her was the real reason for that. The sight of spaghetti sauce has now become a strong trauma trigger, a reminder of what he saw on the concrete floor of a cell following an inmate-on-inmate assault that involved serious brain injuries. He’s also quit deer hunting, which he used to love doing annually.

    Since an attempted sexual assault in her office by a mentally ill parolee she supervised, a Parole Office has been postponing reading parolee files, especially when they contain details of sexual violence. She has also been having an increasingly harder time coming into her office every day. Just looking at the desk behind which the parolee had pinned her while she was screaming for help, causes her to start sweating. Lately she has been seriously contemplating a move, either to a different parole office, or to an entirely different profession unrelated to criminal justice.

  3. Negative Changes in Thinking and Mood

    This grouping of symptoms involves negative changes in one’s thinking and emotions that start after exposure to traumatic events, and that become entrenched, habitual. They involve negative changes in one’s thinking patterns, expectations, and beliefs about oneself and/or others; the persistent experiencing of distressing emotions; and an inability to recall key details about traumatic incidents. Examples include persistent negative judgments of self or others; exaggerated or unfounded self-blame and/or blame of others regarding perceived causes or consequences of traumatic events; hopelessness; pervasive anger, fear, sadness, guilt, or shame; loss of interest in important activities or activities that were previously enjoyed; feelings of emotional detachment from others; difficulty experiencing positive emotions, such as affection, and not remembering incident details or having said or done things during a traumatic event that are on tape or that coworkers state they witnessed them saying or doing.

    Examples of Negative Changes in Thinking and Mood

    A corrections lieutenant feels like life has lost its flavor. Even pleasant family activities that he used to enjoy now feel to him to be empty, meaningless. He cannot feel affection for his own children like he used to, or compassion toward them when they get physically hurt or when they are otherwise in distress.

    A Probation Officer cannot stop feeling angry about how an incident was handled by her supervisor over a year ago. She is convinced that had her suggestion been taken, a probation-er she supervised would not have had the opportunity to rob and murder his elderly grandmother.

    A youth counselor has been feeling guilty about the injury of a coworker, holding herself responsible for it, even though her supervisor and administrators have told her that she did everything she could have possibly done to help—and by the book. She keeps re-playing the incident in her head, remaining adamant that had she gotten there just a minute sooner, her coworker would not have been stomped by a group of juveniles in the dorm.

    A corrections sergeant, who has been assaulted on numerous occasions by members of a certain ethnic group, has developed deep-rooted and hate-filled prejudices against all people of that ethnic group. He has tried talking himself out of that type of thinking, but has not been able to get rid of his sweeping negative generalizations. He feels ashamed, as the logical part of him tells him he’s wrong to think that way.

  4. Increased Arousal and Reactivity

    This refers to being ready to go off—on yellow much of the time, and ready to explode onto red at the least perceived provocation. That is, to be chronically agitated, irritable, “on edge,” and at times unable to keep oneself from going “over the edge,” quickly progressing to a “fight or flight” mode (which most of the time is “fight”). Examples include snapping at people; anger outbursts; verbal or physical aggression; reckless or self-destructive behavior (including self-injury and suicide-related behaviors); heightened sensitivity to potential threats; an unusually strong startle response; difficulty concentrating; and restless sleep.

    Examples of Increased Arousal and Reactivity

    A corrections officer feels angry much of the time. In fact, if you asked his family members, they’d tell you that’s he’s mad all the time. At work he sometimes purposely provokes inmates by staring at them and by saying humiliating things to them in front of their “homies.” A couple of times recently he confronted men in public as well, because he thought that they had stared at him disrespectfully. His wife has told him that she no longer wants to go out with him, because she’s afraid he’ll get in a fight. After particularly intense shifts he drives home at 90mph in 65mph zones, at times riding other drivers’ bumpers, screaming at the top of his lungs, and cutting them off. At home, he can see fear in his children’s eyes when he approaches them. His wife has pleaded with him to not give her “the prison look” any-more. She has told him that when he gets enraged at her, she is afraid he is going to hit her.

    After 10 years of working at a metro jail, a detention officer feels safe only when he is inside his house. He avoids going to grocery stores (his wife does all the shopping now), malls, movie theaters, concerts or the state fair—all activities that he used to enjoy prior to starting his corrections career. He also worries greatly about his family’s safety. He has installed several security devices in his home, and motion-triggered lights all around his yard. And he has hidden fire-arms and knives in secret locations in his house. He cannot sleep for more than two hours at a stretch without waking up. He feels chronically wired and tired at the same time.

In addition to the above four clusters of PTSD symptoms (intrusive remembering, avoidance of trauma reminders, negative changes in thinking and emotions, and increased arousal and reactivity), PTSD sufferers may also experience the following two types of dissociative symptoms, persistently and repeatedly. These are:

  • Depersonalization: feeling detached from oneself, from both one’s own mental processes or one’s body, such as having a sense of time moving slowly, feeling as if one’s body is not real, or experiencing events as if they were dreams;

  • Derealization: feeling as if one’s surroundings are not real, or as if the surroundings are distant or distorted.

If you identify any of the above issues in yourself, here are some suggestions:

  • Acknowledge that you are still bothered by extremely stressful situations to which you were exposed;

  • Talk to significant others, peers, or spiritual advisors about this;
  • Seek help from knowledgeable medical and/or behavioral health professionals;
  • Engage in activities that are positive, health-promoting, body-calming, emotion-calming, and nurturing physically, socially and spiritually, such as physical exercise, outdoors activities, psychotherapy, journaling, hobbies, or attending support groups or faith-based gatherings; and
  • Abstain from substance abuse or other addictive behaviors.

Do not put it off any longer. Pursue your healing!

Yes, you can work through traumatic experiences. And you can even grow in self-awareness, compassion, and appreciation of life and of relationships as a result of doing so. As many wise people have said, the greatest challenges in life also present the greatest opportunities for growth and transformation. As corrections professionals, you have jobs that on certain days may cause you to encounter the worst in life. But every single one of you also has the capacity to grow stronger afterwards. And that is one of the many things to be proud of as corrections professionals!

Here are the resources mentioned earlier: National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-TALK (8255); Safe Call Now at 206-459-3020; and Serve & Protect at 615-373-8000. Safe Call Now and Serve & Protect serve all U.S. first responders and public safety employees, including corrections staff and their families.

[1] American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (DSM-5) (Fifth Ed.). Washington D.C.: American Psychiatric Association.

Please note: This series on Psychological Trauma will be continued in future issues of the Correctional Oasis.

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Families Under Siege

May 10th, 2016

The following has been reprinted with permission from Correctional Oasis: Volume 13, Issue 3.

A study of correctional officers, which was reported in 2014 by Sam Houston University’s Correctional Management Institute of Texas, concluded that work-related demands and tensions were among factors that adversely affected the officers’ work-home life balance.

When the emotional fallout of work-related tensions follows corrections staff home, and when that happens often, staff are likely to react to their loved ones in destructive ways.

What might such negative behaviors look like? They may run the gamut from minor irritability to physical violence. They can manifest as impatience; agitation; overreacting to even minor frustrations; a “short fuse;” angry outbursts (when there has been little or no provocation); rudeness; verbal put-downs; intolerance of others’ opinions, preferences, or wants; or social withdrawal and stonewalling—isolating and not communicating. In more serious cases, the behaviors of chronically “stressed out” staff may escalate to verbal aggression, such as threats of physical harm, and/or actual physical violence toward people, animals or objects. Heavy substance use or substance abuse can make such behaviors worse.

It is not hard to imagine that when these behaviors occur, especially when they occur repeatedly, staff’s family lives are strained—at times to a breaking point. That is why even at the slightest sign of verbal or physical aggression toward loved ones, staff need to seek help for themselves, to nip such behaviors in the bud, not allowing them to become part of their lives.

The following is an actual encounter I had years ago that describes parts of a correctional family’s journey in dealing with family violence.

Have you ever had the sense that someone behind you is studying you? I had that experience the other day at the grocery store. Instinctively I turned around to see who was looking at me and “caught” a woman in her forties watching me intently. I half-smiled and pushed my cart down the next aisle wondering absentmindedly about what might be on her mind.

Suddenly she was right next to me again. “Are you the one who reaches out to corrections officers?” she asked sheepishly. “You know, Desert Waters?” I lit up. “Yes, I am.”

She went on. “I recognized you from a photo in an old newspaper that a friend gave me.” “Do you work in corrections?” I asked. “No, I don’t, but my husband does. He’s been at it nine years now.” She hesitated for a brief second, and then her eyes filled with tears.

Seeing that, I motioned her to follow me to a quieter area of the store. After regaining her composure, she whispered, “What you’ve been writing about is SO true. We’ve been through SO much as a family over the years.” She then stopped like she was weighing what to say next, took a deep breath, and then threw open the floodgates. “It’s much better now. But just a year ago I wasn’t sure we were going to make it as a family.”

“I’m very glad things are better now,” I replied. “And I feel for you, for all you’ve been through.” Then I asked, “Where does your husband work?”

She gave me the name of a facility where I had heard that incidents of violence were an all-too-common occurrence. (I remembered a correctional staff member telling me that working in that type of environment for even just a few years could change a person to the core—and not for the better.) I felt my heart ache for this couple. “Corrections!” I thought to myself. “We need the prisons and the jails, yet what a toll they can take on staff and families alike!” I then repeated, “I’m glad things are better now at home.”

