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Coping with tragedy - lessons for corrections
By Joseph Bouchard
Published: 04/23/2007

0423joe Sometimes, the news can be unbelievable. For example, the horror on the campus of Virginia Tech last week left us collectively numb. All of us were dropped into a state of disbelief by those atrocious killings. The air was thick with feelings of confusion and grieving.

Unfortunately, other events come to mind as we cope with the recent campus shootings. Even so, we are not wholly desensitized by large losses of lives such as Columbine and the events of 9/11. While these forms of terrorism have become a horrible part of our lives, they still rattle our sense of safety.

How do you honor the fallen innocents? How can we preserve the memory in a meaningful manner? One way is to reflect on the incident and learn. Corrections professionals can find some lessons from this. With sincere respect for all who have lost a loved one, here are ten salient points to ponder:

Complacency - We sometimes take for granted the safety of the status quo. A day like any other day has the potential to explode in violence. This is particularly true in any jail or prison. Complacency is the persistent enemy of corrections.

We are all armchair psychologists - Our profession gives us ample opportunity to read the motives and actions of people. Quite often, we do this in an effective manner. However, we are not infallible.

The complex profiles of perpetrators of mass murders remind us that we sometimes need analytical assistance. This can be found in institutional files. Also, institutional mental health care professionals are a source of information. If Virginia Tech teaches us anything, we need to reassess our procedure of reporting unusual behavior to our mental health care professionals.

Prison versus an open society - Quite simply, we cannot completely lock down an open institution such as a college campus. Perceptions of security measures differ due to environments. As we consider and compare, we need to realize the differences.

Monday morning quarterbacks - Second guessing and finger pointing is an exercise in futility. Sometimes this is done with impure motives such as ego stroking or a know-it-all mentality. Unfounded accusations of dereliction are hurtful to the profession and feed the anguish and frustration. Rather, we need to analyze in a calm manner, devoid of any heated blame.

Copy cat incidents - Sometimes, news such as this is a springboard for aspirant terrorists. In the days after the Virginia Tech tragedy, attempts to mimic the destruction occurred at various campuses and schools in the United States. It behooves corrections professionals to monitor and gauge outspoken fringe groups and lone individuals in your institution. This may prevent imminent action inspired by news from outside the institution.

Communications assessment – Consider your formal and informal communication vines in your facility. How well do you transmit observations? Ask yourself these questions. Do I report all observations to the inspector? Do I share with other areas? Do I deliver remarks of what I have witnessed to different shifts? Do I inform my counterparts at other facilities?

Play the hypothetical game - Apply the news to your facility. Imagine if events elsewhere had unfolded in your institution. What would you do? What are the possible reactions of staff and prisoners? As you ponder the possibilities, it is best to do so in an objective manner. Obsession has no place in this game of “Let's apply this senario…”

Healing – It is important to grieve and vent in the proper manner. This can be done between colleagues or at home. Do not use inmates as sounding boards for strong opinions. Allow prisoners to vent and grieve in the proper manner. You may refer to distraught inmates to the psychologist or chaplain.

The power of a single person - Behold the impact of an individual on events. Like it or not, one person can set the wheels of action into motion. And in a prison, the individual can be like a key pebble that starts a very destructive avalanche.

Vigilance - Unfortunately, vigilance, a key to corrections, will not always prevent the unthinkable. But watchfulness will deter many bad events from happening. Vigilance can also mitigate the aftermath of tragic events that do transpire.

It is not easy to derive anything good from the Virginia Tech murders or any event of that magnitude. It is particularly difficult to find any potentially positive element in midst of the anguish and misery that ooze from the ordeal.

Digesting the unspeakable atrocities committed on the campus seems to be an insurmountable task. Yet, we can pay homage to the fallen victims as we reflect with reverence and respect. Corrections staff can draw at least ten applicable lessons and as we rededicate ourselves to safety.

About the Author – Joe Bouchard is a Librarian at Baraga Maximum Correctional Facility within the Michigan Department of Corrections. He is also a member of the Board of Experts for The Corrections Professional and an instructor of Corrections courses for Gogebic Community College. You can reach him at (906) 353-7070 ext 132.

These are the opinions of Joseph Bouchard, a Librarian employed with the Michigan Department of Corrections. These are not necessarily the opinions of the Department. The MDOC is not responsible for the content or accuracy.


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