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Contemplating courtesy in corrections

September 29th, 2011

The cards seem stacked against me that day. Not only was Monday, but I was also scheduled to get a flu shot. I realize that a quick second of discomfort outweighs the potential of long-term upper respiratory misery. Still, it was early on a Monday morning and that hold its own challenge.

I did not see this coming. After the shot, I was offered a homemade oatmeal raisin cookie. It was delicious. And that unexpected courtesy instantly changed my outlook on the day. Maybe Mondays are over touted as the worst day of the week.

I cannot help to wonder about the possible positive impacts of a small act of kindness at work. Like the concept of “pay forward”, any courtesy can spin into many benefits - sometimes unpredictable. Among them are:
1. Increased camaraderie
2. Improved outlooks and positive attitudes
3. Reciprocal kind acts
4. The feeling of community that ultimately increases safety.
Of course, we are very careful in corrections. When a good deed is done to us, we might cynically ask what is in it for the person who performs a good deed. We ponder the motive rather than enjoy goodwill.

However, that sort of cynicism is detrimental for staff unity. It’s unfortunate that questions of indebtedness will often arise. Yet, that is the reality of the work environment in corrections.

Favors of all shapes and sizes should not automatically fall in the crosshairs of scrutiny. If our difficult to defuse skepticism cannot be turned down, then it can be softened. For example, rather than question the motive, one might assess if the person is normally the giving type. If so, then suspicions can be laid to rest. If not, then there may or may not be something afoot.

Here are some random thoughts about courtesies in corrections:
• People often use the phrase “no good deed goes unpunished”. That’s just an expression. It is not an inevitable occurrence.
• In corrections, we work with the job that quickly squelches any optimism. Unsolicited good will between colleagues keeps alive this rare commodity of positive thoughts.
• Most people eventually will shed skepticism over good deeds.
• Some colleagues, however, will never accept kindness at face value. They are few and far between. Their existence should be acknowledged though not validated. Still, they should not be ostracized, as this contributes to staff division.
• On the other side of the coin, some people are validated by excelling in giving. Unfortunately, this may become an annoyance to most. As in anything, balance is necessary.
• Sometimes, good deeds are sabotaged by jealousy. In some cases, the saboteur may not be stealthy, wishing for any type of attention – even if it is negative.
• Forced courtesy is of no value. One of the gifts that we often gain in this vocation is the ability to assess real and feigned actions. Therefore, it behooves us to avoid ruses dressed in nice deeds.
• Competitive courtesy it is another version of staff division. It is not unheard of for two staff to battle for the title of the nicest person in the facility. This breeds contempt and fosters division.
• All of us have a job to do. Courtesy is nice. However, in excess, it can obscure the job at hand. It is safe, for example, to hold the door for a colleague in the distance when prisoner traffic may pose a hazard? Safety first.
• Above all, follow policy. All random acts of kindness should be done within the bounds of policy and procedure. For example, distribution of candy canes in late December is nice. But is it sanctioned by the facility? Is it safe if one of the candy canes becomes missing and is later sharpened to be used as a weapon?

I once saw friend of mine perform an unexpected favor at the Mackinac Bridge toll booth. The Mackinac Bridge is the five-mile span that connects the Upper Peninsula of Michigan to the Lower Peninsula of Michigan. He paid his own toll to cross into Lower Michigan and also gave toll for the person behind them. In the middle of this four-lane bridge, a car pulled up to our car and waved to my friend in gratitude.

I do realize that what happened at the toll booth in St. Ignace, Michigan is not some earth-shattering, unprecedented act of benevolence. Still, it is clear to me that it is sometimes the little things that fuel good days. This is neither childlike nor naïve to appreciate an unexpected homemade cookie. It is human nature.

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joebouchard Assessing the organization, Self Scrutiny, Staff relations, Uncategorized

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