She smiled and nodded. I could tell that she was once again weighing whether to open up some more or not. Then she took the plunge. “My husband became so mean after a few years on the job. He’d fly off the handle over ridiculous things. He’d put me down over nothing. He didn’t want to be around people. He had never been like that before. His goal became to work nights. He quit doing things with us as a family. I felt abandoned, like a widow.” She paused again as if impacted by her own words. I found myself almost holding my breath. The moment felt sacred. One human being making true heart-to-heart contact with another without even exchanging names.

The woman looked me in the eyes ever so seriously. “My husband is a good man. We’ve been married 16 years. I did not know what to make of it when he started becoming violent. He’d throw things. He’d break things. He even hauled off and hit me once. I just couldn’t believe it! Up to that point he had never done anything like that.” Her tears were flowing now. And my eyes were misty too. “I did not call the cops. Don’t ask me why not.” She looked away, seeming embarrassed. “I could tell he felt bad afterwards for what he’d done. And the kids were terrified. They were in the next room and heard it all. After that, we all walked on eggshells around him. No noise, no requests, no complaints. Did not want to set him off. And we didn’t even know what might set him off! After a while I knew I couldn’t go on living like that. I told him we had to get help, or we were history. He kept refusing until the day he hauled off to hit me again, caught himself at the last second, and put a hole in the wall instead. A week later we started counseling.”

She smiled and I smiled back. “Thank you for trusting me and sharing this with me,” I said. “And I’m so glad you took action and that he agreed.” “You know, I finally realized that I had to do something for our family,” she replied. “I refused to go on living in fear and worry. I refused to have the kids’ lives ruined. And it’s been better. We talk more. He is more respectful. There are still things he is working on. His occasional yelling. His talking to the kids like a drill sergeant. Treating us like inmates sometimes, ordering us around. But on the whole our home life is so much better. He does back off when I ask him to. We’re growing close again one day at a time.” We both sighed a sigh of relief.

“I know the kids will need more help,” she added wistfully, as if talking to herself. “We’re thinking about what would be the best way to do that. I can tell that at times they’re still scared of their dad, and mad at him, too. He’s apologized to them, but they need more. In our counseling we talk about ways he can rebuild bridges not only with me, but also with them. The other day I sat our children down and told them that sometimes daddy’s work is very tough , and that he’s still all revved up when he gets home. I told them that we’re getting help.” “You’re doing a wonderful job,” I said, admiring her courage. “Last week I caught my son putting his sister down just like his dad used to treat me. I got on him right away. Told him that I was not going to tolerate disrespect in our home. I made him apologize to her. It felt so good!”

We both smiled again. “Yay for mom!” I cheered. She changed tone. “Thank you for listening. Thank you for caring.” “You’re welcome,” I answered. “Meeting you made my day. When you can, visit our website and see about getting on our mailing list.” “Will do. Keep praying for us in corrections!” she said as we parted ways to continue our shopping.

Afterward I kept thinking about our call to come alongside corrections folks and share the burden with them. What a privilege it is to have the opportunity of such encounters—whether groups in training or one person at a time! And I also thought of you all who support our mission through your giving. Thank you.

And going back to the Sam Houston University study, the Correctional Management Institute developed a brochure for correctional officers to recognize signs of stress and for ways to address them. Here are some of the suggestions:

  • Exercise regularly

  • Maintain proper nutrition
  • Get enough sleep
  • Reach out to co-workers, friends and family
  • Do something enjoyable every day
  • Use meditation and other relaxation techniques as part of your daily schedule
  • Avoid drugs and alcohol
  • Use your employer’s confidential Employee Assistance Program

And if you have suffered intimate partner violence, please get help for yourself. Resources for victims of violence are many, both in local communities and nationally. Here’s a start: and

You can also call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 800-799-7233 or TTY 800-787-3224.

And in case you’ve crossed the line, and became physically violent with a loved one, PLEASE get specialized professional help right away. Your most important support system is at risk.

MUCH is at stake.

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And the Greatest Is Love

January 25th, 2016

The following article was reprinted with permission from Correctional Oasis, Volume 13, Issue 1.

Who does not want to be resilient and happy, and have a long and healthy life? I’d venture to say, most, if not all of us, do! The key is how to get to that place, and how to find our way back to that sweet spot after getting blown off course by some of life’s turbulence. To achieve these goals, we need to know and practice behaviors that contribute to enduring resilience, to happiness, and to an improved quality and perhaps even length of life.

In this and subsequent articles I’d like to discuss some of the factors that research has shown promote resilience, happiness, well-being, and even longevity.

To start with, I want to highlight some research evidence on the factor of social relationships, as good relationships seem to be a major contributor to resilience, happiness and well-being.

According to a report [1] in which 270 relevant studies on resilience were examined, the following were found to be among the factors that were strong resilience boosters in military populations: family support, a positive military command climate, and community belongingness.

Family Support refers to perceiving that comfort is available from, and can be provided to, others, and includes emotional, informational, instrumental, tangible, and spiritual support.

Positive Command Climate, in the context of military units, includes facilitating and fostering positive interactions within a unit, effective leadership, and positive role modeling.

Community Belongingness includes the integration of the individual in their community, friendships, and participation in spiritual/faith-based organizations, protocols, ceremonies, social services, and schools, among others.

According to another study [2] mortality of older married individuals was found to be significantly reduced for those who reported providing instrumental support to friends, relatives, and neighbors, and for individuals who reported providing emotional support to their spouse. Receiving support had no effect on mortality when giving support was taken into consideration. That is, the key ingredient for increased longevity was the giving of support.

Interestingly, in a study of corrections professionals, DWCO research [3] established that supportive staff relationships efforts (giving support to other staff) increased the giver’s resilience. Specifically, the following behaviors were found to promote the resilience of GIVERS of these behaviors:

  • Supporting others through communication (e.g., validations, acknowledgements)

  • Talking to others about best practices and lessons learned
  • Seizing opportunities to encourage teamwork and collaboration
  • Exerting effort to maintain professional relationships or repair damaged ones
  • Making efforts to “stay connected” to other staff
  • Taking advantage of opportunities to improve the workplace environment generally

Similarly, research on authentic happiness [4] examined the effects of having strong ties to friends and family, and com-miting to spend time with them. The study found that strong personal relationships contributed to a sense of genuine happiness and a lower number of depression symptoms, compared to study participants who did not report strong personal relationships. The authors concluded that good social relations are necessary for happiness.

Another contributor to the resilience of corrections professionals was found to be, in the context of self-care—acting to ensure that their relationships with significant others were healthy/satisfactory [3]. More specifically, the following behaviors that targeted the quality of personal relationships were found to boost resilience of corrections staff:

  • Taking steps to ensure engaging in activities and enjoyment during time outside of work

  • Taking steps to address potential personal relationship difficulties related to workplace stress
  • Taking steps to stay emotionally connected with others outside the workplace
  • Letting go of workplace issues when returning home after their shift
  • Maintaining an optimistic frame of mind (which makes a person easier to be around)
  • Letting go of anger related to workplace frustrations, so it does not affect one’s personal time and relationships

Perhaps it would not be much of a leap to equate having strong and supportive relationships to having loving relation-ships, where love in various forms is given and received in a back and forth loop. If so, what would love look like in action? What are basic attitudes and behaviors that characterize loving relationships, and which can apply to all types of relationships and interactions— be it in one’s family, one’s community, or in the workplace?

Here is a partial list of some attitudes and behaviors that convey love:

  • Listening well to hear what is said and what is implied (“the story behind the news”), making time to hear people out. This requires caring, respect and patience. Paul Tillich said that the first duty of love is to listen.

  • Seeing the good in people, and identifying and pointing out their specific strengths.
  • Encouraging others when they’re down and tempted to give up.
  • Letting people know that you believe that they can improve and grow.
  • Cheering people on as they make efforts to improve and to accomplish goals.
  • Rejoicing with people when they rejoice, and mourning with them when they mourn. This requires empathy, the capacity to put yourself in their shoes and understand where they are coming from.
  • Being compassionate toward others who are suffering, both verbally and through practical acts of service.
  • Taking the necessary steps to make time to spend quantity and quality time with those who matter to you.
  • Celebrating their successes with them without giving in to envy and the temptation to undermine them.
  • Working hard on resolving disagreements and conflicts through dialogue, even if at times that means agree-ing to respectfully disagree.
  • Asking for forgiveness and/or making amends for your wrongdoing, failures or for dropping the ball.
  • Forgiving/letting go of grudges, and starting afresh without bringing up past failures or wrongdoing again. This is a step that people have to work out in their own minds and hearts, as letting go of grudges looks different to different people.

As stated in past articles, and based on DWCO’s research and clinical experience, psychological traumatization is an inherent occupational risk in corrections. In the context of the current article’s discussion of the contribution of social relationships to resilience, happiness, and well-being, it is critical to note that several of the cardinal symptoms of PTSD undermine social connections, and interfere with the capacity to have healthy relationships and to love.

For example, according to the DSM-5 [5], one of the symptoms of PTSD is a persistent inability to experience positive emotions, such as loving feelings of affection or tenderness. One can only imagine the effects of that on relationships.

Two other related PTSD symptoms also affect social interactions. These are “feelings of detachment or estrangement from others” and “markedly diminished interest or participation in significant activities [5]”. Again, it is not difficult to see how these symptoms would sabotage relationships.

Additionally, the PTSD symptom of avoiding (or making efforts to avoid) people, places and events that are reminders of trauma can interfere with what could otherwise be satisfying and enjoyable social interactions and activities [5]. Trau-matized persons either do not participate at all, or if they do, they remain aloof and/or cut such engagements short.

