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Pondering the unthinkable: Daily safety concerns in corrections
By Joe Bouchard
Published: 02/18/2008

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 and Psychology for Gogebic Community College.

Note: This is written in the spirit of very profound and sincere sympathy for the victims and families of the shooting at Northern Illinois University.

While watching the horrible details of the Northern Illinois University shooting unfold on the local news, I received another shock. My daughter announced that her school practices for possible shootings. Very unemotionally, she announced that they call it a “Code Blue.” Automatically, my mouth fell open in shock.

Thinking back to when I was her age, I could only remember fire and tornado drills. Have times changed that much? Why must my child have to address such possibilities in her young mind?

No, times have not always been placid and care-free. My mind jumped to the “Duck and Cover” phase of school safety. Granted, the early Cold War defense of seeking shelter under a desk was really no match for an atomic blast from enemies of the United States. But, like Code Blue, it was a part of school drills.

It is unfortunate that such possibilities exist. However, I can take a sort of comfort in the fact that the hypothetical is not ignored. Rather, it is integrated in a plan and drills that could save lives.

What about corrections? We live the very real possibility of physical harm every day. Inside prisons, jails and in the field, we corrections professionals are faced with a variety of threats for the potentially violent environments in which we work. And while adrenaline combined with training is useful in reacting to volatile situations, it is important to ponder the unthinkable.

There are a variety of internal threats to the safety of all in the prison and in the surrounding area. Examples such as the taking of hostages, concerted and violent riots, and the actions of dangerous individuals immediately come to mind.

But, it does behoove us to consider that there are many different manners of harm that can befall us. For example, weapons could come in through the mail or through transfer property. Prisoner coalitions could form that quickly alter the immediate balance of power. On the inside, no scenario is out of the question.

Correctional facilities are generally built to keep people inside. That is not to say that it is easy to break into a prison. But one should not discount the external threats. Any air or ground traffic is a fair candidate for possible pandemonium and destruction.

Smaller, more subtle destructive forces can penetrate our facilities. Among these are disease, drugs, and weapons. On rare but still chilling occasions, staff can facilitate work place violence.

It is clear that we can earn our annual salary in one quick and horrifying moment. Of course, we have a job to do and cannot obsess about our potential harm. That is why a balanced mindset is necessary.

Staff need to practice cool, cautious vigilance. Stifling paranoia freezes response while complacency softens of defenses. Where your facility rests on the continuum between the extremes of mindless complacency and rampant paranoia will be determined by a variety of factors. These include the culture and history of your facility.

Drills set the tone for how accidents and tragedies are addressed. Written plans are important guidelines for defense and action. The cohesive force between these elements is corrections vigilance.

Even as the nation’s psychological wounds are still fresh from the violence last year at Virginia Tech, the senselessness of the crimes at Northern Illinois University is part of the latest news. Sociologists and arm chair social psychologists will continue to ask the many questions. What prompted this sort of behavior? Does Columbine mark the official opening of a more violent era? What does the future hold?

All of us are left with the reality that some things that were considered unthinkable are now the chilling reality. We in corrections have an opportunity to assess the damages that we face on a daily basis. Our vigilance can mean the difference between being a footnote in our work memories or a very tragic news story.

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 and Psychology for Gogebic Community College. You can reach him at (906) 353-7070 ext 1321 These are the opinions of Joe 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. Joe Bouchard can be reached at (906) 353-7070 ext 1321. These are the opinions of Joe Bouchard, and not of the MIDOC or Corrections.com.

Other articles by Bouchard

Custody awareness key to corrections vitality, 1/21/08

Of resolutions and L.U.C.K., 12/31/07


  1. Mr.Tony New grounds on 03/20/2008:

    Thank you for having me. My comments is I would like you to add me to you meeting and events. This is a very interesting website. Thank you Tony Hinnant newgroundcontact@aol.com

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