And lastly, PTSD can result in “irritable behavior and angry outbursts (with little or no provocation) typically expressed as verbal or physical aggression toward people or objects [5]“. Obviously, such behaviors can poison and even destroy relationships.

So, not only does PTSD affect sufferers in terms of their experiencing haunting memories and related physiological symptoms, it also interferes with and undermines one of their most important resources for healing and recovery—their relationships and social support systems.

Since corrections staff (and in particular security/custody staff) and other first responders suffer from post-traumatic symptoms at much higher rates than the general population, it is critical that they discipline themselves to make every effort to protect, preserve and enhance their key relationships. That is, they need to deliberately and often engage with others in enjoyable activities, connect emotionally with trusted others by sharing personal feelings and thoughts, express caring and affection, and provide support to coworkers, relatives and friends. The pursuit of positive social interactions has to be intentional and focused. Certain such activities have to be scheduled in the calendar just like high-priority medical appointments, otherwise they will not happen.

In conclusion, giving support and having loving interactions are major contributors to well-being and psychological resilience, and perhaps even to longevity. They form the foundation on which other factors that promote resilience and well-being can be built.

And now I’d like to close with a true story of what I consider to be “love in action” in corrections.

A while back I received the following email from a Correctional Officer, with the subject “How do you offer assis-tance?” It is reproduced here with permission, and with all identifying details removed or altered.

“I am acquainted with a supervisor who works second watch. I work third. I only see him for about 15 minutes during shift change. He told me that he is in the process of losing a very significant and long-term relationship. I can tell by his words and from personal experience that he is about to go down a dark road. And I can tell that he is contem-plating the final choice. Any ideas on how to approach the subject and share that I have been there and that a new life and experience can be afforded to him?”

After thanking the writer for his concern and for going out of his way to show caring to the supervisor, I replied:

“Express your caring and concern to the supervisor. Tell him you’ve been down that road, that it hurt like crazy, but that you got through it, and perhaps share what healthy strategies helped you. Don’t minimize the pain of the loss, as if someone can easily be replaced. Most importantly I recommend you let administrators and/or a psychologist at your facility know your concerns so a psychologist can talk to him, assess the situation, intervene as needed, and offer him resources. I know that staff may be reluctant to ‘rat’ on a friend, but this is not ratting. It is about doing all you can to avert or lessen the risk of a tragic event happening. And keep offering support to him, such as getting together after work—without alcohol being involved. Give him the number for the national lifeline, 800-273-8255, and SAFE CALL NOW at 206-459-3020, a hotline for first responders, including corrections staff. You can also offer to go with him to a counseling appointment and wait in the waiting room. I also know of people who stayed with someone at their house or had them stay at theirs till they got over the crisis phase. As you’re well aware, people going through loss like you’re describing can be overwhelmed by emotional pain. They need to grieve, but oftentimes don’t know how to do that in healthy ways. Be there to help him grieve.”

I received this reply the very next day:

“Thank you for your kind words and advice. Today I was able to talk to him and I was also able to connect him with our peer support group at our facility.”

To me, this situation exemplifies love in action 100%. This Correctional Officer noted the need, and went out of his way to seek help for this supervisor (whom he did not even know well). His actions could very well have saved this person’s life. At the very least, they helped encourage that individual, point him to resources, and let him know he matters, that others care sincerely about him.

And according to what research shows, the Correctional Officer was blessed abundantly for his caring. He received a boost to his own sense of happiness/joy and resilience simply by reaching out to someone else in need.

[1] Meredith, L.S., Sherbourne, C.D., Gaillot, S., Hansell, L., Hans V., Ritschard, H.V., Parker, A.M., & Wren, G. (2011). Promoting Psychological Resilience in the U.S. Military. RAND Center for Military Health Policy Research.
[2] Brown, S. L., Nesse, R. M., Vinokur, A. D., & Smith, D. M. (2003). Providing social support may be more beneficial than receiving ot: Results from a prospective study of mortality. Psychological Science, 14, 320–327. doi:10.1111/1467-9280.14461.
[3] Denhof, M.D., & Spinaris, C.G. (2014). Corrections Staff Resilience Inventory.
[4] Diener, E., & Seligman, M. (2002). Very happy people. Psychological Science, 13. doi: 10.1111/1467-9280.00415.
[5] American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (DSM-5) (Fifth Ed.). Washington D.C.: American Psychiatric Association.

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Hazmat Suit for the Soul—Part 3 of 3

November 23rd, 2015

A prior version of this article was printed on January 03, 2011. It has been updated and reprinted with permission from Correctional Oasis: Volume 12, Issue 11.

Continued from the September 2015 issue of the Correctional Oasis. A prior version of this article was printed in the Correctional Oasis, January 2010 issue.

In Part 2 of this article, a distinction was made between true resilience and what has been labelled as “negative resilience,” in relation to military personnel and first responders [1]. Negative resilience is believed to be the result of avoidance strategies, such as denial and dissociation, and its façade of toughness can collapse as undealtwith psychological pressures mount. Therefore, the quest for solid and enduring resilience is of primary importance, as literally lives may depend on it.

What can be done to help increase the resilience of the public safety workforce and more specifically that of corrections staff? Doing so would very likely lead to improvements in staff morale, and in the lowering of sick leave rates, work-related disability claims, and staff turnover.

To begin with, what is meant by resilience? As stated in Part 2, Desert Waters’ researchers defined resilience as a degree of immunity to health-degrading consequences of high-stress events (Denhof & Spinaris, 2015). So, psychological resilience is not viewed as an all-or-nothing construct—either present or absent. Rather, it is defined in relative terms, as resistance to the manifestation of negative health signs and conditions despite exposure to events that tend to affect health adversely. For example, highly resilient corrections staff may still exhibit some negative health signs following exposure to high-stress events, but these signs may be relatively few, compared to what is exhibited by staff with less resilience.

To use the hazmat suit analogy once again, staff may still suffer some effects of toxic exposure, and their hazmat suit may show some tears, but these might be significantly less than what they could have suffered had they not been wearing their hazmat suits.

Effective hazmat suits for the soul can be provided through two primary means: (a) strategies which target prevention, and (b) strategies which target intervention.

Prevention methods are inoculation-type, long-term approaches, where lifestyle strategies are taught and skills are trained before high-stress workplace events happen. Prevention involves embracing health-promoting practices as habitual behaviors that foster health and wellness, with the goal to neutralize negative consequences of stressors. These methods include ways of thinking that counter negativity and boost optimism. Prevention methods also involve strategies for taking care of one’s physical, psychological and spiritual health and overall well-being.

Intervention methods, on the other hand, involve strategies to counter negative consequences of high-stress events and promote wellness following exposure to them—that is, after a high-stress incident. Such strategies may be brief and may be implemented short-term. They are easier to engage in if the groundwork has already been laid to some degree through long-term and habitual resilience-promoting behaviors. Staff members who are well-versed in practicing positive behaviors prior to a high-stress incident are most likely going to be at an advantage compared to staff members who are not. If the analogy of a 4-mile race is used, staff members whose lifestyle includes regular use of resilience-promoting behaviors are starting at, for example, 30 yards closer to the finish line than staff members who have not been practicing such behaviors regularly.

Research studies have helped identify several prevention-type protective factors that increase positive resilience in the face of traumatic or other high-stress exposure [2]. Some of these factors are social connectedness, effective emotional regulation, identifying positive aspects of negative situations, and other types of positive thinking.

Through Desert Waters’ research studies we have also identified four categories of behaviors (factors) that are specifically associated with resilience in the corrections workforce. These behaviors are measured by the Corrections Staff Resilience Inventory™ [3] (CSRI, Denhof & Spinaris, 2014), a psychometrically sound assessment instrument that provides information on the extent to which an individual or an entire corrections workforce at an agency, a facility or office engages in these specific resilience-promoting behaviors. The categories of these behaviors are: (1) Supportive Staff Relationship Efforts; (2) Self-care Health Maintenance Efforts; (3) Confident/Perseverant Frame of Mind; and (4) Controlled/Logical Problem Solving.

What follows is a description of each of the four factors in some detail, and ways in which staff can practice behaviors associated with each factor in order to boost their resilience.

  1. Supportive Staff Relationship Efforts: This factor refers to the skill of building and maintaining effective social support systems among staff in the work-place. More specifically, it measures the degree to which staff rate themselves as being socially supportive of other staff. Desert Waters’ data show that offering support to fellow staff helps boost the resilience of the staff who provide the support. That is, interacting positively with coworkers has resilience-promoting effects on the staff who is being supportive.

    Examples of practical ways to offer support to colleagues at work are: behaving in ways that are friendly and respectful; asking how coworkers are doing and stopping long enough to listen (as work circumstances allow); making compassionate comments toward staff who seem down; acknowledging a job well done, staff improvement, or increases in staff’s efforts; looking for ways to assist coworkers upon completion of one’s own work; and thanking others for their assistance whenever it is offered. Such behaviors build stronger bonds among staff; increase staff’s sense of psychological safety (which, we know through multiple studies, is woefully low in the corrections workforce); and reduce covert interpersonal tension and overt conflict among staff.

  2. Self-care Health Maintenance Efforts: This is the second factor that promotes resilience of the corrections workforce. This factor refers to staff tending to their physical, psychological, and social needs when off duty.
    Examples of practical ways for staff to boost their self-care efforts include: developing healthy transition strategies—both when returning home from work, and also when going back to work; maintaining life balance by detaching from the work’s mind-set when away from the workplace, and switching to family mode; engaging in pleasant activities; making it a priority to regularly spend quality and quantity time with significant others; following an adequate sleep regimen on a regular basis; and implementing healthy emotional regulation strategies to neutralize anger-generating thoughts.

  3. Confident/Perseverant Frame of Mind: This factor refers to the skill of effectively managing challenging circumstances at work through confidence that one is competent at handling these tasks, and by not giving up (quitting, walking away) when faced with challenges or obstacles. Examples of ways to practice a confident and perseverant frame of mind include: resolving to complete tasks even when it is difficult to do so, and maintaining that resolve in the face of adversity; using positive self-talk to motivate oneself to persevere during challenges; rehearsing and repeating one’s training until it becomes automatic, “muscle memory;” being ethical and behaving with integrity; and reminding oneself of the importance of being flexible and adapting to change.
  4. Controlled/Logical Problem-solving: This is the fourth factor of the CSRI that was found to boost the resilience of corrections staff. This factor refers to the skill of “keeping one’s wits about them” in spite of frustrations or disappointments; making every attempt to think logically during decision-making; and using the strategy of addressing complex situations incrementally, one section at a time. Examples of practical ways to help increase one’s logical problem solving and ability to maintain one’s self-control in the face of high-stress circumstances are: learning how to detach emotionally from challenging situations; reminding oneself that one cannot control everything, no matter how hard they may try; reminding oneself that mistakes are learning opportunities; reminding oneself of the importance of facing one’s fears and of proceeding in spite of them; using emotional regulation techniques; and dividing complex tasks into successive components, and tackling them one at a time.

Research evidence suggests that by practicing these behaviors at work and in one’s personal life, corrections staff can go a long way toward putting a hazmat suit together. And this will make it possible for them to be better able to confront adversity in the workplace, and to bounce back faster following highly-stressful incidents and conditions.

[1]Friedman, M., & Higson-Smith,, C. (2003). Building Psychological Resilience: Learning from the South African Police Service. In Paton, D., Violanti, J.M. & Smith, L.M., (Eds.), Promoting Capabilities to Manage Posttraumatic Stress: Perspectives on Resilience. Charles C. Thomas, Springfield, IL.
[2]Meredith, L.S., Sherbourne, C.D., Gaillot, S., Hansell, L., Hans V., Ritschard, H.V., Parker, A.M., & Wren, G. (2011). Promoting Psychological Resilience in the U.S. Military. RAND Center for Military Health Policy Research.
[3]Denhof, M.D. (2014). Corrections Staff Resilience Inventory.

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Hazmat Suit for the Soul — Part 2 of 3

October 6th, 2015

A prior version of this article was printed on January 03, 2011. It has been updated and reprinted with permission from Correctional Oasis: Volume 12, Issue 10.

Continued from the September 2015 issue of the Correctional Oasis. A prior version of this article was printed in the Correctional Oasis, January 2010 issue.

The correctional workplace culture tends to reinforce the message that staff are “weak” if they are distressed by what they are exposed to on the job. So, the only viable option that remains for staff in that context is a machismo attitude that nothing “gets to them”—an attitude of “No worries, I’m good. I can handle it.” This attitude may work short-term to convey to offenders that the exposed staff are not cowering in fear. And it may be necessary “in the moment” so that staff can respond quickly and effectively. However, this type of denial also strips them of the freedom to admit to themselves and to others any longer-term emotional wounding, and that they may need help to get through an experience successfully. This mindset reinforces a “code of silence” of sorts, an implicit agreement to not acknowledge painful truths in order to not lose face or standing in the workplace community (or in order to not lose their job due to being declared unfit for duty).

Consequently, when misplaced pride and denial prevail, staff end up trying to cope with often toxic occupational stress without a psychological “hazmat suit.” And, for the same reasons, if/when such a suit were provided to them, they might leave it laying on the ground, unused. (And remember, the wounding referred to here may not just occur at the emotional level. If sufficiently severe and the outcome of many such exposures, wounding also happens neurologically through disrupted brain function or even altered brain structure.)

The prevalence of a “machismo” stance has been the norm in corrections seemingly forever. It is understandable if some people may want to keep it that way. Change requires grounds to believe that it will bring about true improvement. Change also requires courage, perseverance and ingenuity. It also takes the investment of time, energy and money. It is not a small undertaking. Yet, while waiting for change, real people are being negatively affected daily—poisoned in their souls—and in turn, they may affect others, both on and off the job.

A noteworthy and relevant discussion of these issues in law enforcement and military service includes the phenomenon of “negative resilience.” [1]

Resilience refers to the ability to cope with adversity and stressors effectively—whether short-term or long-term stressors. Resilience enables people to “bounce back” to a previous state of normal functioning after a stressful experience, or even to grow from it, functioning better in some areas than they did prior to their adverse exposure. At Desert Waters, we define resilience in relative terms, as a degree of immunity to health-degrading consequences of potentially traumatizing or other high-stress events (Denhof & Spinaris, 2015). [2]

Negative resilience, on the other hand, has been defined as the semblance, the appearance, of resilience after a traumatic exposure, when in fact those exposed are coping poorly. Negative resilience is fake, an imitation, not the real thing. It is a counterfeit hazmat suit. Negative resilience leads individuals, such as military personnel or police officers, to say that they have become used to traumatic events, that they are immune to their effects. In reality, however, with each exposure they are becoming increasingly more fragile psychologically and perhaps also in terms of their neurobiology—the capacity of soul and brain to endure stress. Think of it as a gradual erosion of resilience and psychological stamina, akin to a gradual failing of a vehicle’s brakes. Clinically, we know that professionals under such circumstances can develop Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), various types of depression, and substance use disorders, accompanied by the functioning impairments associated with these conditions—both on and off the job. They may also be suffering from brain matter changes. Most disturbingly, their risk of suicidal behaviors (thoughts, attempts, and death by suicide) may increase significantly over time. (Schoenbaum et al., 2014). [3]

Negative resilience has been attributed to “disenfranchised distress.” [1] By “disenfranchised” is meant distress that is marginalized, excluded. It is distress experienced by the individual, but not allowed to be expressed because it is denied, rejected, or ridiculed by fellow staff due to the unwritten “rules” of the organizational culture. [1]

Negative resilience helps public safety staff appear to be “keeping it together,” but in effect they are experi-encing psychological numbing and/or dissociation. [1] (Dissociation can be thought of as distortions in the awareness of time, thought, emotion and of one’s body in relation to traumatic events. [4]) This is usually accompanied by substance abuse or other addictive behaviors, which serve as means of temporarily blocking awareness of distressing emotions or thoughts. Addictive behaviors compound the negative impact of trauma on health and functioning, and increase the potential for additional highly stressful outcomes, such as relationship conflict or adverse legal consequences.

Due to the psychological defenses of numbing/dissociation, members of the military or law enforcement can appear unaffected for a time period following a traumatic incident. However, at some point they may no longer be able to keep the facade of “I’m just fine,” and they “crash.” This is called the “twin peaks effect,” [1] with the first peak in traumatic symptoms oc-curring soon after exposure to a traumatic stressor and subsiding quickly (“I’m over it”). The second peak can occur at a much later time. Research indicates that military personnel exposed to a traumatic event might “crash” about 60 days later, even though they have been conducting combat operations and functioning well during the past 60 days. [1]

For police officers one study showed that the negative resilience phase may be as long as 16 years. (This figure represents the average number of elapsed years from hiring onto the force to completed suicide of French police officers. [1]) The time between the two peaks is the time characterized by negative resilience: the public safety professional may look strong on the outside, but be gradually crumbling on the inside. If colleagues only go by the outward appearances, they are totally stunned when they find out that their fellow officer of soldier has, for example, died by suicide.

Corrections professionals, and especially corrections officers, deal with situations very much like those of other law enforcement officers, and at times even like those of military personnel in combat. Perhaps you also can think of corrections professionals who have exhibited negative resilience for quite a long time, appearing and acting as if they were doing “just fine”—until, seemingly suddenly, one day the bottom fell out, and they died by suicide.

So, the urgent question is, what needs to be done to ensure that corrections professionals, starting on their first day at the Training Academy, begin to be instructed as to how to knit an appropriate hazmat suit for them-selves? How are they to be taught to develop true resilience, and not to resort to a version of resilience that is only skin-deep?

To be continued in the November issue of the Correctional Oasis.

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Hazmat Suit for the Soul—Part 1 of 3

September 10th, 2015

A prior version of this article was printed on January 03, 2011. It has been updated and reprinted with permission from Correctional Oasis: Volume 12, Issue 9.

The other day I heard someone state that, as firefighters expect to see charred bodies on the job, correctional workers should expect to encounter violence, injury or death at work. Consequently, that person proceeded to say, they should be prepared to deal with such incidents, and not be negatively affected by them.

The speaker made two points here about corrections personnel: (1) that staff should be prepared to deal with workplace traumatic incidents; and (2) that they should not be adversely affected by such exposure—that they should be practically immune to its effects, even when these keep happening over and over.

These are two separate issues that need to be addressed separately.

(Before proceeding with this subject, however, I would like to add that there is an underlying assumption in the above statement about firefighters that does not hold true when scrutinized further. That assumption is that firefighters are not psychologically harmed by their exposure to trauma on the job. The fact is that in several studies firefighters have been found to suffer from high rates of PTSD, depression, and alcohol abuse disorder [1,2]. This indicates that regardless of their degree of preparation, on the average, firefighters may not be getting through traumatic exposure unscathed.)

Let us now go back to the two issues of corrections staff’s preparation for what they may encounter on the job, and the degree to which they may be affected by traumatic exposure.

Corrections agencies diligently train their staff to respond to incidents of violence, injury or death. They train them to intervene and take charge of situations to minimize harm to both offenders and staff. Staff are trained to save lives in the case of offender self-injury or suicidal behaviors, offender medical events or accidents. They are trained to deescalate conflict, to quell disturbances of various sizes as safely as possible, and to respond to arson. Staff are also trained to prevent such incidents through wise use of intelligence, their own observations, and their communication skills. Corrections personnel are usually very well trained to take control of their external environment.

However, how well are they trained to manage their internal environments—that is, themselves, their thoughts, emo-tions, and physical reactions right before, during and after such events?

Historically, the psychological effects of corrections staff’s routine exposure to traumatic incidents has not received a lot of attention. The traditional perspective has been that there is no need to address this issue because corrections staff (officers, in particular) on the whole are unaffected, due to their “toughness.” But how valid or realistic is that perspective, particularly after staff’s repeated and often intense exposure to such events?

The fact is that exposure to trauma, especially when it happens intensely and repeatedly, can have a multitude of ad-verse consequences, regardless of preparation. The military has recognized that during the last few decades.

(Let us now introduce a new term here. Repeated exposure to traumatic incidents is also called “complex trauma.” We shall use this term in the rest of this article, as corrections professionals are rarely if ever exposed to only one traumatic event in the course of their careers.) [3,4]

Complex trauma can result in psychological symptoms and even diagnosable psychiatric disorders, with their associat-ed functioning impairments in one’s personal and professional life. Conditions such as PTSD (full-blown or partial), different types of depression, various anxiety disorders, and substance use disorders, such as Alcohol Use Disorder, frequently follow complex trauma. Moreover, these disorders may be comorbid—that is, a person may suffer from more than one of these disorders at the same time. One common such combination in the corrections workforce (as well as in military personnel and veterans) is the comorbidity of PTSD and depression, which can have devastating outcomes, such as suicide. [5]

As if that was not enough suffering, complex trauma can also result in physical illnesses, such as cardiovascular disease, gastro-intestinal diseases, and sleep disorders, also with their associated functioning impairments. The Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) study [6] showed that clearly in the general population. According to Bessel van der Kolk, “(a)s the ACE study has shown, child abuse and neglect is the single most preventable cause of mental illness, the single most common cause of drug and alcohol abuse, and a significant contributor to leading causes of death such as diabetes, heart disease, cancer, stroke, and suicide.” (p. 351) [7]

Both the psychological and physical consequences of complex trauma affect the workplace adversely. Job performance is hampered by, for example: (a) absenteeism—“calling in sick” and necessitating that other staff work doubles (increasing overtime costs) or posts remain vacant (increasing the risk of something dangerous happening, or of something important remaining undone); (b) policy violations (due to errors of omission, such as due to forgetfulness or fatigue, or errors of commission, such as due to staff irritability or anger outbursts), or even (c) “presenteeism”—staff reporting to work while ill, injured, depressed or anxious, thus saving on overtime for their agencies but performing at levels lower than their usual productivity.

This could include substantial errors of omission (one of the most frequent causes of security violations), while masking and failing to deal with any potentially relevant underlying issues, thereby perhaps prolonging them, and possibly, as a result, spreading negativity to co-workers.

The cost of these consequences to administrators is enormous. For example, a recent study reports that the economic burden of individuals with Major Depressive Disorder in 2010 in the U.S. was $210.5 billion dollars, of which 48% were attributable to workplace costs of absenteeism and presenteeism. [8]

And, perhaps most ominously, complex trauma can result in biochemical and even structural neurobiological changes. These brain changes then manifest in a variety of physical, psychological, and spiritual symptoms. (For a fascinating, though technical read of the neurobiology of psychological trauma, read “Healing the Traumatized Self: Consciousness, Neuroscience, Treatment” by Paul Frewen and Ruth Lanius. Another excellent and less technical book is “The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma” by Bessel van der Kolk.)

What do we know about corrections personnel? What happens to those exposed to traumatic incidents on the job? In a nutshell, malfunctioning—be it underperforming at work, absenteeism, physical illnesses, psychological distress symptoms, and even full-blown psychiatric disorders. Data exist on the prevalence of PTSD, depression, anxiety, and the most toxic combination of co-occurring PTSD and depression in corrections staff. Data exists on the relationship between such disorders and consequences on physical health, sick leave, and dissatisfaction with life. Data exist on the prevalence of Corrections Fatigue and the low implementation of resilience-promoting behaviors among corrections staff. Data also exist on the extremely high suicide risk of corrections officers. And HR departments have the data on staff policy violations on the job, and malfunctioning off the job—including DWAIs, DUIs, family violence, and other types of violent incidents in the community.

So, repeated exposure to traumatic incidents—complex trauma—wields a formidable weapon against staff’s psychological and physical well-being. To use another metaphor, complex trauma is toxic, hazardous to staff’s health. But if traumatic toxicity is an expected part of the profession, how are the staff being prepared to protect themselves?

Professionals trained to clean up toxic materials don their hazmat suits before going to clean up a liquid chlorine spill on the highway. Workers in nuclear settings wear contamination suits as well. And soldiers carry equipment to counter different types of environmental eventualities. Yet correctional workers are oftentimes thrust into situations that make war zones pale by comparison in terms of unspeakable gruesomeness, mayhem, and danger that can follow them home. How are they being psychologically prepared beforehand to handle such “hazardous materials,” and how do they “decontaminate” themselves afterwards? What kind of hazmat suit are they given to wear while exposed to such incidents and conditions? They—YOU—train themselves/yourselves physically to respond, but do they—you—train to de-contaminate emotionally ? Is it even realized or acknowledged that an incident may have had hazmat-type consequences? And how frequently is that realization a part of correctional training and preparation?

To be continued in the October 2015 issue of the Correctional Oasis.


[1] Perrin, M.A., DiGrande, L., Wheeler, K., Thorpe, L., Farfel, M. & Brackbill, R. (2007). Differences in PTSD prevalence and associat-ed risk factors among World Trade Center disaster rescue and recovery workers. American Journal of Psychiatry, 164, 1385-1394.

[2] Wagner, D., Heinrichs, M., & Ehlert, U. (1998). Prevalence of Symptoms of Posttraumatic Stress Disorder in German Professional Firefighters. American Journal of Psychiatry, 155, 1727-1732.

[3] Herman J.L. (1992). Complex PTSD: A syndrome in survivors of prolonged and repeated trauma. Journal of Traumatic Stress.;5(3):377-391.

[4] International Society for Traumatic Stress Studies. The ISTSS Expert Consensus Treatment Guidelines for Complex PTSD in Adults. Available at

[5] Connera, K.R., Bossartea, R.M., Hea, H., Aroraa, J., Lua, N., Tua, X.M., Katz, I.R. (2014). Posttraumatic stress disorder and suicide in 5.9 million individuals receiving care in the veterans health administration health system. Journal of Affective Disor-ders, 166-1-5.

[6] The ACE Study.

[7] van der Kolk, B. A. (2014). The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma. New York: VIKING, Pen-guin Group

[8] Greenberg, P.E., Fournier, A.-A., Sisitsky, T., Pike, C.T., and Kessler, R.C. (2015). Journal of Clinical Psychiatry, 76, 155-162.

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Administrators’ Immediate Action Steps Following a Critical Incident

August 14th, 2015

Q: I wanted to check in with you to ask if you have any ideas on where I can find some basic beginning steps on how administrators can act the first moments after a critical incident. Not about the debriefing, not the referrals to EAP. Rather what steps should be taken in the first 1-30 minutes of an event?

After talking with someone who was recently assaulted by a client, it really hit me that so many administrators just don’t know what to do. So they avoid the situation – they freeze rather than act. I don’t think this is done on purpose; it’s like a reflex, automatic. I feel if we can begin sharing ideas with all department heads on how to even respond to the incident just after it occurred (for example, don’t have them continue to see more clients on that day!! Duh! But so many do to make sure the job is getting done), we can begin to help show the importance of administration being involved in the addressing of the problems.

A: Thank you for your commitment as an administrator to keep moving the corrections profession forward by looking for effective ways to respond to potentially traumatized staff. Appropriate supportive responses can reduce the toxic effects of occupational hazards in corrections work, such as a staff assault.

Please note that this response only addresses ways to respond to the assaulted staff member, not the need to lock down units, arrest clients, take offenders to segregation, etc.

In a nutshell, the focus immediately after the incident needs to be on ensuring staff safety, tending to staff’s urgent needs, and beginning the process of staff re-stabilization.

The first step is a medical examination to assess the employee’s condition, and to provide them with immediate medical care as needed. This is to be followed by access to higher-level emergency medical treatment as their condition requires, which may include transportation to a hospital by ambulance. In that case, administrators should visit the staff member at the hospital as soon as their condition allows, to offer them emotional and moral support.

After a medical checkup, and if no further medical care is recommended or is deemed to be warranted, the next step consists of the removal of the assaulted employee from the area of the incident. This is done in order to secure their physical safety, to reduce the likelihood of their exposure to possible ongoing threat, and to reduce the risk of them being re-victimized. That may mean getting them away from all offenders/clients, and also from trauma reminders (such as the location, certain items, or individuals.) There will be time to “get back on the horse” again later. Immedi-ately after the event, the person needs to be able to begin calming down. Distancing themselves from threats and reminders—the perception of danger—is one way to do that.

Make it possible for the assaulted staff member to change clothes, and get cleaned up ASAP, if they have been soiled (such as by having body fluids thrown on them), or if their clothes have been torn. That will reduce their exposure to triggers (incident reminders) and get them to feel like they are regaining their dignity. Indeed, some facilities stock care packages for staff that have been assaulted. These may include a pair of sweats, socks, a shirt, a towel, shampoo, toothpaste, and a token for a snack or beverage from a vending machine.

Have the assaulted staff member come to your office or go where they are and spend some time with them one-on-one. Offer them water to drink. Sit down with them in an area where you can close the door. If they come to your office, get around from behind your desk and sit in a chair next to them. Make eye contact. Express to them your caring about what they just went through, and your concern about their welfare. Absolutely do not drill them about details of the incident. Just listen. Listen empathically—that is, listen with a frame of mind of putting yourself in their shoes, trying to understand what the experience was like for them. If they froze, remind them that this is an involuntary and unpredictable brain-based reaction. Absolutely do not reprimand them for it. Point out what they did well, and what went well overall.

The employee, pumped full of adrenaline, may be angry at this point, perhaps blaming themselves and/or others, including administrators. Give them space to vent. Listen, acknowledge, and validate the horror of what they’ve just experienced. Suggest that they most likely did the best they could at the time, under the circumstances, and that, like in every situation, lessons will be learned from this incident as well. Reassure them that their immediate reactions are understandable and to be expected/normal.

Absolutely refrain from arguing with the employee, or threatening them with discipline for being disrespectful. Do not tell them to correct their attitude or watch what they are saying if they want to keep their job. The general stance of administrators needs to be supportive—not judgmental, critical, angry or blaming. At this point self-control needs to be exercised by administrators if their own buttons are getting pushed by the assaulted staff’s angry reactions.

I personally know of one such a situation that was handled in an exemplary fashion. The assaulted CO went “off” on his warden who met with him after the medical check. The latter, having come up through the ranks, and having experienced being assaulted himself, remained calm and quiet during the employee’s tirade. When the CO finally ran out of words, the warden gently expressed to him his understanding of the CO’s state of mind, and verbalized to him his sincere compassion for what he’d just been through. In turn, the CO took it all in, waited for a few moments, and then apologized for coming unhinged.

The next step of “being there” for the assaulted employee is tapping into their support network by having their friends at the facility be relieved of their duties so they can come to express their support to the staff member. In some cases, staff may not be comfortable talking extensively to an administrator, but they will talk to a friend. If you have trained peer supporters, call on them to come by as well and talk to the employee.

Ask the assaulted staff member if they want to make a phone call to family members and/or significant others in their community, and make it possible for them to do so privately.
If the assaulted staff member wants to make a round of the office or unit to show the clients/offenders that they “are keeping it together” and have their head up in spite of the assault, honor them by accompanying them in doing so.

Additionally, as part of the support you offer, have the assaulted staff member be checked confidentially by a mental health provider at the facility, or allow them access to a room where they can shut the door and call your EAP hotline. These professionals can check for safety concerns, assess the employee’s current functioning level and frame of mind, remind the staff member that acute reactions after an incident are normal, and tell them what signs might indicate that additional care/treatment is needed. They can give/email/fax them handouts with relaxation exercises and other coping strategies, and remind them to avoid using substances to cope, as these can destabilize their mood further.

Relieve the assaulted staff member of their duties for that day. Ask them if they’d like to take a day off of work. If they decline that, allow them to spend time as needed with peer supporters and/or mental health providers. If they insist on working, assign them to an area where they are likely to have minimal client/offender contact. When they come back to work, do another round of the unit/office with them, to visibly express your support of them.

If they are asked to write up their incident report immediately after it happens, keep in mind that the reported order of events may be jumbled or unclear. (Remembering details of a traumatic incident is a subject that will be addressed in one of the webinars to be offered through Desert Waters’ Resilience Academy.) Therefore, this initial report should be regarded as part 1 or incomplete, with the understanding that material may be added a few days later. This may be controversial to some, primarily for legal reasons, yet we are dealing with realities of the neurobiology of human memory following exposure to a traumatic event. The brain is not a video camera.

When it is time for the assaulted staff member to leave the office/facility, arrange for someone to drive them home, and for another employee to drive their vehicle to their house.

And remember, it may not only be the assaulted staff member who needs your immediate attention. Those who witnessed the incident and those who responded are also likely to require your expressions of caring, consideration, validation, and support.

Note: Dr. Susan Jones was consulted on this piece, and she offered several comments and suggestions which helped shape this article.

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Higher Highs and Lower Lows: Working with Justice-involved Youth - Part 2

June 18th, 2015

Continued from the May 2015 issue of the Correctional Oasis.

How Staff Are Affected

If, on average, staff working with youth try harder to help their charges, attach more, and care more regarding outcomes than staff working with adult offenders, then they are also more likely to both be elated when youth make progress, and also more disappointed—even crushed—when something goes seriously wrong with the youth.

In a nutshell, when working with justice-involved juveniles, the highs tend to be higher and the lows lower than when working with older, adult offenders.

And even in the absence of current adverse incidents, just reading the youth’s files and hearing their stories is enough to stir up in staff grief, anger at perpetrators, and a sense of powerlessness to stem the tide of child abuse or neglect.

So staff who deal with young offenders have the dual task of needing to stay afloat emotionally themselves—managing their emotional reactions effectively, while also keeping the youth’s heads above water. And this must be accomplished in the context of experiencing acting-out incidents and other crises on a not infrequent basis, on top of other regular stressors of corrections work.

As they continue to deal with such incidents, may staff become progressively more negatively impacted—unless they learn effective ways to process the fallout of these events.

Think of how a staff member may feel when a youth (whom they have been helping diligently and consistently) for no apparent reason, suddenly assaults them or makes unfounded yet serious allegations against them.

Up to that point, that staff member may had come to believe that they had earned the youth’s trust and respect. They may have even thought that the youth might be grateful toward them for their sincere efforts to help them and for their obvious caring.

Assaults or unfounded accusations can, understandably, shatter the interpersonal bridges staff have so painstakingly been building to reach the youth. Because of the deeper emotional investment in their charges (compared with adult offenders), staff may feel personally betrayed by the youth, “stabbed in the back.” Staff may (most often inaccurately) conclude that no progress was made and that their efforts were all in vain.

Coming to believe that their hard work was to no avail would likely lead to staff building high psychological walls around themselves, becoming reluctant to care and invest emotionally in youth again. And on top of trying to work through the sense of betrayal, they now have to deal with the traumatic aftermath of the assault experienced and/or the stress of being under investigation.

Even though staff’s negative reactions are understandable—as none of us like to receive harm in return for good—if they become entrenched (not worked through), they will render staff much less effective at their work, and they will also drastically diminish the positive meaning and satisfaction they derive from their work.

Similarly, when youth attempt suicide or die by suicide—in spite of staff’s incessant efforts to help them work through their struggles—that is a crushing blow for staff. Staff may be also become deeply distressed when a tragedy strikes youth in the community, such as them being murdered or dying due to a drug overdose.

When youth commit new crimes, staff who have been working tirelessly with them may start doubting their ability to influence youth for the better. Their confidence in their professional skill sets and in their ability to facilitate pro-social change, and their sense of meaning and value of their work may be seriously undermined. They may ask themselves, “What’s the point of trying to help these kids? Either they get back in the system or they die.”

Additionally, compared to dealing with adult offenders, staff may take on more responsibility for youth treatment and intervention outcomes than is realistic or warranted. As a result, they may be more likely to experience false, un-founded guilt when justice-involved youth make another poor choice, thinking that they should have done more to help them.

It is difficult to allow oneself to care deeply over and over again, only to have one’s expectations fail to materialize, or only to be “paid back” with a verbal or physical attack. To protect themselves from disappointment and to be able to continue working with this population, some staff may take an all-or-nothing approach. They may “harden their hearts,” shut down emotionally, do the bare minimum, and lose the vision and idealism that initially propelled them to serve youth offenders. Others may also occasionally react by becoming verbally abusive in return to the more chal-lenging youth. Eventually some will quit, as the investment may seem to them to be too high for the meager returns. Others may be let go due to misconduct. And the not-often mentioned reality is that a number of staff may develop PTSD, depression and anxiety symptoms and even full-fledged disorders as a result of what they witness and what they experience in the course of working with justice-involved youth.

Solutions for Youth Workers

Effective functioning as youth workers depends on three main components: (a) finding and maintaining positive meaning and purpose in the work; (b) pursuing their own wellness; and (c) experiencing support and understanding by their administration.

Finding Positive Meaning and Purpose

Youth workers need to maintain the belief that it is indeed possible for justice-involved juveniles to improve and to have a better future. The fact that areas of the juvenile brain are still developing means that there are very real op-portunities and possibilities that at least some of them will acquire prosocial behaviors to some degree through posi-tive interactions as well as through experiencing consequences for their actions. Reminding themselves of these en-couraging facts can help staff remain open and willing to invest in youth in appropriate ways even after struggles and relapses.

Staff may also need to modify their expectations and their definition of success. Celebrating every tiny bit of pro-gress, while also factoring in setbacks as part of the norm, is a necessity. Reminding themselves to distinguish be-tween what they CAN influence and what they cannot change will help keep their expectations realistic and more likely to be attainable. It also helps for staff to re-main cognizant of the fact that they are not responsible for other people’s choices and that they cannot control others’ actions.

Staff need to remember that their calling involves doing their best (the level of which may vary from day to day), to sow good seed and continue to water it, and then let go of expectations regarding the outcomes. That means ac-cepting that some seed may sprout immediately, but not endure under harsh conditions; some may sprout and con-tinue to grow steadily; some may sprout much later; and some may not sprout at all. The good seed that sprouts—whether sooner or later, and to whatever degree—can make the effort worthwhile, as one person does matter, and one person can have a tremendous impact in their world, even for generations to come.

Staff need to balance their emotional engagement and investment in the youth with a degree of professional detach-ment based on understanding the process of a youth’s maturation and change, and given the context of neurological, psychological and spiritual damage that the youth may have already sustained.

Given the harsh reality of juveniles’ acting-out behaviors, some of which involve aggression against other youth and also against staff, to be able to continue working effectively in this field, staff have to have a way of letting go of grudges. They have to be able to forgive to some degree at least, so they can go back the next day and engage the youth as human beings under their care—not as monsters to avoid, hate or punish. That is a tall order, but it can be done, and it is being done across the country.

In addition to re-evaluating their understanding of what constitutes success, staff would benefit from adopting a strengths-based framework when dealing with youth. This involves identifying youth’s abilities and skillsets, acknowl-edging these strengths to themselves and to the youth, and working with identified strengths as starting points to encourage and empower the youth and to promote change.

The predominant way in which the youth is perceived by the staff is also critical, as it determines how staff will deal with them. In line with the work of Gordon Bazemore, are they viewed as helpless victims, villains who deserve to be punished, or as valuable resources that can be developed and redeemed, at least to some degree? Are they worth investing in and helping, or should they be simply warehoused and written off? This perception of youth is of course is shaped by staff’s exposure to trauma, as trauma can change the worldview of those affected by it. So staff need to be continually countering the tendency to overgeneralize from one youth (or a few) to all, and the tendency to draw sweeping, negative conclusions about the youth while overlooking, minimizing or dismissing positives.

Staff need to remember that we live in an imperfect yet beautiful world, where injustice but also goodness happen, and where some degree of recovery and healing is possible for most, if not for all. And, most importantly, that every amount of healing matters. Sometimes the steps forward that youth take may be so small that they are hardly notice-able. In that case they are what I call “ant steps.” But, as staff and youth persevere and keep moving forward in spite of stumbling and falling down at times, these ant steps add up, and ants can get to go to far away places!

I have spoken with staff who have experienced the betrayal of an assault by youth they had been helping, and worked through it successfully. After the dust settled, they chose to examine the situation objectively. If they took the attack personally at first, they stopped doing that. “Why did he do this to me after all I’ve done for him?” became “I know that this was not about me, and I think I understand where he came from.” That is, they were able to frame the inci-dent as it being due to what they represented (adult authority) to the youth; and/or due to the youth being torn about letting anyone get close to them emotionally. (Disruptions in the development of secure attachment may mean that youth become anxious and agitated when someone gets close to them emotionally, as they expect that to be the prelude to more pain. And so they react, violently at times, and push whoever they consider to be a threat away. They may do so in a flash, impulsively, and without thinking through the context of the relationship.) By reframing assault incidents in this manner, staff were able to let go of grudges, forgive the youth, and even analyze the situation with them. In all cases of assaulted staff I am aware of, the youth later expressed regret and apologized for their conduct.

Pursuing Their Own Wellness

As their career progresses, staff need to develop and maintain effective resilience-boosting strategies, so that they can deal with repeated letdowns and other high-stress experiences at work. Ideally, this parallels the staff’s efforts to teach youth to develop life skills for coping with adversity.

Staff need to aggressively pursue their well-being in every area—from getting enough positive social interactions in their lives outside of work to eating well to working out to sleeping enough to cultivating a healthy spirituality to getting enough time away from work to rest and play.

Wellness also involves balancing giving to others with taking care of themselves—to “refuel,” to process what they have experienced, and to remind themselves of basic truths. That is, staff need to ensure that they are regulating their own thought process and emotions in healthy ways, and that they “detoxify” sufficiently following difficult en-counters. And effective supervisors remind their subordinates of these truths, while also practicing them themselves.

Experiencing Administrators’ Support and Understanding

It is vital for line staff to be confident that their administrators understand the pressures of the job, and that they support them and look out for their well-being. Little could destroy morale more than coming to believe that the youth’s well-being is regarded as more important than theirs, or that youth are not held appropriately accountable for their actions.

Administrators’ support needs to be both verbal and action-based—both in word and deed, particularly regarding issues of staff’s physical safety. If youth workers have previously worked with adult offenders, they may struggle with the differences in how physi-cally violent behavior of these two populations is handled.

In summary, dealing with justice-involved youth may “tug at staff’s heart strings” more than when dealing with adult offenders. This leaves youth workers more vulnerable to disappointment and discouragement, even while providing them with more opportunities for satisfaction due to breakthroughs witnessed in the youth’s lives. To use another analogy, youth workers walk on an emotional tightrope more so than staff working with older offenders.

To maintain their effectiveness, they need to be making vigorous efforts at engaging wisely at the emotional level with the youth while maintaining professional boundaries—not too much and not too little, and depending on each individual case. They need to also redefine what professional success means in this line of work, seek ways to contin-ue deriving fulfillment in spite of challenges, and take deliberate, intentional steps at maintaining their own resilience and well-being.

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Higher Highs and Lower Lows: Working with Justice-involved Youth — Part 1

May 18th, 2015

During the past few years I have had the privilege of training corrections staff who manage, educate or treat justice-involved youth in facilities/campuses or in the community. As a result, I have noticed that there seem to be some distinct differences in the professional experiences of staff who work with youth compared to the experiences of corrections staff who work with older, adult offenders.

These notable differences are most likely related to specific conditions that are inherent to working with justice-involved youth, and they may affect staff’s interactions with youth in both positive and negative ways.

Overall, especially in locked facilities, justice-involved youth tend to be more unpredictable, more likely to suffer from psychological disorders, more violent, and more likely to exhibit extreme behaviors than adult offenders are, on the average [1].

These youth tend to suffer from mood, anxiety, traumatic and substance abuse disorders, often with two or more conditions occurring at the same time — more so than adult offenders [1, 2, 3]. And they may be more at risk for attempted or completed suicides, self-injury, and other types of self-harm. Youth who suffer from PTSD, for example, due to their repeated exposure to trauma, may expect to die young. Therefore, their actions might reflect what to us is a shocking disregard for their welfare, their future, and even their very lives.

That is, compared to adult offenders, justice-involved youth may be less apt or able to “apply the brakes” on their impulses, or to think through potential consequences of their behavior, thus opting for reckless and destructive choices—including “throwing their lives away.”

The youths’ emotional volatility and higher impulsivity render them more dangerous to themselves and to others (staff included) than is the case with adult offenders.

The following are some of my observations regarding the professionals who work with justice-involved youth:

  1. On the whole, youth workers tend to (at least initially) invest emotionally more in the youth than corrections staff invest in adult offenders.

  2. Staff working with juveniles tend to derive deep satisfaction, and a sense of purpose and meaning, from progress made by the youth. In that regard they may enjoy more fulfillment than staff working with adult offenders. This satisfaction, though, can be offset by staff’s disappointment when youth lose ground. Disappointment negatively affects staff’s self-perception as effective helpers, with the ensuing disillusionment undermining the degree of their motivation and engagement in the work, and ultimately possibly reducing staff retention.

    So the highs tend to be higher and the lows lower for staff working with juvenile offenders, compared to those working with adults, due to the greater emotional investment in and greater hope for progress by the youth.

  3. Due to high assault rates in juvenile facilities both of other youth and of employees, staff end up exposed to more potentially traumatic events and physical injuries than may be the case in adult correctional settings (perhaps with the exception of maximum/high security facilities). And this occurs in a context where youth—because of their age—are managed differently than adult offenders, both physically and in terms of the overall philosophy of care, with the emphasis being on treatment.

Let us now examine issues affecting staff working with justice-involved youth in some detail.

Some Reasons for Staff’s Greater Emotional Investment

Youth workers, at least early on in their careers, are often characterized by enthusiasm and zeal. They are on a mission, sincerely wanting to help justice-involved youth heal from their all-too-often tormenting pasts and improve their lives. This usually leads staff to be persistent, teachable and engaged when dealing with the youth.

There are many reasons for the greater, on the average, emotional and relational investment of youth workers in their charges than that of corrections staff who work with older offenders. (Of course, there are always exceptions for staff working with either population.)

  1. The emphasis and approach regarding young offender management differ significantly from adult offender management. The approach with justice-involved youth tends to be more therapeutic than with adults, more heavily weighted toward treatment, mentoring and relationship building. Staff is trained and encouraged to build supportive relationships with the youth, to interact, to discuss issues, to offer guidance, comfort and encouragement, and to help them problem solve rationally and pro-socially—and within policy. That is, staff is trained to act as advisers, counselors and positive role models for the youth, as well as disciplinarians who administer consequences for poor choices.

    The underlying assumption is that younger offenders are still relatively “wet cement,” less “hardened” or set in their thinking and behaviors than adult offenders, since they are still growing and maturing. Consequently, there is an ex-pectation that services designed to teach pro-social behavior and bring about healing are more likely to succeed with youth than with older offenders. As a result, staff may be more hopeful of positive outcomes with youth and try hard-er to bring about enduring improvements than when working with older offenders.

  2. Due to their specialized youth-focused training, youth workers may also be aware, more so than with adults, of neurological issues affecting youth, such as fetal alcohol syndrome and/or other drug exposure in the womb, traumatic brain injuries, and consequences of their own drug abuse. Youth files may include details of their psychological abuse, neglect, abandonment, and physical injuries. And, perhaps most importantly, they are educated about the fact that regions of the brain (specifically, the prefrontal cortex) are not fully mature in adolescence. Rather, they continue to mature over the course of adolescence and into young adulthood [4,5]. These parts of the brain govern self-regulation, including decision making, planning for the future, foresight of consequences, risk-assessment, and judgment—capacities that typically associated with criminal culpability.

    Similar details regarding neurological problems may well be true of adult offenders, but they may not appear in their files, simply because they were not diagnosed; or no one asked the relevant questions; or offenders did not provide that information. Or, even if documented, some staff may not have access to adult offender files.

    Consequently, as they deal with each individual case, it may be easier for youth workers to “connect the dots” from a juvenile’s immature brain development (and also perhaps early childhood adverse experiences and neurological dam-age) to destructive choices and criminal behaviors. So, staff might empathize with the youth’s predicament and circumstances, “understanding” (without excusing) why they may have acted on impulse, violated others’ rights, and/or acted destructively and aggressively. And this awareness and empathy may increase their resolve to help youth less-en, if not overcome, negative aftereffects of adversity.

    Adult offenders, on the other hand, may be held to a higher standard in the minds of staff—as knowing right from wrong, and as being responsible for their choices (with the exception of the severely mentally ill).

  3. Another factor that contributes to staff’s greater investment is that youth may not be as able to hide behind a mask of toughness as well as older offenders. Rather, the youth may display their vulnerabilities more. They may express distress more, ask for help more, and break down openly more. That is, youth may tend to be more transparent, and so staff may be more likely to see their frailty, their emotional pain, and their very real need for help. This can lead (on average) to a desire to understand, to offer support, and to problem-solve instead of exhibiting indifference or being punitive. So youth workers may feel more compassion and a stronger urge to help than staff working with older offenders.
  4. Another subject that typically youth workers are trained on is that justice-involved youth are in the midst of negotiating “normal” social, emotional and physiological (hormonal) adolescent developmental stages 5. These developmental changes and milestones are occurring while the youth are also dealing with the inescapable realities of a still-maturing brain, and while also likely experiencing effects of past adverse experiences on body, soul, and spirit. Knowing these facts may prompt staff, once again, to be more understanding of certain behaviors, more caring, and perhaps more patient with youth than they would be with adult offenders.
  5. Staff may also identify with the youth more than with adults, for example, by remembering their own childhood emotional struggles and hardships, or the struggles of friends or siblings. Or, when dealing with the youth, they may reflect on their own children, and so form deeper emotional bonds to young offenders and be more impacted by their struggles, compared to staff working with adult offenders.

These factors contribute to youth workers’ more complex relationships with juveniles on the whole than corrections staff who work with adult offenders, including the building of attachments that evoke strong emotional responses in staff in relation to youths’ behaviors and outcomes of their involvement in the justice system.

To be continued in the June 2015 issue of the Correctional Oasis.


[1] Abram, K.M., Choe, J.Y., Washburn, J.J., Teplin, L.A., King, D.C., Dulcan M.K., and Bassett E.D. Suicidal Thoughts and Behaviors Among Detained Youth. Juvenile Justice Bulletin, July 2014.
[2] Dierkhising, C.B., Ko, J., Woods-Jaeger, B., Briggs, E.C., Lee, R., & Pynoos, R.S. (2013). Trauma histories among justice-involved youth: Findings from the National Child Traumatic Stress Network. European Journal of Psychotraumatology, 4, 20274.
[3] Kerig, P. K., and Julian D. Ford, J. D. (2014). Trauma among Girls in the Juvenile Justice System. National Child Traumatic Stress Network.
[4] Fagan, Jeffrey. Adolescents, Maturity, and the Law. The American Prospect. August, 2005.
[5] Adams, G. R., Montemayor, R., and Gullota, Thomas P. (Eds.) (1996). Psychosocial Development during Adolescence. Sage Publi-cations: Thousand Oaks, CA.

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Sleep Difficulties of Corrections Professionals: Nothing to Yawn At

November 7th, 2014

“I sleep a lot and have had bouts with insomnia and did not sleep for days.”

“Too much mandatory overtime has affected my sleep patterns.”

These are quotes from anonymous corrections officers. Their comments are not at all unusual. We have also heard many a time of staff bringing six “high-energy” (that is, high-caffeine) drinks to work, to consume during their shift—to force their brain to stay awake and alert while on duty, when in fact it is trying to shut down and go to sleep.

Of DWCO’s national 2011 sample of N=3599 corrections professionals of multiple job types and agency types, 43.3% indicated that they were experiencing sleep problems, with 45.8% of the men reporting sleep problems, and 40.2% of the women. Of those who reported having been exposed to one or more incident of violence, injury or death, 45.7% reported sleep problems, as opposed to 26.8% of those who did not report exposure to such incidents. Of those comorbid-positive (that is, meeting criteria for PTSD and also scoring as moderate or higher on depression symptom severity) 72.1% reported sleep problems, as opposed to 37.3% those who were not comorbid-positive.

Sleep disturbances include difficulty falling asleep, difficulty staying asleep, nightmares, obstructive sleep apnea, and Restless Leg Syndrome.

What are some of the consequences of sleep deprivation/insufficient sleep? According to the Centers for Disease Con-trol and Prevention (CDC), 23.2% of US adults 20 years and older reported difficulty concentrating on things in relation to sleep insufficiency (less than 7 hours of sleep in a 24-hour period), and 18.2% reported difficulty remembering things in relation to sleep insufficiency. In corrections work environments, difficulty concentrating or remembering can have life-threatening consequences.

Also according to CDC, insufficient sleep is associated with high-risk behaviors such nodding off or falling asleep while driving, and unintentionally falling asleep during the day. And insufficient sleep is associated with low energy and feel-ing tired during the day.

Sleep insufficiency undermines health by increasing the risk of chronic illnesses such as hypertension, diabetes, depression, and obesity, as well as cancer, increased mortality, and reduced quality of life and productivity [1].

Moreover, a study of employees in the transport industry and in the army found that even moderate sleep depriva-tion produced impairments in processing and motor performance. These impairments were be equivalent to those of alcohol intoxication [2]. After 17-19 hours without sleep, speed and accuracy on some tests were equivalent to or worse than speed and accuracy at a Blood Alcohol Content (BAC) of 0.05%. After longer periods without sleep (up to 28 hours), performance reached levels equivalent to performance following the maximum alcohol dose given to subjects (BAC of 0.1%). In the US, drivers with BAC of .08% or higher are considered to be legally intoxicated—Driving Under the Influence (DUI).

Given the inescapable consequences of sleep deprivation on health and functioning, it seems safe to conclude that every effort must be made to ensure that corrections professionals, and in particular shift workers, are presented with work conditions that allow them to get on at least 7 hours of sleep per 24-hour period.

Here are some tips from the National Sleep Foundation that may help promote sufficient and good quality sleep.

  • Establish and adhere to a regular routine regarding what time you go to bed to sleep and what time you wake up. This helps regulate your body’s biological clock which controls your circadian rhythms to help you go to sleep and to stay awake. Of course, working over-time throws your biological clock off. And changing shift schedule confuses your body even further as to when is should be secreting chemicals to help you go sleep and when it should be working on helping you wake up and stay awake. Whenever shift schedules change, staff experience the equivalent of jet lag.

  • Avoid exposure to bright lights, loud sounds, activities or information that may cause you to get “wound up,” excited or otherwise stressed just before bedtime. Avoid watching the news on television, playing video games, or working on your laptop in bed before going to sleep.
  • Instead, help your brain wind down and shift from wakefulness to sleep mode. If your mind is on things you have to do the next day, write them down and tell yourself that you are going to sleep now and you will be dealing with these matters the next day.
  • Make sure that the room where you sleep is dark and quiet, and that your mattress and pillow are comfortable.
  • Routinely engage in a relaxing ritual just before bedtime. That could involve drinking a warm non-alcoholic and non-caffeinated beverage, reading, stretching, taking a shower or engaging in sexual activity with your partner.
  • If napping during your day interferes with sleeping at your regular bedtime, avoid taking naps, especially later in your day.
  • Get physical exercise, daily if possible, to help yourself unwind.
  • Avoid consuming alcoholic drinks, tobacco products, caffeine, or heavy or spicy meals prior to going to sleep.
  • If you find yourself unable to sleep, get up and do something relaxing, such as reading, until you feel tired and ready to go to sleep.
  • If you continue having difficulty sleeping in spite of your efforts to do so, consult with your physician about it.
  • Like needing water, oxygen and food, our body, including our brain, NEEDS sleep. Sufficient and good quality sleep is a non-negotiable prerequisite for our health and functioning, and even for our very survival.


[1] Institute of Medicine. Sleep Disorders and Sleep Deprivation: An Unmet Public Health Problem. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press; 2006.
[2] Williamson, A. & Feyer, A. (2000). Moderate sleep deprivation produces impairments in cognitive and motor performance equiv-alent to legally prescribed levels of alcohol intoxication. Occupational Environmental Medicine, 57, 649–655.

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